budget hearings










The Commercial Appeal’s week-long series about the City of Memphis’ financial problems riveted attention as only a daily newspaper can do.

While it reminded us about the value and virtues of daily newspaper journalism at a time when many people predict that it goes the way of the dinosaurs, it was made even more stark this week as television news pounded us relentlessly with its latest teens’ video as the narrative of out-of-control African-American teens was advanced without the insight to understand the racist stereotypes that fuel so much of it.

Most of all, it reminded people in our generation why we were reared before the age of social media, where everything is amplified, judged, and commented on with the barest of context and with the full emotional fulminations from the electronic media that obscure almost any serious discussion.

It’s clear that even Edward R. Murrow’s most dire concerns about the future of TV news pale in comparison to where it is today, an instrument whose purpose appears to be to push emotional buttons rather than contribute to deeper understanding – much less put issues like teenage violent crime into a meaningful context.

Teen Time

We’re not saying that Memphis doesn’t have a youth crime problem.  Almost every large city does with our levels of poverty but watching television news, it’s hard not to be left with the impression that every African-American child in Memphis is a problem, being charged with a crime, or simply terrorizing the city.  And in case there was any danger in viewers not getting the narrative, a Channel 3 reporter even added the postscript to the video of the White Station High School girls fight that it is a Title 1 school and students “from all over Memphis” are bused there (not to mention that the school video allowed the resurrection of all other teen videos supporting the narrative).

It has been calculated that 9,000 young people belong to gangs, and that is of course a major concern for Memphis, but at the same time, it’s worth remembering that 161,000 young people under the age of 18 don’t belong to gangs.   It’s also worth remembering, as we wrote last October, that youth violent crime is down.  And that decline continues.  The percent of violent crime arrests for people younger than 24 in February of last year was 57% and this year it was 49%.

But here’s what’s really important.  At a time when we need to treat young Memphians as a competitive advantage (compared to the average of the 51 largest metros, Memphis has a greater percentage of the population under 18 years of age), we treat them as problems.  Television news vilifies them and enflames the fear with crime coverage that essentially lies to the public every night by spotlighting the “breaking news” of some bloody crime in a part of Memphis that most of us never visit.

That’s the untold story: the majority of the victims of violent crime are poor African-Americans who live in areas of concentrated poverty.  Never mind that night after night, small children in these areas of intractable poverty are being taught where to hide when they hear gunfire.  The nightly news seems determined to portray Memphis as a lawless place with thoughtless law enforcement while giving the barest of attention to the problem of mass incarceration that sends the message to children in these neighborhoods that their city sees their futures as behind bars.

The monthly crime reports from Operation Safe Community get treated as footnotes if they get mentioned at all.  The reports portray the up and down violent crime trend lines (primarily stable for the past four years) dramatic decreases in property crimes, but in a world where context is supposed to be everything, the statistics are considered largely irrelevant.

Balanced and Fair

The easy news stories to cover are the ones about youths who commit crimes and act out in public places.  The real stories, however, are the courageous ones about how many young people living in poverty don’t do any of these things.  They go to school, they participate in school activities, they are plugged into after school programs, and they resist those who would convince them to join in a cycle of arrests and jail cells.

It is a curiosity that some news outlets seem be so intent on poisoning public confidence, driving people out of the city where they make their profits, and making people afraid to drive in from the region for entertainment, sporting events, and great restaurants.  In the end, a business model built on stoking public fear and the racial divide isn’t a sustainable business model because when it’s successful, it weakens the city’s image and damages its ability to attract new jobs and new economic opportunity, which in turn generates less money from a dying region to pay for ads on their broadcasts.

We sometimes wonder how television news’ negativism factors into the problems that plague City of Memphis budgets.  At a time when the answers to these problems lie in attracting more people and increasing property values, news broadcasts do nothing but reinforce the image of a city spiraling downward.

All of which brings us back to The Commercial Appeal’s outstanding six-part series on City of Memphis finances.  It sets a high standard for the newspaper’s future coverage of city government, but in setting the framework for how City of Memphis got to where it is today, it now has the opportunity to help point to where it needs to go.

Journalistic Public Service

Many of the issues, particularly sprawl, population out-migration, declining densities, and skyrocketing police budgets, featured in the newspaper’s series are what inspired us to start writing this blog 10 years ago, but in increasing the numbers of us who are concerned about these issues and seeing their inevitable outcome if nothing changes, The Commercial Appeal has provided a serious public service to this community.

Hopefully, the series provides a factual context for discussions about city finances.  Yes, we know that it’s more accepted to presume that city budgets are expanding wildly, that city government is bloated, and that money is wasted at every turn.  There’s only one problem: that’s not what the evidence shows.

There are fewer workers in city government, the city tax rate is dramatically less than it was in the so-called “glory days” of city government, and the size of government has shrunk so much that basic services – such as libraries, parks, community centers, and public transit – are delivered on shoestring budgets.

Cutting government may be the stuff of kneejerk popular opinion, but the truth is that shrinking Memphis services to increase the police budget even more is simply a race to the bottom.  Successful cities have governments that invest in their future, provide vital services effectively, and have balanced budgets.  We don’t mean that they balance the revenues and expenditures columns of numbers, but instead, they have budgets that balance responsibilities to a variety of services that make neighborhoods more livable, give youth better options after school, and connect neighborhoods to job centers with efficient public transportation.

Separating Fact From Fiction

Memphians can pay now or pay later.  City government can pursue cheap services rather than quality services, but we’ve already seen the consequences of selling Memphis on the cheap with our economic development policies.  Doing the same with services that are crucial to the health of Memphis neighborhoods and their people is already taking its toll, and cutting budgets for these services more is precisely the wrong strategy for Memphis.

When compared to its peer cities, Memphis is on the lowest rungs for funding everything but fire and police services.  For example, Memphis provides $23 in per capita funding for libraries compared to $35 in Atlanta, $37 in Nashville, $74 in Birmingham, and $78 in St. Louis. City funding for public transit falls below its peers, and it would take about a $20 million increase in funding for it to move more toward the middle of its peer cities.  In a ranking of 88 cities for per capita park funding, Memphis is next to last with per capita funding of $27, compared to the overall average of $82.  Memphis needs to invest $35 million in services like public transit, libraries, community centers, and parks to move to a respectable ranking but not nearly to the top.

Too often, in government at all levels these days, budget-cutting is treated like it’s the same thing as making government more efficient.  That’s not true.  Often, as is the case with the Memphis services we mentioned, it is the budget cuts themselves that are unraveling efficiency, because services are being provided to fewer people for fewer hours and with fewer employees.  If city government is unwilling to invest more in its own city, we wonder why we should expect businesses to do it.

There is a heavy dose of nostalgia that comes into play in budget discussions, because it is often suggested that city government was so much more efficient 30 years ago.  And yet, the tax rate in 1980 when Wyeth Chandler was mayor was $3.74, and if that tax rate had kept pace with inflation, it would be $10.26 today rather than $3.11.

It’s Math, Not Management

Many people complaining about the property tax rate in Memphis regularly compare it to lower tax rates in Nashville.  But the difference isn’t about efficiency or smarter management.  It’s merely simple math.   The Nashville property tax rate is significantly lower because the average house price is significantly higher.

If Nashville had the same property tax rate as Memphis, every house in Nashville would still produce $505 in property taxes more than here simply because the Nashville average house price is about 65% higher than in Memphis. The difference in home prices means that although Memphis has 28,000 more homes than Nashville, Nashville still produces $141 million more in property taxes than Memphis.  Or put another way, if Memphis had that much more in property tax revenues, its tax rate would be about $2.00.  Conversely, if Nashville had to cope with Memphis’ median house price, its tax rate would be roughly $7.46 – or higher than the $7.15 cumulative city-county property tax rate in Memphis.

Of course, the amount of tax freezes granted to corporations equates to 35-40 cents on the Memphis property tax rate, or put another way, if Memphis had those property taxes, the city rate would be about $3.00 instead of $3.40.

With four of the 10 people who used to live within the 1960 city limits of Memphis now gone, Memphis taxpayers pay a heavy price for fewer people spread over a much larger area, Memphis neighborhoods have a heavy burden for Memphis being public safety poor (the budgets of the police and fire divisions are more than all of the City of Memphis property taxes and sales taxes combined by $52 million), and Memphis’ image pays a heavy toll for a city with too much blight, libraries open for two few hours, poorly maintained parks with inadequate equipment, and with low budgets for the quality of life assets that attract new residents and new jobs in the first place.

In the end, no one pays a price more dear than the teens whose lives pivot on interventions that can be provided by city programs, whose opportunities are broadened by an economy with better jobs, and whose futures, when judged by the quality of public education and services and quality of life in their neighborhoods, are largely out of reach.