by Toby Sells
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton did not announce any new moon shot projects or new directions for the city during his State of the City address Wednesday morning but instead focused on a “recovering” city government that has gone through “rough times.”
Nearly 300 government officials, public safety administrators, lobbyists, reporters, and more filled a large auditorium in the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law Wednesday morning to hear Wharton’s take on where Memphis stands and where it’s heading.
Wharton’s speech was subdued, not one of his signature rafter-raising civic sermons that inspire his vision of unity and shared prosperity in others. That’s not to say it wasn’t an optimistic speech but it showed the realities and the ragged edges of a city government that’s been through what Wharton called a “perfect storm.”
That storm came from three primary factors, he said. A court ordered the city to pay an unexpected expense of about $60 million each year to fund schools for several years after the city got out of the schools business, Wharton said. The recession took a $500 million bite out of the city’s pension fund, a hole Wharton and Memphis City Council members are trying to plug. Also, the most recent property tax re-appraisal sucked about $27 million out of the city’s coffers.
“We’re where we are because of factors far beyond our control,” Wharton said.
But Wharton focused on improvements that have been made in the city in the last year and on future plans for four main issue groups: quality of life, public safety, poverty, and the city’s pension fund for its employees.
For quality of life issues, Wharton pointed to bridges have been or are in the process of being replaced, more sidewalks that have been built, and the thousand or more curb ramps to sidewalks that have been built in the last year.
He said to expect in the next year a new master plan for the city’s parks that will be funded by the Hyde Foundation. Also, plans will soon be unveiled for new uses for the Southbrook Mall and the Raleigh Springs Mall. Public works, he said, is developing a new plan that will triple the city’s capacity to check for and respond to potholes.
On public safety, Wharton said and repeated that crime was down in Memphis from 2012 to 2013. He said there were 2,500 fewer victims of serious crimes last year and 20,000 fewer of these victims than in 2006.
“Crime is down,” Wharton said. “It is just that simple.”
But he said changes are coming for the way public safety is administered in Memphis. Though Wharton gave no specifics to those changes, he noted that police and fire employees make up 75% of city employees, which is the largest part of the city’s budget, and that the city “will continue to public safety but also to efficiency.” The Memphis Police Department and the Memphis Fire Department lost numerous unfilled positions last year and more cuts are expected in next year’s budget.
If there was one grand vision and promise that Wharton put forth Wednesday, it was that he is committed to reducing the amount of Memphians living in poverty by 1 percent each year for the next 10 years. Doing this would bring the city’s 27 percent poverty rate to 17 percent by 2023.
To do this, he unveiled the “Blueprint for Prosperity.” Non-profit organizations, foundations, government agencies, and others are helping to create the strategies for the plan. Wharton announced one part of the plan may be to reduce the cost of living for impoverished Memphians by perhaps lowering their utility bills or fares for riding any mode of city-sponsored public transportation.
Wharton spent the least amount of time in his speech Wednesday talking about the city’s pension gap. But he said it is clear that changes need to be made in the program. Those changes need to put the financial risk of the pension on city administrators and the employees, he said, not on Memphis taxpayers, many of whom, he said, may not have a pension plan of their own.
Wharton said he’d unveil a larger strategic plan for the city after the 2015 budget is passed this summer. He said he wanted to wait until then to work with real numbers and to be “truthful to the citizens.”
To cap off his speech, Wharton said Memphis and its citizens must work together.
“We must move away from being a tale of two cities and move toward being one city,” Wharton said. “We all need to share all we have to offer.”