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Too Many Mouths To Feed

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Memphis has dealt with urban pests before -- rats, pigeons, blight. Now it seems our problem is storks.

At the city's strategic community and economic development planning session last week, a group of the area's movers and shakers discussed what the current and future Memphis does, and should, look like.

In something of

a repeat performance, Marlin Mosby of Public Financial Management

explained the area's current fiscal situation: Expenses are outgrowing revenues, and the city has a huge dependence on property taxes.

But the number that really surprised him was the age distribution of the city's population. School-aged children account for almost 23 percent of Memphis' population. In Knoxville, children are 19 percent of the population; in Nashville, is 18 percent. Statewide, children average about 20 percent of the population.

So, what does that have to do with the city's financial future? Well, it means fewer working-age people to cover our expenses. It also means more money for services, especially in terms of public education. Mosby ran the numbers: If Memphis' population looked more like the rest of the state, we'd have 27,000 fewer students, and education would cost us $105 million less a year.

He continued his cost/savings analysis, reasoning that with fewer students, we'd need 42 fewer schools, give or take a couple. And at roughly $25 million a school, that adds up to about a billion dollars in capital costs.

Mosby cautions he can't tell us why our population is so young. It could be that lots of 19- to 35-year-olds are getting the heck out of Dodge. Or, it could be high birth-rates.

Just consider two of the notable news items of last week: Both state senator John Ford and Memphis mayor Willie Herenton made headlines for, essentially, making babies. While in court contesting child-support payments for a child he fathered with a former employee, Ford reminded everyone about his three children with ex-wife Tamara Mitchell-Ford and his two children with girlfriend Connie Mathews. Oh, and Mitchell-Ford says the fresh bun in her oven is Ford's.

Herenton threw his own baby shower Thursday, calling local media to his lawyer's office for an afternoon feeding. The 64-year-old mayor announced that he recently learned he has a 4-month-old son.

Perhaps now would be a good time for a pregnant pause.

At that strategic planning meeting, Gayle Epp of Abt Associates told the area's Who's Who that Memphis needs to pay attention to its competition.

"It reminds me of going camping in the woods," she said. "You don't necessarily have to run faster than the bear; you just have to run faster than the other campers."

Maybe some of our fearless leaders on this little camping trip would do well to remember the Boy Scout motto: "Be Prepared."

Or do they think someone is giving out merit badges for mating?

These are grown men. Neither is married. It could be argued that their extracurricular activities are none of our business. Sure, they're public officials, but doing the do isn't against the law. Ford may be a virtual bigamist, but if his women don't mind (and I'd bet a Jaguar, they do), why should we?

But forget morals for a minute and get back to the money.

"If the population just mirrored the rest of the state, the tax rate today would be $1.41 less," Mosby told the planning session. "The demographics must be changed. Or if not, they must be recognized and dealt with."

Maybe the answer is in leading by example. If our problem is due to the pitter-patter of too many little feet, our politicians shouldn't be indiscriminately creating more. If, on the other hand, the problem is young adults leaving town in droves, there's still no need to teach our youngsters that having a mamacita on the side is okay.

To thrive in the long term, Memphis needs to control its expenses, deal with its demographics, and identify revenue streams that will grow with expenditures. There are no easy answers, although, given Ford and Herenton's antics, the city might want to consider buying stock in Viagra.

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