It is with great honor that I prepare to take the chairmanship of the Memphis City Council for 2012. Being selected as council chairman by my colleagues, a dedicated and diverse group whom I hold in the highest regard, is a responsibility that I do not take lightly.
Memphis is a great city with potential equal to or higher than any major metropolitan area in our country, but we face challenging times. My focus for the coming year will be on steering our city on the road to economic recovery, growth, and prosperity for our citizens and their families now and in the future.
The national economic downturn has had a devastating impact on communities across the United States with no regard to their size, location, history, or the economic and educational diversity of their citizens. Bankruptcies are occurring at alarming rates with entire city governments left insolvent and the very real threat that government at the state and even federal level is far from secure.
Memphis is viewed by some as a city in decline. Our tax base has been stagnant, unemployment is at an unforeseen rate, and poverty, blight, and violence threaten to define us as both a community and a government. We face large financial hurdles in the next few years that will be painful at best, and the task to repair and grow our city's economic and social well-being is daunting. But Memphis is no stranger to difficult times. The people of this city elected a council that diligently and aggressively governs to protect the best interests of our constituency.
During the past few years, the council made drastic and sometimes unpopular budget cuts to every division and city office. City government was forced to adapt and learn to function more efficiently on less tax revenue. There were service reductions and sacrifices we would not have chosen had they not been a necessary response to the complex financial state we were and still are experiencing.
Some employees were laid off, benefits were reduced or discontinued, and most city employees shared our fiscal burden by taking a 4.6 percent salary reduction. The city is strong, but we're not out of the woods; the 2012 budget process may well be our most difficult.
What should we do next as a government and as a community? I believe the most important challenge facing our city is that of growing our economy. Memphis is on the cusp of an economic recovery with the potential to positively impact our community for generations. Major relocations and expansions such as Electrolux, the Great American Steamship Company, Mitsubishi, and City Brewing Company could be the beginning of a renaissance for our city.
We must expand the economic development strategies and business incentives that attracted these companies to Memphis, aggressively recruit additional businesses, and provide support for the growth of small businesses in our neighborhoods.
To say that we as a city need more jobs and business opportunities to grow our economy is oversimplifying; we must invest in Memphis to bring our economy to its full potential. Companies move into and thrive in communities that provide for the safety and well-being of employees and their families.
After years of negative rankings and reports in the national media on topics ranging from health, obesity, and education to a skewed perception of crime and a lack of culture in Memphis and the Mid-South, it is imperative that we counter the inaccurate perceptions and work together to correct the issues that mar our community.
Blight, crime, and poverty can be conquered through joint efforts of government, community, and faith-based organizations. The Memphis Police Department has reduced our overall crime rate in excess of 26 percent in the last five years. We are making great strides in the consolidation of our school systems.
The Greenline, expansion of bike lanes, our vast park system, the Riverfront, the Fairgrounds, top-notch medical facilities, the National Civil Rights Museum, the Memphis Zoo, Graceland, award-winning local theaters, multiple arts districts, Beale Street, and a world-famous music industry: All these are incentives for living in Memphis. In addition to attracting others to our city, quality-of-life investments will ultimately benefit us all.
I believe in the potential of Memphis to become a world-class city. Together with Mayor Wharton and my fellow council members, I will work to overcome the financial and social challenges we face and ensure that Memphis is on the path to economic growth and prosperity.
Bill Morrison, recently reelected as councilman from District 1, has been named by his colleagues to become the new council chairman in January.