It was only a few swearing-in ceremonies ago that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton proclaimed that he was ushering in the era of the neighborhood.
Today, with many Memphis neighborhoods hanging by a thread, he often is the man wielding a giant pair of scissors.
There’s always a disconcerting contradiction between what the mayor says are important to him and what his administration does, and the latest example if his plan to close five libraries and four community centers. To many of the neighborhoods served by these public facilities, the libraries and community centers are fragile anchors helping to hold them in place in the face of massive out-migration of people and the deterioration of the urban core.
Two Cents Worth
Now, in the interest of saving between $1.5 million and $2 million – which amounts to a grand total of about two pennies on the city property tax rate – these nine community anchors will be slammed shut, becoming permanent shrines to the decline of public services in a city with the state’s highest tax rate.
Never has City Council had such an important role to play as right now, because it will be up to its members to demand the data and the information to determine if these plans snip threads and unravel the fabric of the neighborhoods. So far, this has been like too many of the City Hall announcements – a bombshell dropped with no real philosophical context or policy explanation and in a tone that almost sounds like he’s angry at the city he serves.
We accept the statements of his advisors that this is not the case, but we also understand their frustration at these shoot-from-the-hip style announcements that immediately put them on the defensive to explain them. As a result, they are forced to operate in a world too often defined by adversarial positions and public outcries.
The lack of a coherent communications plan speaks to the largely disconnected nature of City Hall, where there is no dependable chain of command, no effective operational oversight and no translation of mayoral philosophy into policy initiatives. In fact, it’s more the rule than the exception that directors and managers learn from the media what the mayor plans for city operations.
In this fragmented – and frequently dysfunctional – environment, managers get little direction, motivated by their own personal commitment to Memphis and their professional priorities. There is little sense of an overall Herenton philosophy of government or a sense of how all of the services fold into a comprehensive operational program.
For example, the announcement about the libraries and community centers triggered more questions than answers. For example, what is the rationale for closing these facilities that serve tens of thousands of Memphians while giving $3 million for 600 students at Lemoyne-Owen College, a private, religious institution.
Taking A Shot
In keeping with a tendency toward personal attacks, Mayor Herenton took a cheap shot at former library director, Judith Drescher, nationally recognized for her record, reputation and abilities.
The mayor said he’s “embarrassed” by the condition of some library branches and placed the blame at Ms. Drescher’s feet. It’s almost as if he forgets that he’s been in charge for 16 years.
If we were him, we’d be embarrassed too, but it would be because of the many times that Ms. Drescher’s requests for additional funding were ignored or vetoed by the Herenton Administration. In fact, in City Hall, Ms. Drescher was criticized for her assertive advocacy and insistent defense of library services and her annual pleas for city government to invest the amount of money in its libraries that would make it competitive with similarly sized cities.
Target On Her Back
Time after time, Ms. Drescher’s requests were brushed aside, and she was attacked for sharing her concern with library supporters and City Council members, leading her to be called disloyal by the administration. Lost in the politicized pressure cooker that is City Hall was the fact that ultimately her loyalty did in fact belong to the public.
The target on her back got even larger when Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton pulled county government out of the library system. Prior to the county pull-out, she often found a sympathetic ear for libraries in the Shelby County Administration Building, which placed political pressure on City Hall to at least give lip service and basic operational funding to them.
Most of all, because Mayor Herenton has been head of city government for 16 years, it raises obvious questions: How has he shown his concern for the condition of libraries in each year’s budget hearings? Why didn’t he include additional funding for their neighborhood anchors if he was concerned about their condition?
The Hard Question
Then, there is the most basic question of all: What city service has improved in the past 16 years? Is it an overstatement to say that we have witnessed the greatest deterioration of city services since the Yellow Fever epidemics?
It also calls into question policy decisions, such as why Mayor Herenton has not done more to rein in tax freezes, which now total $49 million a year in city/county revenues. In fact, in this age of naming rights, perhaps the mayor could ask FedEx to pay less than a third of its waived city taxes – $7.3 million a year – to keep open the community centers and libraries.
After all, $2 million amounts to a mere 6/100,000th of one percent of FedEx’s annual revenues. In the absence of that exercise in corporate leadership, it appears to us that the libraries and community centers are worth two cents on the city tax rate, an amount that could be offset by cuts in administrative staff which is by its nature is always top heavy in the public sector.
Up To Council
We can only hope that City Council takes its oversight role seriously and releases the number of people who use the community centers and the circulation numbers for the libraries. We need a voice in this decision, but first we need the facts.
We hope that City Council will exhibit a better understanding about the building blocks provided by city government that create stronger neighborhoods and a stronger community. These closings strike at the heart of some critically at-risk neighborhoods – such as the Levi and Gaston libraries and all four community centers – and at the heart of neighborhoods whose stability is the backbone of city tax revenues – such as the White Station and Highland libraries.
These closed libraries and community centers will send a powerful message about City Hall’s lack of understanding about the importance of these kinds of public anchors. Meanwhile, it’s ironic – if not contradictory – that city government urged the waver of its taxes to spark a Highland Strip redevelopment but at the same time wants to close the library that’s an instrumental part of that neighborhood.
All in all, the recommendation by Mayor Herenton sends a powerful message that Memphis does not have the political will or political plan to fight and shape a new future. Instead, our city government seems intent on sending the incontrovertible message that we are in spiral that this administration cannot pull us out of.