Kicking Cans and Cliches at City Hall



"Kick the can" is the early leader for Cliche of the Year, edging out "tough choices" and running ahead of last year's winner, "the new normal."

When you hear those phrases you know it is budget-making time in Memphis, Nashville, and Washington. In Memphis, the process takes about a month and a half from starter's gun to finish line. It's still early, but not too early to handicap the field.

"Kick the can," (KTK) and its cousin "kick the can down the road," means that politicians make the same old arguments, cobble together a little of this and a little of that, and wind up putting off the "tough choices" until next year. Few will admit to being a can kicker. A can kicker is sort of a wimp. Kicking the can means refusing to make the tough choices (TC) or "bold strokes" (BS) that will make the future better for our children, who are "our most precious asset" (OMPA).

The opposite of KTK is "game changer." Here are some game changers and the TCs that go along with them. Think of this early stage of the budget process as the bidding round in bridge or poker, before the ins are in and the outs are out and the cards are played. I bid this, you bid that, I counter, you counter, and so on.

Raise property taxes, either permanently or "one time" via a "special assessment." The city of Memphis can raise a lot of money this way but would risk driving residents to less-taxing parts of Shelby County and the world. Councilman Shea Flinn and Mayor A C Wharton support a one-time assessment to pay off the city school system for an old debt. Flinn says it has little if any chance, even with the mayor's support.

A payroll tax is an old saw that someone brings up every year. It was proposed by former councilman Janet Hooks several years ago and taken seriously enough to get bashed by the chamber of commerce and business leaders and trounced in a referendum. Council member Wanda Halbert brought it up this week.

Close cousins of the payroll tax, sometimes called a privilege tax, are toll roads and bridges. The idea is to tax somebody else, particularly people who work in Memphis but live somewhere else. You can bet trucking and logistics firms would love this.

Efficiency studies are popular with non-can-kickers who want to be seen as more practical than payroll taxers or toll roaders. There is usually an efficiency study handy on the shelf somewhere. Councilman Bill Boyd mentioned the most current one this week. The problem, as Wharton noted, is that there is no slap-your-forehead, why-didn't-we-think-of-this-before idea in it. And Wharton, remember, has been a mayor for ten years.

The efficiency study's cousin is innovation. Innovation is golden. You can't be against innovation. You sound innovative just by saying the word. And it is a perfect opportunity to say "think outside the box," (TOTB), winner of the 1999 Cliche of the Year Award. It is also a copout (1969 winner) and a crock of crap (COC) unless the person saying it has an actual innovative idea that can get seven votes on the council.

The all-time efficiency study is the consolidation campaign. We have been there and done that.

Reducing executive salaries, either in the police department (council member Janice Fullilove) or across the board, is a politically safe option. But it is neither brave nor a game changer. Anyone who bothers to read publicly available tax forms and proxy statements knows that local nonprofits, hospitals, and corporations pay ten times higher executive salaries than the city or county or the school boards.

Privatizing government functions is a conservative favorite, right up with there with "deep cuts" in pension benefits and number of employees. The jail used to be a privatization target but not any more, for some reason. The latest small-bore targets are downtown street parking and delinquent tax collections. What is not said is that strictly enforcing parking fines and adding meters everywhere would probably piss people off and make them less likely to come downtown as opposed to the 'burbs, where parking is free. And both of these measures are borderline KTKs because they would give the city a one-time payment, ala a pawn shop transaction.

Privatizing the city sanitation department is flying just below the radar (1989 Winner) at the moment. Joe Brown detected it and called out Flinn yesterday, vowing to oppose it in the name of sanitation workers and women, whom he said would be disproportionately harmed. Sanitation workers calls up visions of Martin Luther King, I Am a Man signs, and 1968 and hectoring visits from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Privatization is even less likely than a tax increase.

Almost as sacred as sanitation workers are firemen. Firemen and policemen have a habit of showing up in large numbers at council meetings when they smell a rat. Both divisions are off the chopping table at the moment even though they account for well over half of the operating budget.

This is why KTK is always the fallback option. And as Wharton said, it is neither popular nor painless to cut 125 jobs, $23 million here and $10 million there, and everyone's paid vacation days from 14 to 12. Plus, as an attorney he is constitutionally and philosophically opposed to defying three courts that have said the city must pay the school system. He has a possible deal with MCS to settle for $40 million because MCS doesn't want to disable the engine that makes it go.

A one-time property tax assessment of 39 cents on the tax rate would put the past debt behind us but not relieve Memphians of their double taxation for schools. That issue is pending in the federal court, and Memphis is likely to be on the hook for $80 million a year for another two years at least.

Wharton can kick the can as well as any politician, but he's not doing it this time. A one-time tax assessment and a menu of "shared sacrifice" like the one he proposed Tuesday are sensible and doable. We'll see what cards the city council has left to play, and who does what, who bluffs and folds, and who kicks the can in the next six weeks.

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