Thursday, May 27, 2010

Is That All There Is?

Penny-wise and pound foolish in city budget cuts.

Posted on Thu, May 27, 2010 at 4:00 AM

A C Wharton has an aggressive plan to end homelessness in 10 years. He also has an aggressive plan to end the Overton Park golf course in about 10 weeks.

The list of jobs and salaries in Memphis city government runs to 172 pages. The mayor and his division directors, we are told, have been working 24/7, going over the budget with the proverbial fine-toothed comb to find savings and efficiencies.

I believe it. Because you would have to work 24/7 with a fine-toothed comb to find cuts that are more chickenshit than a handful of positions at a couple of libraries and golf courses.

The Overton Park golf course is eye candy first and golf course second. It is the southern entrance to the signature public park in Memphis — home of the Memphis College of Art, Brooks Museum, and Memphis Zoo. Thousands of people who don't play golf drive past it on Poplar.

The nine-hole golf course at Overton and another nine-hole course at Riverside are up for closing by the City Council, at the recommendation of the mayor. The grass will have to be mowed anyway, but closing the courses will save wear-and-tear on the flagsticks and, more substantially, eliminate some really outrageous salaries.

The manager at Overton Park earns $47,432 a year plus $10,909 in benefits, according to the city salary schedule. The manager at Riverside makes the same. But the savings don't stop there. The maintenance foreman at Overton makes $35,632 plus $8,133 in benefits, while the same job at Riverside pays $42,511 and $9,777.

All together, we're talking more than $200,000 in salaries and benefits! And that's not including the free Cokes that were given away two years ago to a kid who hit a hole in one!

There's more, folks. Also on the cutting block are branch libraries at Cossitt downtown and on Highland near the University of Memphis. Those notoriously overpaid librarians are raking in anywhere from $31,536 plus $7,253 in benefits to $53,201 and $12,236 in benefits.

We could be talking — take a seat — as much as $300,000 in savings, if the city can whack three librarians at each library. Never mind that Cossitt also happens to be a de facto daytime homeless shelter. Maybe this is part of the 10-year plan.

Never fear, the proposed cuts will not impact the library's director of community outreach and special projects assistant ($92,027 and $21,166 in benefits), the communications assistant ($86,520 plus $19,899), or the manager of public services ($75,712 plus $17,413).

It took a while to dig out this information. You have to flip through page after page of thousands of jobs in the fire department, starting at $54,980 a year on up to $90,891 a year, and in the police department at $53,573 to over $100,000. The mayor proposed cutting back on overtime in the fire department but not cutting back on fire stations.

From the same playbook, Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash trimmed the budget by proposing to cut some teacher aides. But no administrators and no schools, although he acknowledged that schools will eventually have to be closed. Now, apparently, is not the time, given how efficiently the system is running. What's going on here? Not big savings and bold cuts, that's for sure. What recession? The government sector is doing just fine.

The closing of Overton Park might make sense if it is followed up, as John Malmo suggested, with turning the course into a free course and continuing basic maintenance. There may well be a golf angel out there or some senior citizens and kids willing to man the clubhouse and cart concession for $10 an hour. The biggest waste at Riverside was not operations but the new clubhouse and gates. Riverside isn't visible at all, but the investment in the clubhouse has to be protected somehow.

The library closings seem to be real-estate driven. Cossitt is on Front Street next to the University of Memphis Law School. Highland is within walking distance of the U of M and a planned new retail development on Highland. If the libraries were closed, the building sites would seem to have other prospects.

If the end game for the two golf courses is privatization or free golf, say so. If the two libraries have a higher and better use, say so. But chopping them to balance the budget makes no sense.

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