Playing Small Ball

Why the annual city budget battle is always a grind game.

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The expression "small ball" comes from baseball. It means manufacturing runs in small lots by using bunts, walks, singles, and smart base-running instead of producing them in bunches with home runs and extra-base hits.

The Memphis Redbirds, lacking sluggers, often play small ball. So do local governments when it's budget time.

Just as baseball teams always promise thrills and wins in the preseason, politicians always use the budget preseason to talk tough about big hits and bold moves. Then they play small ball.

This is what Memphis mayor A C Wharton wrote in February in his letter to a committee of business leaders called the Strategic Business Model Assessment Committee charged with repairing a broken business model:

"Changing the way we do business is not simply a good idea; it is an urgent necessity. Memphis City Government is long overdue for a reckoning — an exhaustive review of the size and purpose of city government, how it is funded, how it can be made more cost-efficient and effective, and most importantly, how we plan to grow and sustain our middle class."

The committee's charge was to "deliver recommendations that are affordable, accountable, aspirational, and attainable." (And, apparently, that start with the letter "A".)

Three months later, as we head into the late innings of budget season, a majority of Memphis City Council members oppose a property tax increase. A different majority is opposed to more than token cuts in city jobs. A standoff means more small ball. The hot topics are bike lanes, pimping the downtown parking meters to private operators, reducing hours at libraries, and cutting $1 million or so from the Division of Parks and Recreation.

A few players have swung for the fences. Councilman Shea Flinn proposed a one-time property tax assessment to make the court-ordered back payment to Memphis City Schools. Wharton endorsed it. Council members Joe Brown, Wanda Halbert, and Janice Fullilove have spoken — vaguely — about new revenue sources.

One such source that other cities, including Boston, Providence, and New Orleans, are looking at is nonprofit hospitals and universities, or "eds and meds," much coveted for their high-paying jobs. As The New York Times wrote in a recent story, "But for cities that rely heavily on property taxes, those benefits have a cost" because development moves to the suburbs and prime land stays off the tax rolls.

As the article explained, some cities are looking at higher fees for utilities and roads. Boston is seeking new or larger "voluntary" payments known as payment in lieu of taxes or PILOTs from big nonprofit institutions. Memphis uses PILOTs extensively to create jobs and promote downtown development but not this way.

Despite Wharton's call for shared sacrifice and new business models, the idea has gone nowhere in Memphis. His Strategic Business Model Assessment Committee made no mention of it. Perhaps this is because its leadership comes from the world of banking and hospitals.

Coming in at number two on the committee's list of recommendations — right behind hiring more part-time employees ineligible for benefits — was this: "The city should reexamine pay scales for city employees to bring them in line with salaries and benefits packages for comparable private sector jobs."

Hear, hear! But let's not have parity in executive jobs. Wharton makes $172,000 for running the city. Nonprofit hospital CEOs make 10 to 20 times that amount, and bankers 50 times.

The simple fact is that in a city where unemployment is about 10 percent, jobs rule. Companies that provide them can move to Memphis and demand and get tax incentives. Eds and meds that provide them are celebrated as city saviors. If FedEx were not the enlightened corporate citizen that it is, it is scary to think what concessions it could demand if it took a notion to move some of its operations or headquarters.

Cut my hours, cut my pay, cut my benefits, raise my insurance premiums, even raise my taxes if you must, but please don't cut my job. That's my future, my kids' future, my security, my dignity. That's where all of us draw the line. It's easy to talk about whacking hundreds of jobs but awfully hard to do. That goes for the public sector and the private sector.

And that's why we play small ball.

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