It’s one of those weeks when we have to fight the thought that our elected officials are losing their minds.

And it’s only Tuesday.

First, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton announces – without a hint of concern about the average city taxpayer – that he’ll be seeking a 17 percent property tax increase this year.

Attention Grabbers

A few things about his plan caught our attention:

• That the mayor treats the city’s fund balance, now approaching $80 million, as if it’s sacred while he’s willing to close community centers and libraries to save $1.5-2.0 million. With a large tax increase staring Memphians in the face, it’s time for the mayor to explain why the city’s bond rating is more important than the citizen’s tax rate. The fund balance is often called the “rainy day” fund for city government, but last time we checked, there’s a serious storm brewing over Memphis, and it’s time to spend some of that money on the taxpayers whose money it is in the first place.

• That he seems oblivious to the symbolic value – not to mention the clear need – to put employee layoffs on the table. The Wharton Administration gets it: the majority of public budgets is in personnel costs, and if you want to whittle down budget requests, you have to address the size of the workforce. At the least, county elected officials seem to understand what taxpayers are looking for – tough times demand touch decisions, and they want to see some.

• That he trots out his threadbare cure-all – consolidation – as the answer to local governments’ financial problems. At best, it’s naïve or at worse, a worrisome ignorance of the fundamental forces driving public budgets and the fundamental solutions to them. To contend that we should put our attention and energy into another push for consolidation is nothing but a distraction and a waste of energy. The real answers are found in reforming our taxes, in rationalizing the responsibilities of city and county governments and in equalizing the tax structure.

Yet Again

Then, there’s Memphis Councilman Joe Brown, whose malapropisms, flawed syllogisms and faulty hard wiring appear to know no bounds. This time, while arguing against a relaxation of the residency requirement so Memphis can hire the police officers it needs to protect its citizens, he questioned whether people in other communities are smart enough to do the job and questioned their views on race.

We thought we remembered the city lowering its educational requirements to be a police officer to a high school diploma, and the average educational attainment in these communities is much higher than that. It occurs to us that if these people just aren’t that bright, we need to recruit them for Super District 8, Position 1. Apparently, high IQ is no prerequisite for that seat.

As for race, Councilman Brown is right. Every one of us is concerned about race – the race to get into our houses before we become victims of crime. Even for a man who’s never shown any reluctance to toss a racial warhead into an otherwise reasonable debate, it was just the latest shameful exhibition of his willingness to use race, prejudice and scapegoating for his own personal political purposes.

Remedial Education

Then, there’s the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners, who thumbed their collective nose at Memphis City Council’s request for school officials to answer some questions at its education committee meeting. The Council probably was apparently laboring under the mistaken notion that its $93 million in funding to the city schools this year at least entitled it to common courtesy and good manners.

Put simply, the Council was clearly within its rights to ask its intended questions about alternative schools, discipline, graduation rates and student academic performance. Perhaps, if the school board actually was prepared to serve as the forum for these kind of critical and candid conversations, they wouldn’t be getting the invitation to come to City Hall.

The school board’s clumsy politics largely paints Memphis City Schools as a paranoid organization where every one manages to see every question by anybody these days as part of a grand plan by Mayor Herenton to become the next superintendent.

Bad Form

Actually, the no-show by the district plays more into the mayor’s grand plan than anything, because once again, it suggests that the board and the superintendent are defensive, secretive and controlling – all the things that are anathema to any part of the public sector, but particularly in the $1 billion enterprise known as Memphis City Schools.

Reports from Interim Superintendent Dan Ward’s office are that he was instructed – with little argument from him – to boycott the Council committee meeting and to prevent any administrators from attending. And to show how politically tone deaf he is and how political bungling runs deep at the district, he even suggested that if the Council had any questions, they should put them in writing.

About now, some grown-up at Memphis City Schools needs to remember one central truth: school funding by city government, which accounts for 10% of the school district’s total budget, is not required by law and it can be eliminated at any time. It’s also worth remembering that if Council deleted the optional school funding, it not only would immediately balance the Memphis budget without a tax increase, but it would allow a much-needed tax cut of about 34 cents. Put another way, the city property tax rate would not go up to $4.01, but down to about $3.09.

At this point, the Council would be well within its rights to remove school funding from the proposed budget for FY ’09 until it gets the answers to its questions from Memphis City Schools.