CITY BEAT: Too Many Credit Cards

Why talk of a spending freeze by the city of Memphis is just that.

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A $27 million Beale Street riverboat landing and a $400 million train track from downtown to the airport are capital improvements. So are a walking trail and playground at the Bickford Community Center in North Memphis. Guess which one is most likely to be stopped by the city’s spending freeze.

The city and county are trying to get their budgets in shape and keep their bond ratings from slipping. The news gets worse by the month. So the city administration and City Council have frozen spending on capital improvements.

Public facilities such as the Bickford Community Center and its customers will feel the chill. Located between Caldwell Elementary School and Uptown, Bickford has an indoor swimming pool, an after-school and Head Start program, and a senior citizens program. The playground consists of a single swing-set and a bare open field. A modest investment that would make a modest improvement in the everyday lives of young and old is on hold.

A spending freeze gives city officials some breathing room, but it won’t stop big-ticket projects such as the boat landing and airport train, and it won’t fix the budget or restore public confidence. The reason, to oversimplify a bit, is that the city of Memphis is married with children. There are a lot of credit cards out there.

Memphis and Shelby County are like a couple with joint checking accounts and individual accounts. They have rich uncles — state and federal government — that shower them with money they must use or lose. And they have children — the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), and Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), to name a few — with their own credit cards and some very nice allowances. Unless the parents take away the credit cards and allowances, the spending won’t stop.

The Riverfront Development Corporation has groomed Riverside Drive, the bluff, and riverfront parks to an exemplary standard. But now that it has killed the land bridge and written off most of a $760,000 master plan, it should consider its own relevance. A self-imposed sunset clause might be a public service and a recognition that the agency, like the dot-com boom, was a product of an era of excess that is as yesterday as the catered breakfast served up at RDC board meetings.

What’s left for an outfit with three former city division directors on its payroll at salaries plus bonuses that exceed what they were making as public servants? Its driving force and guiding light, Kristi Jernigan, is gone. The land bridge is gone, and several board members didn’t even bother to show up for the vote that killed it. Mud Island River Park is ready for its annual seasonal shutdown after losing another million dollars or two this year. The University of Memphis can carry the ball for the proposed downtown law school. Lawyers and Friends For Our Riverfront and heirs of the city founders will determine the future of Front Street and the public promenade. The Pyramid has its own reuse committee.

The boat landing is supposed to make the river more accessible, but the river is already accessible from two boat ramps on Mud Island, and you can throw a rock in it from Tom Lee Park or Greenbelt Park.

The city has a contract with the RDC, which in turn signed contracts for the design, construction, and management of Beale Street Landing. With several million dollars already spent, it’s not likely that the mayor and City Council will pull the plug on the Beale Street Landing and the RDC. Unless the board acts on it own, as it did on the land bridge, Memphians will have a $27 million tourist bauble.

MATA is another semi-autonomous agency, responsible for the costly and baffling extension of the Madison trolley line to Cleveland in Midtown. With the MPO, MATA is actively studying alternative routes to the airport. The lure of big construction contracts and “free money” in the form of state and federal funds is driving the project.

Once again, unless the board acts or the mayor and City Council specifically target this project, Memphians will wind up paying for it.

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