Council Chairman Ed Ford's Letter From Nashville



Edmund Ford Jr.
  • Edmund Ford Jr.
Facing a crucial vote on the budget, City Council Chairman talked to the Tennessee comptroller this week and asked him to give him the straight story on the city's financial health and put it in writing.

"I asked him not to sugarcoat anything," said Ford.

Comptroller Justin Wilson did as asked, writing that Memphis cannot indefinitely "kick the can down the road" or "things are only going to get worse" and if the council doesn't take charge "someone else may end up doing this." The budget due the end of this month "may well be Memphis's last clear chance to determine its own future." Translation: state takeover, like Detroit.

No sugarcoating there. That came a day later when Wilson and Mayor A C Wharton put a different spin on things. As reported Friday by The Commercial Appeal, they "emphasized they did not expect any drastic action of that sort will be required." Wilson said his office looked at several local governments, not just Memphis. Some clucking about FedEx Forum bonds, sloppy accounting, and an $11 million imbalance in a city health care fund. No big deal. Our city is strong, our future bright. Wharton plans to hire a consultant right away. Can, prepare to be kicked.

This is like being called to your boss's office expecting to be fired and getting scolded about your messy desk instead.

Anyone who believes that the root of Memphis's problem is the financing of FedEx Forum 12 years ago is crazy. It was less than two weeks ago that Wharton presented the council with extreme fixes ranging from laying off 3000 employees to raising property taxes 50 percent. Six city unions are threatening to go to court over the city's "moral obligation" to fund members' pay and benefits. Suburbs are ready to bolt from the unified school system. The tax base is declining. Memphis has the highest sales tax in the country and the highest property tax rate in the state.

Ford, a teacher at Central High School, said he has not had a day off since the school year ended for all the work on the budget. His priorities are "long-term issues" such as debt reduction, health care, and restoring funding cuts from libraries, community centers, code enforcement, parks, and road paving. Asked if he would vote to restore a 4.6 percent raise for city employees, he said "I believe we need to put our house in order first." Comptroller Wilson, he added, "did not see that as a long-term issue."

Jim Strickland, chairman of the council's Budget Committee, also detected the sharp change in tone between Wednesday's threatening letter and Friday's make-nice report. The reality, he said, "is somewhere in between."

"The refinancing that the mayor did in 2010 was a major part of the comptroller's first letter in May when he called it 'scoop-and-toss" refinancing," he said. "We have serious problems. As opposed to other cities the comptroller might be looking at, our tax is already highest in the state. If we raise taxes 50 cents we will add to our big problem of losing population and businesses."

The council could pass a budget when it meets on Tuesday, but Ford and Strickland agree that a stalemate is likely and additional sessions later this month will be needed.

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