Local government budget hearings haven’t even begun yet and it’s already spawned mythic conversations.
There are the myths about the myths cited by Memphis City Councilman Joe Brown, the myth about the need for joint city-county funding for joint city-county boards by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, and the general myths about City of Memphis that are framing up the upcoming budget hearings.
We began with Councilman Brown. Rather than engage in a discussion about priorities and fiscal options, Mr. Brown often has moments when his rhetoric intensifies and his volume elevates as a defense mechanism to addressing the facts. That was clearly the case at the last City Council meeting when, responding to comments that higher taxes could force people out of Memphis, he said: “Nobody’s going to leave Memphis. That’s just a myth for those who want to keep Memphis stagnated.”
It’s hard to imagine why any employee of City of Memphis – and certainly no elected official – would want to keep Memphis stagnated but it’s not the lapse in logic that got our attention. It was the realization that Mr. Brown probably does in fact believe that it is a myth that people are moving out of Memphis.
Well, here are the facts:
- Memphis lost population in the 2010 Census for the first time since the yellow fever epidemics (a fact pointed out by former Commercial Appeal reporter and demographer Jimmie Covington); the population loss between 2000 and 2010 was 3,211, so perhaps Councilman Brown considers that minor enough to argue that out-migration is a myth.
- Memphis is one of the most hollowed out cities when it comes to middle class families, and that includes families of all races. Most dramatic proof is that in one decade, the African-American population of DeSoto County doubled and is now 22%. It’s not white flight now; it’s middle class flight. In 66 suburban census tracts in Shelby County, the estimated number of black residents has increased 56 percent — from 83,019 in 2000 to 129,443 in 2010.
- Within the 1970 city limits of Memphis, there are more than 30% fewer people; if Memphis were not able to masquerade its population losses through annexations, the city might well have lost more people than any city in the Sun Belt.
- Polling shows that the top reasons for people to move out of Memphis are taxes and lack of confidence in government.
Here are the kickers:
- Between 2000 and 2010, 54 Memphis census tracts (out of 173) lost more than 10% of their population, 23 of these lost more than 20%, and 5 lost more than 30%. Ironically, some of these census tracts are in Mr. Brown’s district.
Nickled and Dimed
Then, Councilman Brown doubled down, stating his unshakable opposition to reductions in the city government workforce or more cuts in employee salaries. It’s the perpetuation of the widespread concept that government employees are guaranteed jobs for life, and that city government’s allegiance is to employees rather than the taxpayers who pay for them. We understand that employment by government and the city school district have traditionally been the entry points to the middle class for African-Americans in Memphis, but the African-American majority of Memphis who pay taxes also deserve consideration in these discussions.
Mr. Brown said: “People pay taxes for services. We must deliver them. Not one member of this body has the right to threaten another person’s livelihood…a few nickels and dimes is (sic) not going to hurt.” Clearly, he was referring to the jobs of government workers, not the jobs of constituents and small businesspeople. Here’s the thing: polling has shown that the top reasons that people move out of Memphis are taxes and lack of confidence in government, so eventually those “few nickels and dimes” do make a difference.
Then, there is Mayor Luttrell, who said he is “disappointed” that City of Memphis can’t put up half of the $15 million that he calls “full funding” for EDGE. The truth is that Memphians pay about 70% of the county’s $7.5 million funding for EDGE, and if City of Memphis puts up half of the $15 million budget proposed for EDGE, it means that Memphians are paying more than 80% of the total funding for EDGE (Memphians pay 100% of the city half and 70% of the county half). By the way, only 50% of the members of EDGE come from Memphis.
Here’s the thing: the cost of economic development should be on the broadest tax base, and that’s Shelby County. After all, we haven’t heard anything about Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland, Millington, and Arlington putting up any money for EDGE, so as usual, Memphians are the only people paying twice.
Meanwhile, Mayor Luttrell said he’s eliminating the county’s $1 million funding for the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce, which has been instrumental in the recent economic development successes in our county. It’s no secret that the smaller cities’ Chambers of Commerce have been taking shots at their Memphis counterpart since Mayor Luttrell took office, so it’s unclear whether the cut in funding is a budgetary imperative (but if Shelby County can put $7.5 million into EDGE, which is less than a year old, it’s unclear why it can’t put $1 million into the Memphis Chamber) or whether it’s political.
More to the point, Mayor Luttrell refers to fully funding EDGE, but there’s no explanation of how the $15 million amount was decided on or what the money is going to be used for. That said, for the city to fully fund EDGE, it would need to increase the tax rate five cents, and who’s to say that a lower tax rate might be a much greater incentive for economic development than the proposed funding for EDGE. And if local government is going to put up millions more for incentives to go with the $50 million in waived taxes already, there should be a serious discussion about our deepening overreliance on financial incentives.
As for the Greater Memphis Chamber, it has a clear track record, and after the successes of Mitsubishi, Electrolux, Blues City Brewery, and the 10,000 direct and indirect new jobs in the past couple of years, it would seem that the Chamber deserves a bonus rather than a pink slip from county government.
Then, there are the general myths that reliably surface anytime budget hearings begin. Like the one that Memphis cannot even discuss the possibility of a reduction in the workforce of Memphis Police Department and Memphis Fire Department. As city government considers a tax increase of almost 50 cents, no service should be sacred, and all should be evaluated to determine if reductions can be made.
Then there are other myths in city budgeting. For years, all other services of city government have been cannibalized little by little to pay for the growing budgets of the fire and police departments. But everything in a city is connected, so it’s possible that lack of funding to cut weeds in city parks or abandoned lots, to fight blight, to fund activities at libraries, parks, and community center activities could have impacts on the crime rate too.
As Mayor Luttrell, former sheriff, has said, the “lock them up” strategy that processes 60,000 people through Shelby County Jail every year is the easy part, but it’s the “other two legs of the stool” that need more attention and emphasis (meaning funding): prevention and intervention.
Much of that prevention and intervention could take place in city parks, community centers, outreach programs, youth programs, and libraries, but customarily the money for prevention and intervention is sacrificed on the altar of crime suppression.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton is precisely on the right track when he appointed a committee to identify investments and interventions in early childhood development. It requires a different kind of political perspective, because past practice tells politicians that the public is much quicker to pay $30,000 to lock up a young offender than the few thousands of dollars a year to pay for interventions that give children better options for the future.
We live in a political environment where the emphasis is on short-term gain. Investing in early childhood interventions will take 18 years for the return on investment to be clearly shown, so it requires more than politics as usual. Mayor Wharton has said that Memphis has structural issues that are a drag on its economy and on government budgets. The lack of a culture of opportunity for every child in Memphis is precisely one of those issues.
Ultimately, the question for the City of Memphis is whether it can fund proven intervention strategies when it can’t even fund programs in the parks that once gave tens of thousands of Memphis children an outlet for exercise and wholesome activity.
While the budget for parks has remained essentially flat over the past 15 years, the police and fire budgets have swollen. Memphians frequently recall the days when the city was named one of the country’s cleanest cities. These days, it’s rare for an out-of-town visitor not to point out how much litter is on city streets.
Because of this, many people draw the conclusion that city government is incompetent and incapable of delivering basic services. They miss the point. There is less money to spend on clean-up programs and weed cutting because that money is now spent for police and fire services.
That’s why it’s time to have a real conversation about what Memphis should look like, what Memphians vision for their city is, and how much it costs to achieve it. The public may just want government to get the basics right, but first, we need the public to tell City of Memphis exactly what those basics are.