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Hello, Goodbye

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It seems appropriate that after his budget presentation last week, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton said goodbye.

Sure. He says he was talking to the people who want to leave the city, who don’t want to shoulder their portion of the tax burden, but didn’t sound like an all-around “shove off”?

Let’s see… you already pay the highest property taxes in the state, your recycling and garbage sit on the curb so long it composts, the street medians can be mistaken for wildlife preserves and if you don’t want to pay any more, you should just leave? We don’t need you anymore?

First, we need everybody we can get. One way to solve the revenue problem—since it doesn’t look like we’ll be overhauling governance or funding structures anytime soon—is to increase the tax base by luring people here, not by telling them to leave.

Second, I don’t think we’ll be the ones leaving. With almost zero population growth, double the taxes in the city, and Herenton and school board member Sara Lewis on the welcome wagon, I’m not sure we could go even if we wanted to.

I went out with some girl-friends recently, and our usual chitchat took an unexpectedly ugly turn. We started talking local politics. Suddenly, we were growling, bloodthirsty wild animals. Our fangs were bared. Our waiter took one look at us and ran for his life.

It’s not entirely the mayor’s fault, but the overall situation is so frustrating. Herenton can crib all the speeches he wants—“I want to encourage citizens to ask ‘What can I do for my city’” was part of his remarks last week—but if he doesn’t show respect to the people in the community, he can’t be our leader.

In the budget presentation, Herenton said that if we approve a 54 cent tax increase this year, we’ll be good through 2008. But this is 2006. So we’re what? Getting 2007 off? Probably 2008? Gee, thanks.

With a CPA sitting nearby, the City Council began budget hearings Monday. The council isn’t sold on the 54-cent increase, and though the mayor said the city’s budget problem was one of revenue, members of the council acknowledged that management played a part.

“I’m not going to mislead you and I’m not going to mislead the public,” said TaJuan Stout Mitchell. “We do have some management problems.”

In an attempt to find additional revenue, Budget Committee chairman Mitchell has scheduled meetings to review the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program, as well as fees that haven’t increased in the past 10 years.

But it was during a discussion about debt service that council members started raising some interesting questions. Councilman E.C. Jones wondered why interest on investments for 2005 was forecast at $184,369 but budgeted at $2,851,906. In the proposed 2006 budget, that number is only $61,593. And the actual interest paid in 2004 was $174,387.

“I wouldn’t say [the $2 million] was incorrect,” said finance director Charles Williamson. “I would say its cautiously optimistic.”

The city’s ratio of debt service to general expenditures was about 17 percent in 2004 and in the last 10 years has never been lower than 16.4 percent. But the city’s official policy is to keep that ratio under 15 percent.

Though staff suggested that the amount of property taxes going to debt service should be increased, council members thought that maybe the city needed to decrease the number of capital projects.

“We didn’t used to be as aggressive with our capital projects. We need to stay within our debt service policy, “ said Carol Chumney. “Why have it if we’re not going to follow it?”

As many of my friends and I were scaring off our waiter the other night, we talked about other politicians who might run for mayor. Not completely satisfied with the choices, we started talking about who else might make a good politician. And I know we’re not the only ones considering it.

The mayor said he would be willing to pay for the 54 cent tax hike. It looks like he just might.

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