Council Searches for New Sources of Money

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It was late Tuesday afternoon, and the City Council was hoping to knock off a little early to get the jump on the Fourth of July holiday, but instead members wound up moving ahead on some taxing matters — as in sales taxes, gas taxes, and "voluntary" taxes on nonprofits and businesses that get tax breaks.

All of the matters are still in preliminary stages, so the votes Tuesday merely moved them a little closer to up-or-down final votes, or "third readings" as they are called. But the council seems to be serious about finding new revenue sources to balance the budget and keep from making cuts in services and employees.

Here's a look at each possibility.

Councilman Shea Flinn, with the backing of Mayor A C Wharton, wants to give Memphis voters the option to raise the local sales tax from 2.25 cents to 2.75 cents, which would make the total sales tax 9.75 cents. Voters would have to approve it in the November election, but for that to happen, the council would have to take further action. On Tuesday the second reading of the measure was delayed. Flinn said he is fairly confident that the proposal will make it to the voters. But he also knows that some of his fellow members will not vote for it because they fear being branded as "pro-tax" which could make them vulnerable to future political foes.

Councilman Ed Ford Jr. wants to give voters another tax option — a one penny increase in the gasoline tax, with the increase dedicated to budget expenses for public transportation. This also has to pass council a couple more times, and there is some question whether the money can be given straight to MATA, which already gets millions of dollars a year in city funding. Like the sales tax, the gas tax has some appeal because it hits non-Memphians as well as Memphians, and is a "voluntary" tax to the extent that purchases can be controlled.

Councilmen Janice Fullilove and Lee Harris think the city should look at nonprofits and companies in Memphis that get tax abatements through the PILOT or payment-in-lieu-of-taxes programs. PILOTs freeze taxes at pre-development levels for a certain number of years. The nonprofits, Fullilove said, "use the same services" as tax-paying individuals and businesses. Boston and other cities have successfully persuaded "eds and meds" to make voluntary payments to help raise city revenue. The proposal is in the early stages in Memphis. A committee will be formed, but the idea has popular appeal as evidenced by the union lobbying for it at the unified school board meeting last week. The council won't have leverage until the nonprofits and PILOT businesses come before it seeking something. Then we will see who's serious.

Councilman Kemp Conrad wants members to approve an ordinance that would amend the city charter to require the mayor and council to adopt a five-year strategic business plan and a six-year consolidated operating and capital improvements budget. Wharton has floated a similar proposal, which is a favorite of business group advisers. The problem is that politics is always more or less a seat-of-the-pants operation. And over the years the council has yielded much of its authority to quasi-public agencies like the Riverfront Development Corporation to take over former city operations. Tax-cutters on the council regularly fall in line when the such agencies come around for their annual review and subsidy.

Give the council credit for this: On a day when many Memphians were leaving work early, they stayed well into the evening to do the people's business. They voted against a special use permit for a pawn shop at Perkins and Knight Arnold, which is a serious issue for members and their constituents in urban districts. Harold Collins was especially blunt in his opposition, comparing pawn shops to blight.

The council had a healthy discussion of the dreaded car inspection stations. There is strong "feds be damned" sentiment to give all Memphians, not just poor people, a break on the annoying and expensive emissions-related "check engine" light breakdown. Inspection, of course, is as much an expenditure of time as well as money, and both investments can be considerable if the light-related problem has to be fixed in order to pass. Conrad spoke for many of us when he said "Anything we can do to get our citizens out of this ridiculous process, I'm for it."

Finally, in the most touching moments of the meeting, the council and onlookers gave a very enthusiastic standing ovation to two people: Dr. Mary McDonald for her 35 years of stellar work with the Catholic Schools of Memphis and Deandre Brown and the members of Lifeline to Success, winners of the 2012 Large Group Volunteer of the Year Award. Some 25 members of the "Blight Patrol" in Frayser, all of them wearing lime-green t-shirts, came to the meeting and did a rousing group recitation of their "I am not my crime" coda, as Brown barked out the cadence. Members of the team, including Brown, are former criminal offenders looking to restart their lives in a Christian program working in one of the toughest parts of Memphis.

"You are the model for what this country should be looking for in a second-chance program," said Council Chairman Bill Morrison.

Brown said he is determined to make Frayser "a nice place to live." For more on his story, here is a Flyer interview done last year. Also see the group's inspiring video on YouTube with the lines "I gotta clean up, what I messed up, I'm starting my life over again."

Fine organization and good thought for everyone on this Fourth of July.

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