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The Memphis Week That Was

Herenton: Not Moving On. Not Ex-Mayor. Not Superintendent. Not Yet.

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And not so fast. There are four months and ten days until July 31st. And that letter says the mayor intends to resign, not that he has done the deed.

Herenton has seriously pondered resignation before, early in his fourth term. Several years before that, he announced he was taking a job as superintendent of the Atlanta city schools. As mayor for 16 years and three months, he's made several big proposals that did not happen for various reasons. So he could change his mind if he doesn't like the field of would-be mayoral successors or if it becomes clear that the school board won't back him for a second go-round as superintendent.

But Pete Aviotti, the mayor's special assistant, says he's serious about quitting and being superintendent. The mayor has told his directors to get their things in order because you never know what will happen. And he's been sounding out school board members and meeting with representatives of Teach For America, whose youthful idealism and willingness to take on a challenge reminds him of himself, circa 1980.

The superintendent search is off to a predictably clunky start. For some crazy reason, the "community forums" were held this week -- during spring break. The two that I attended at Manassas and Craigmont high schools attracted nine people, myself included. Consultants Al Johnson and Carl Davis of Ray and Associates were completely unaware of the elephant in the living room (Herenton's resignation). Johnson said the search team's goal is to get a new superintendent by May that the board can approve on a 9-0 vote.

Board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., notes, however, that "we don't work for the search team, the search team works for us."

And Whalum adds, "If I have anything at all to do with it, we're going to hear from Herenton in person and in the sunlight of day."

Mayor Herenton says a property tax increase is inevitable. But is it? Not if you believe the city's own annual report for fiscal year 2007, which ended last June.

From the "financial highlights" section: "The fund balance for the general fund was $83,318,000, an increase of $44,581,000 from prior year's restated balance. The positive increase (sic) results from strong tax revenue collections, higher investment earnings, and continued emphasis on spending control."

City government's net assets -- buildings, buses, machinery, property, etc. -- increased 15.3 percent. "Over time, increases or decreases in net assets may serve as a useful indicator of whether the financial position of the city is improving or deteriorating."

MLGW's Electric Division enjoyed an increase of $70.4 million in net assets due to "continued growth in operating revenue over operating expenses." Charges for services increased four percent.

The forecast for FY 2008 is rosy. "The FY 2008 revenue collections are expected to continue to improve, yet are still budgeted very conservatively."

The city's tax rate is $3.43 per $100 of assessed value. The economy has deteriorated since last June, but if the mayor and city council want to increase taxes, somebody has some explaining to do.

You can see numbers for yourself by looking up the annual report on the city’s website. The numbers I quoted are on pages 17-27.

So small savings do matter. And money for basketballs, books, and boat docks come out of the same pot. And we're going to take away some of the balls and books but leave the boat dock.

Mayor Herenton wants to close five branch libraries and four community centers to save, according to a consultant's report, $1.5 million to $2 million. Then why not scrap the Beale Street Landing boat dock at Tom Lee Park and save at least part of $29.4 million in city, state, and federal funds? Or shut down the almost completely unused $70 million Madison Avenue Trolley, which should never have been built in the first place?

Will anyone on the Riverfront Development Corporation or MATA board break ranks with the party line and suggest that spending be curtailed? They love to talk about leverage. Well, people playing basketball and reading books and staying out of trouble isn't leverage?

The cost cutting might make sense if the B.S. Landing and trolley boondoggles were in the mix. Or if the standard that Herenton rightly applied to libraries -- don't just dress up the main library and ignore the branches -- was applied to all parks, neighborhoods, and community centers. But sweating the small stuff has rarely been the hallmark of the Herenton administration.

For 16 years, the focus has been on downtown, leveraging "free" federal money and tax breaks, and big-ticket projects that make headlines and legacies.

An infusion of $75,000 into any one of the nine facilities targeted for closing would make an impact and, just as important, raise hopes and serve notice that the city cares. An expenditure of $3 million on the riverfront would improve Tom Lee Park and the cobblestones. Memphis is a sprawling city (over 300 square miles) where you're screwed if you don't have a car, and your safety is always in jeopardy. Close attention to well-maintained neighborhood public facilities makes more sense than splurging on a few mega-projects.

Barack Obama explained his relationship with his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But maybe Wright didn't really mean the uncontroversial stuff and he did really mean the crackpot stuff about 9/11 and AIDS and goddamn America.

The problem with the excuses – the selective pass, he's a fiery preacher, heat of the moment, it's a black thing, taken out of context, some truth to it, powerful tradition in the black church, kind of like Martin Luther King, look into your heart, we're all sinners -- is that if you are in the words business you don't get much slack. That goes for preachers, politicians, reporters, writers, baseball announcers, spouses and siblings of famous people, professional athletes, and academics. A single slip that gets picked up by the national media can end a career or destroy a reputation.

It's happened many times, from presidential candidate George Romney to baseball executive Al Campanis to ballplayer Jon Rocker to presidential brother Billy Carter.

As others have already said, why didn't Obama say something loud and clear to Wright at the time? Or get up and walk out? Or use his eloquence to speak in rebuttal? I think that if he doesn't lose the nomination over Wright he will lose the election.

Banker and University of Memphis booster Harold Byrd wrote a guest column for the Flyer this week. I take issue not with his position in favor of an on-campus stadium but with some of his statistics. As bankers know, numbers matter.

Byrd wrote, "But looking at the ethnic facts of life, only 500 African-American students are enrolled there (at LeMoyne Owen) versus 7,500 black students at the University of Memphis. Indeed, the combined African-American enrollments of Tennessee State, Jackson State, and LeMoyne-Owen do not add up to that of the University of Memphis."

Byrd is way off. According to their websites, Jackson State and Tennessee State, rivals in the annual Southern Heritage Classic, both have more black students than the UM. Jackson State University has 7,815 black students, LeMoyne-Owen has 714 black students, Tennessee State University has approximately 7,000 black students (the site does not give an exact number but says that 75 percent of its 9,380 students are black), and the University of Memphis has 6,730 black students.

According to these sources, the combined black enrollment of the three schools Byrd mentions is 15,529, or roughly two and one half times as many as the University of Memphis.

Elsewhere, Byrd mentions the "now-mothballed $100 million Pyramid." While it is indeed mothballed, The Pyramid cost about $65 million, including do-overs.

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