The Memphis City Budget Got Done. Is Everybody Happy?... Bueller?

One casualty, likely to be unlamented, was the city's venerable auto inspection system.

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Mayor Wharton, Council Chairman Ford at budget meeting
  • JB
  • Mayor Wharton, Council Chairman Ford at budget meeting
After serious wrangling that lasted a full 9 hours, beginning in mid-afternoon and ending well after midnight on Tuesday of this week, the Memphis City Council bit the bullet, sort of, and, on third and final reading, raised the city property tax rate from $3.11 to $3.40 — the latter figure being only 4 cents higher than the city’s newly certified tax rate of $3.36. The $3.36 figure — a purely technical one calculated to ensure the same amount of revenue as the year before — was made necessary by a serious decline in local property-value assessment.


The Council had earlier passed an operating budget for fiscal 2013-14 of $622 million that included the restoration of a 4.6 percent employee tax cut dating from 2011. In a previous session last week, the Council, mindful of an implied threat by state Comptroller Justin Wilson to intervene in the interests of a balanced budget, had temporized on the pay-cut restoration. The tax-rate increase passed Tuesday night, coupled with 50 layoffs of yet-to-be-designated city employees (and 300 other jobs cuts via natural attrition), was an alternative route to a balanced budget.


The budget also allowed for retention of a weights and balances division, despite complaints from some members that no other city in Tennessee, Arkansas, or Mississippi maintained such a division, to perform oversight services normally the province of state government.

In early discussion on W & M Tuesday, Council members were throwing around the figure of $500,000 as the annual cost of maintainng the division, and that sum seemed large enough to justify excising the division from the budget on a preliminary vote.. Councilman Bill Boyd later corrected that to $190,000, however, a figure corresponding more or less to the salaries of the division's four employees, and that amended information was the impetus for getting the division back in the budget on an excuse-me second vote.

Community centers, libraries, code enforcement, and the city’s MATA public-transportation system were also favored with modest increases.


Altogether not the austerity budget sought by some members, but not a spendthrift one, either. A genuine compromise.


But it took a heap of doing and involved some heated exchanges between members that took place somewhere between standard improv and Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. "


There was Councilman Shea Flinn, doggedly seeking to maintain what he saw as fiscal common sense and simultaneously attempting to prove that he was not only the Council’s cute Beatle but the witty one as well. “Bueller? Bueller?” he wondered aloud at one point, soliciting an alternate view for one of the matters under discussion.

An interesting irony there — in that Flinn's reference was, of course, to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," the '80s cult classic starring a hookey-playing Matthew Broderick, a film well-enough known to net the Councilman the audience chuckles he was looking for, but the reality was that nobody, but nobody, was getting any time off Tuesday.


Flinn would put himself in the firing line when he ventured a sharp retort to colleague Harold Collins’ call for “creativity” in maintaining programs (e.g., weights and measures) that Flinn and others saw as both too costly and unnecessary. That was akin to a belief in “magic” or in the eternal life of “Tinker Belle,” Flinn said. in salvoes that followed from Collins and Janis Fullilove, Flinn was chastised for his criticism and abused as what Collins called “a theater major.”

And there was a lot of theater indeed to be seen on Tuesday. Fullilove, one of the holdouts against most of the serious reductions being discussed, objected sardonically at one point that she was being disregarded because “I danced on the pole.” That was a reference to an embarrassing incident on a river cruise for visiting national Black Caucus members in 2010.


Joe Brown, famous for his persistent rhetorical refrain of “in so many words or less,” selected one choice word to hurl at the administration of Mayor A C Wharton after city CAO George Little had promised in principle that new jobs would be found at some point for weights and measures employees if their division were discontinued.


“That’s a lie!” Brown charged.

And there was the incredulous response of Collins to Fullilove's sweetly expressed inquiry — more or less on the order of 'Beulah, can you peel me another grape?' — as to whether another $2 million could be tacked on for summer youth jobs.

This was in the immediate wake of one of several hard-fought and barely won battles to limit employee layoffs — and Collins, after blinking an eye, said, "If we try to add that on, Councilman Fullilove, we'll be here 'til 8 o'lcock tomorrow!"


There was more — enough so that an ambitious compiler could easily distill a Greatest Hits or blooper album from raw recordings of the evening.


A more sanguine view of the proceedings would suggest that it was a first-class example of democracy at work.


In the final analysis, the budget/tax rate outcome was a split-the-middle affair based essentially on rival budgets presented by Council chairman Ed Ford Jr. (with implicit blessings from the administration) and Collins, with input from conservatives like Jim Strickland and Kemp Conrad, moderates like Myron Lowery and Lee Harris, and hold-the-line-on-everything types like Fullilove, Brown, and Wanda Halbert.


Timely interventions to break deadlocks came as well from Bill Boyd, Bill Morrison, and the normally reserved but increasingly outspoken Reid Hedgepeth.


It took the whole village, and, to say the least, not everybody was satisfied, but it got done.


●One of the casualties of the budget season was the long-tenured system of automobile inspection for the City of Memphis. In a simple press release on Thursday Mayor Wharton announced that, as of 3 p.m. the next day, Friday, June 28, all of the city’s motor vehicle inspections stations would “permanently close” and that, beginning July 1, the Shelby County Clerk’s office would renew vehicle registrations “without the requirement of motor vehicle inspection.”


The bottom line was that the cash-strapped city decided to bail on automobile inspection for clear and obvious financial reasons. The Shelby County government, having its own fiscal problems and faced with obdurate suburban resistance to regular auto inspections, declined to take over — as it has in several other cases of the city’s discontinuing involvement with public enterprises (notably the health department). And last month, Governor Bill Haslam informed the city that— contrary to a previous understanding held by both local mayors, Wharton and county mayor Mark Luttrell — the state would not be able to pick up the slack, either.


From a P.R. point of view, the abolition of inspections made perfect sense. Though generally approved of by Memphis citizens as a public service and safety measure, the inspection program was experienced by many of them as a personal nuisance — particularly since their brethren in the outer county have labored under no such requirements. And it was costly, to the tune of some $2.7 million annually.

Left unresolved was the question of what to do about a finding by the Environmental Protection Administration that both Memphis and Shelby County at large have dangerous emission levels. The EPA had recently extended an 18-month window for “good faith” efforts by the local governments to correct the problem.

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