On Cutting Through the Budget Malaise: A Modest Proposal

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As both the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission head into crunch time for balancing their budgets, things are getting said and proposed that could generate some right smart malaise here in River City — especially in the context of other local developments.

Case in point: The proposal of city Fire Chief Alvin Benson to liquidate 111 jobs by taking out of service 7 fire engines, 6 ladder trucks, and one rescue truck over the next three years, followed by a proposal from City Council member Kemp Conrad that was downright Stakhanovite (look it up, folks) — namely, to do all this in a single year’s time!

The members of the Memphis Firefighters Association have reacted swiftly to this alarm, suggesting it threatens public safety — prompting Benson to say he felt “insulted” and Conrad to condemn the Association’s “scare tactics.”
But surely there are citizens at large who are concerned, too. What happens to the discontinued fire vehicles? Will they be sold as surplus? Can we really do without them? And so forth.

Both Benson and Conrad have tried to be reassuring. As to the equipment, Conrad suggested that some of the outmoded equipment — like a 1947-vintage fire truck with wooden ladders that lumbered up to a recent emergency — might indeed be sold off, while up-to-date vehicles could be even more effective if held in a ready reserve.

The idea of downsizing the Fire Department was seriously floated in the same week of a disclosure by Amos Maki of the CA that the city’s new Police Director, Toney Armstrong, had begun a purge of his command ranks, retiring and demoting and reassigning officers who held high positions under his predecessor, Larry Godwin. Calling himself a “monster killer,” Armstrong was quoted as threatening (literally, it almost seemed) to cut off the heads of any holdover monsters who spoke out of turn.

Especially in the fire-sale atmosphere alluded to above, this kind of thing could finally dissipate the aura of contentment still lingering from the Pax Romana reign of Godwin, who, after several years of cutting into the local crime rate, has moved on to Nashville to be assistant Commissioner of Public Safety. (Come back, Shane!)

Add to the above the announcement, only two weeks after the Obama-at-BTW love-fest, that the austerity wave had forced the layoff of 92 teachers by Memphis City Schools, and you have a truly seismic crisis going on in the public sector.

Over at the county commission, things are no better. A little bit of a row developed during budget deliberations on Wednesday when Commissioner Terry Roland, a Millington store-owner from the Republican Party’s populist wing, proposed that, instead of cutting out working stiffs, the county might save some money by making 5-percent reductions in the pay of $100,000-and-over members of the county administration.

Harvey Kennedy, CAO for county mayor Mark Luttrell, would note that only about 10 members of the administration were in that category.

Veteran Democrat Walter Bailey, a lawyer, would have none of the idea, in any case. “Political pandering… irrational …just popping out with figures arbitrarily …with no studies…irrational, picking-it-out-of-the air 5 percent.” were some of the bouquets he threw Roland’s way.

Understandably, Roland was displeased (though, arguably, as one who has pioneered in top-of-the-voice invective on the commission, he was being paid back in like coin). Without mentioning Bailey by name (as Bailey had not called out his name, either), Roland fulminated about “somebody that sits back there and hollers about every little thing” when “we’re talking about cutting people that make from $29- to $35-thousand…cause all of us aren’t big paid attorneys, you know what I’m saying.”

Barely pausing for breath, Roland continued, “Anybody that’s ever been in business, which I gather my friend has not, knows that you have to tighten your belt wherever you can.” And as long as employees making meager salaries were being targeted, “you ought to be willing to back it up with a cut yourself.”

And in fairness: Applying Roland’s proposal to Kennedy’s modestly estimated roster, a 5 percent cut in ranking employees’ salaries would net only somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. That might not equate to the more serious reductions arising from 130 or so employee layoffs Luttrell has discussed, but it would pretty well offset the need for some serious proposed reductions in library services — yet another quality-of-life area. Not as heavy-duty as police and fire services, but these things add up. Just ask the kindly folks who rank cities at Forbes Magazine.

The one thing that seems to be totally off the table, both for the City Council and for the County Commission, is the concept of a tax increase, one stout enough to preserve some of the amenities and life-supports that now inhabit the chopping block.

There have been some moves in that direction over on the city side. Councilman Ed Ford has proposed some ingenious fee hikes, and councilmen Shea Flinn and Harold Collins have made bold, along with Mayor A C Wharton, to discuss this or that tax increase (or, in Collins’ case, restoration of a property tax cut enacted in 2008 in tandem with the Council’s ill-fated decision — later held unconstitutional by the courts — to blow off most of its annual maintenance-of-effort payment to MCS.

That’s where much of the current argument started, ironically enough — over an ill-considered economy that turned out to provide only transitory relief.

Idea! What was it Toney Armstrong said he could do? Cut off the heads of monsters? Give him both budgets and a cleaver and tell him to have a go at it. Might as well.

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