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How the Deal Was Done

Next Monday's regular meeting of the Shelby County Commission will likely be the last opportunity for the commission, or any other authoritative public body, to provide independent oversight of arrangements for the FedExForum, now under construction in downtown Memphis and scheduled to open next year.

We have previously commented on what we saw as the needlessly defensive attitude toward such a scrutiny taken by local government officials and by representatives of the Public Building Authority and HOOPS, the umbrella organization representing the NBA Grizzlies and other arena principals. Last week's commission briefing by PBA executive director Dave Bennett did much to dispel lingering doubts concerning the project, as will, no doubt, this week's scheduled appearance before the commission of project consultant John Hilkene.

By this time, clearly, most local officials and civic boosters want to have done with what some of them have described as "naysaying" and second-guessing. The deal is done and cannot be undone, they say. Let sleeping dogs lie, and so forth. The problem is, this dog can still bite us, the taxpayers and consumers who should be the chief beneficiaries of the new arena. And even if everything is -- as we certainly expect it to be -- on the up and up, it can't hurt to vet remaining construction details to make sure the project objectives relating to cost, time, and quality are fulfilled.

We are unimpressed by objections that $50,000 is too much to spend in order to engage the local independent consultants. Fifty thousand dollars to get one more set of eyes, and an independent set at that, on a $250 million project? Sorry, but that looks like a bargain to us. And there are still matters of contract loopholes and fine print to be examined. Even if they can't be influenced, they can at least be understood. How many of us were fully aware, for example, of payments to HOOPS that were disguised as "penalties" for missing construction deadlines which were never seriously meant in the first place? And did everybody grasp on the front end that Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley was being granted virtual control of the city's entertainment calendar, more or less in perpetuity?

It isn't a matter of whether it's a done deal; it's more a question of how the deal was done. We hope the commission goes ahead with its plans, first approved last February, to hire the local consulting firm.

The Buck Starts Here

And while they're at it, we hope the County Commission also pursues a plan, discussed a year ago but apparently shelved, to overhaul its budgetary procedures. Surely, this summer's protracted end-of-fiscal-year hearings on emergency budget cuts was not an experience worth repeating.

For much the same reasons that the arena contract should have been -- and should still be -- vetted more closely, the commission should initiate early annual zero-base budgets requiring departments of county government to justify each and every one of their expenditures on a line-item basis.

This isn't a partisan issue. Democratic governor Phil Bredesen, supported by influential members of both parties, has instituted such procedures in Tennessee state government. That there is a hue and cry over continued pork-barrel spending in Washington is a true indication that federal budget policies also leave much to be desired.

If politics is truly local, then so should political reform be. The buck starts here; let's take a close look at it before it passes on.

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