Thursday, June 30, 2011

Bad Omen in Schools Case?

Posted By on Thu, Jun 30, 2011 at 3:10 PM

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Uh oh. On the last day to file motions in the schools merger case in federal court Thursday, the Shelby County Board of Education weighed in with a "motion to file excess pages."

It seems that under federal rules there are only so many pages that a plaintiff or defendant can file. But the matter of when and if the Memphis and Shelby County school systems can be merged is a biggie, and the motion was granted.

U.S. District Judge Samuel H. Mays has the task of plowing through all the briefs and rendering a decision. When the briefs are all in Friday, the Flyer will take a look.

Have a nice weekend, Judge Mays, and boy do I miss Tennessee Waltz.

Tax Day: Deadline to Appeal Appraisal

Posted By on Thu, Jun 30, 2011 at 10:17 AM

Cheyenne Johnson, assessor
  • Cheyenne Johnson, assessor
Today, June 30th, is the second most important tax day of the year.

This is the last day to appeal your 2011 property appraisal and tax assessment to the Shelby County Board of Equalization. A successful appeal, resulting in a reduction of your appraisal, could get you more money than an IRS income tax refund.

The forms to serve notice that you intend to appeal can be picked up at the board's office on Mullins Station Road north of the Shelby County Penal Farm.

With a stagnant real estate market and plunging home values, you have nothing to lose. Your assessment, of course, determines both your city and county taxes.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Overton Park Conservancy Looks Doable

Posted By on Mon, Jun 27, 2011 at 10:34 AM

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The second informal meeting to talk about the future of Overton Park is Tuesday evening at the Memphis College of Art. The first meeting on Saturday was low-key and pretty well attended (100-150 maybe, but nobody was counting) and the proposed Overton Park Conservancy seems like a doable idea.

Establishing a conservancy would bring more private dollars to the park and possibly lower the city's financial burden, but that remains to be seen.

The conservancy would be similar to the ones that manage Shelby Farms Park and the Memphis Botanic Gardens. The group's website — OvertonPark.org — says the park "is threatened by inadequate funding and haphazard planning."

On a degree of difficulty scale, I would mark this one as "moderate." But as businessman George Cates, who is leading the effort, reminded me when I collared him before leaving, nothing is easy. He said he met with City Council members earlier and suggested this was "motherhood and apple pie," but a member politely reminded him that there ain't no such thing on the council.

I think the conservancy will happen for two main reasons.

One, the park has an embarrassment of riches that make it challenging to maintain and manage — the zoo (already under non-city management), the Old Forest and bike/walking road, the golf course, the Memphis College of Art, the Brooks Museum, the Levitt Shell, the picnic grounds, the playground, and the playing fields. The park is popular. On Saturday afternoon and evening, it was jammed for the Ultimate Family Reunion.

Two, the conservancy proponents seem to have learned from experience. If Saturday's event was any indication, less is more. Nobody spoke to the group for more than a couple of minutes. Nobody said "this is how it's gonna be." Everyone (with the exception of nattily dressed college of art president Ron Jones, who wore a sport coat and bow tie, like his predecessor Jeff Nesin) was dressed in Saturday casual clothes and came and went as they pleased and spoke to whomever they pleased. There was a big Google Earth map that Old Forest proponent Naomi Van Tol, among others, did a nice job of explaining in the context of proposed changes, including a parking garage on North Parkway. Potential adversaries seem to be working together, so far at least.

It was a big-tent approach to a big opportunity. Come to the meeting Tuesday, June 28th from 5 to 7 p.m., inside the Memphis College of Art and see for yourself. The public survey is also available online.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

City Council Passes $661 Million Operating Budget

Posted By on Tue, Jun 21, 2011 at 10:57 PM

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After months of committee meetings, rejected proposals, and stalemates, the Memphis City Council on Tuesday passed a $661 million operating budget for the coming fiscal year.

The 9-3 vote came near the end of a six and one-half hour meeting that featured ongoing negotiations between council members and Mayor A C Wharton and members of his staff. The council chamber was nearly full with so many members and supporters of city sanitation workers and the local AFSCME union that it sometimes seemed like Labor Day had come early.

Wharton said the budget reflects "fundamental" changes and a process that was difficult for him personally. "This is not chump change," he said. Highlights of the budget:

The $661 million operating budget is $12 million less than this year's operating budget.

The property tax rate stays at $3.19 but — and this is a little complicated — it could go up 18 cents in August depending on what courts say about the merger of city and county schools and the city's funding obligation. The council passed a "one-time assessment" of 18 cents for schools to cover its maintenance of effort obligation. For taxpayers, that would be a tax increase, although council members characterized it as "restoring" the 18-cent tax cut three years ago. Combined with the Shelby County property tax rate of $4.02, Memphians will pay either $7.21 or $7.39. That is the highest property tax rate in Tennessee and, more to the point, the highest in the Greater Memphis area where residents have been fleeing to the suburbs by the thousands.

The projected number of city employees in 2012 is 6,903, a fiive-percent decrease from the current number of 7276 and the lowest number since 2007. Shelby County has about 6,000 employees, so the combined governments have around 13,000 employees.

AFSCME workers got a promise that the city administration would work toward giving its members a buyout option in lieu of having to work well into their senior years. The terms are not set yet, but the cap would be $40,000 to $60,000 in a one-time payment, depending on age and years of service. The total amount of the buyout program would be capped at $13 million, to come from city reserve funds. One of the biggest ovations of the meeting — and there were a lot of them — went to a young AFSCME worker who said he had been followed earlier in the week by television news reporter Ben Ferguson, who claimed the worker went into a store to buy lottery tickets while on the job. Not so, said the employee. "I was buying two pieces of chicken. It was two thighs."

There are 125 layoffs of city employees and a 4.6 percent pay cut for employees who did not take a pay cut this year.

The first three hours of the meeting belonged to AFSCME. A few dozen people spoke, including union rank-and-file and supporters, both black and white, young and old. Most of the speeches were delivered with gusto, and the meeting sounded like a union rally at times. The show of strength apparently worked, as the buyout plan, which was proposed by Councilwoman Janice Fullilove, was something of a surprise. It passed unanimously.

The budget debate was less contentious than it could have been. Members avoided a 6-6 split along racial lines, which was possible because the absence of Barbara Swearengen Ware. Councilman Shea Flinn, head of the budget committee, agreed with Wharton that fundamental changes had been made, and he went out of his way to praise firefighters and their union for their cooperation.

Wharton said "the door is open" for police and other unions to come to him with ways to spread the cuts around, although the amount is not negotiable.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Inventing More Powerful Sports Equipment

Posted By on Fri, Jun 17, 2011 at 12:49 PM

Randy Stafford
  • Randy Stafford
If you watch the U.S. Open golf tournament this week or Wimbledon next week you will see plenty of 300-yard drives and 140-mph serves.

Part of that is due to the fitness level and strength training of modern athletes, and part is due to the changes in equipment. The driver that Arnold Palmer used is tiny compared to the oversized drivers that today's pros and amateurs use. The same goes for tennis racquets. The wooden Dunlops and Donnays used by John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg 30 years ago had far less power than Roger Federer's Wilson, which is lighter and a third bigger in the head.

One of the first tinkerers in sports equipment was Memphian Randy Stafford, former racquetball pro and owner of The Court Company. Like tennis, racquetball was radically changed by progressively bigger and more powerful racquets. Some of his old friends jokingly call Stafford "the anti-christ" because of the changes he wrought. This little essay by Stafford, who was 17 years old in 1972, is about goofing around, innovation, and the limitless future of the young as well as the sport he has played for 40 years.

Continue reading »

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Liars, Heroes, and Whistle-Blowers

Posted By on Thu, Jun 16, 2011 at 2:49 PM

James B. Stewart
  • James B. Stewart
If you're looking for something heavier than mysteries and self-improvement for summer reading, check out James B. Stewart's new book "Tangled Webs; How False Statements Are Undermining America, from Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff."

I think it's one of the most important books of the year and one that should resonate with Memphians.

The subject is lying by the rich and powerful and their minions and the difficulty of rooting it out and prosecuting it. Change "America" to "Memphis" and substitute John Ford, Roscoe Dixon, O. C. Smith, Dana Kirk, Logan Young, and Allen Stanford and see if you can make some connections. As a reporter who has covered the federal beat for 25 years, from the Ford trials to Tennessee Waltz and Main Street Sweeper, it sure spoke to me. If you followed those stories, I think you'll like Stewart's book, which includes extensive treatments and fresh reporting on Martha Stewart, Madoff, Barry Bonds, track star Marion Jones, Scooter Libby, and Karl Rove among others.

It should be required reading for journalists, lawyers, and law students.

Continue reading »

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Stanford Investors Could Get Money Back

Posted By on Wed, Jun 15, 2011 at 5:01 PM

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Some investors in Allen Stanford's Ponzi scheme could be getting their money back.

The Securities Exchange Commission released a statement on Wednesday regarding the Stanford Financial Group of companies. Stanford had an office in Memphis and made charitable gifts to several nonprofit organizations and was former sponsor of the PGA golf tournament here.

This is the text of the press release:

Washington, D.C., June 15, 2011 — The Securities and Exchange Commission today concluded that certain individuals who invested money through the Stanford Group Company — a U.S. broker-dealer owned and used by Allen Stanford to perpetrate a massive Ponzi scheme — are entitled to the protections of the Securities Investor Protection Act of 1970 (SIPA).

In exercising its discretionary authority under SIPA and based on the totality of the facts and circumstances of the case, the Commission asked the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) to initiate a court proceeding under SIPA to liquidate the broker-dealer.

According to its 2009 complaint, the SEC alleged that Allen Stanford operated a Ponzi scheme in which certain investors were sold certificates of deposit (CDs) issued by Stanford International Bank Ltd. (SIBL) through the Stanford Group Company (SGC). SGC is a SIPC Member.

In an analysis provided to SIPC, the SEC explains that, on the specific facts of this case, investors with brokerage accounts at SGC who purchased the CDs through the broker-dealer qualify for protected “customer status under SIPA.

In reaching its determination, the SEC cited the conclusions in the report of the court appointed-receiver for SGC, who noted that the many companies controlled and directly or indirectly owned by Stanford “were operated in a highly interconnected fashion, with a core objective of selling the CDs.

Among other things, the receiver also noted that “[c]orporate separateness was not respected within the Stanford empire. ... Money was transferred from entity to entity as needed, irrespective of legitimate business need. Ultimately, all of the fund transfers supported the Ponzi scheme in one way or another, or benefitted Allen Stanford personally.

The Commission further determined that, in light of all of the facts and circumstances in this case, the customers’ claims should be based on their net investment in the fraudulent CDs used to carry out the Ponzi scheme.

A SIPA liquidation proceeding would allow investors with accounts at SGC to file claims with a trustee selected by SIPC. The trustee would decide whether the investors have “customer claims that are protected by the statute. An investor who disagreed with the trustee’s determination could seek court review.

The Commission has authorized its staff to file an action in federal district court under SIPA to compel SIPC to initiate a liquidation proceeding in the event SIPC does not do so.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

50 Little Things For a Better Memphis

Posted By on Tue, Jun 14, 2011 at 11:28 AM

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A couple of months ago I wrote a column headlined “What Would You Do Now?” after a friend asked me that question. The context was what would you do to make Memphis a better place short of ending poverty and crime, fixing schools, reforming government, or bringing major corporate headquarters and thousands of new jobs to Memphis.

My answer had two parts. One was to boost the profile of the University of Tennessee Medical School and the downtown/Midtown medical center so that it looks more like Birmingham, Little Rock, Jackson, Mississippi, and Nashville. The other was to focus on 50 little things instead of a few big ones, on the assumption that one-third of them might stick, which isn’t bad. With some reader input, here are 50 little things. Most of them require no legislation from Nashville or Washington. In theory, at least, they are doable right here. And most would cost less than $1 million.

1. Start school at 8:15 a.m. instead of 7:15 a.m.
2. Start school closer to Labor Day if not after.
3. Have an attendance requirement.
4. Baseball is half sport, half foodfest. Better hot dogs and cheaper food at AutoZone Park.
5. Boiled peanuts at the ballpark and farmers markets.
6. A pontoon bridge to the tip of Mud Island.
7. A German restaurant.
8. Wildflower cannons fired over Sam Cooper-Interstate 40 junction and vacant lots.
9. Put the Grand Carousel from Libertyland some place other than in storage.
10. Improve Overton Park golf course even if it loses money.
11. Emphasize the black middle class and professional class.
12. Kirk Whalum and Soulsville USA are to Memphis as Harry Connick Jr. and Wynton Marsalis are to New Orleans.
13. Splash parks.
14. Stop running the monorail, trolley cars, and buses empty.
15. Let cops take patrol cars home.
16. Homesteading.
17. One full-time job per city employee.
18. A five-parks bike ride along the river.
19. Do the Harahan Bridge project.
20. A public dunk tank for owners of blighted property.
21. Repeat, Memphis: It’s not 1968.
22. Face it, school consolidation is not a civil rights issue.
23. A local TV channel for food, houses, and extreme sports.
24. Local television stations honor one graduation a year.
25. A $5 fine for downtown parking meter tickets.
26. Teach For America for people over 55.
27. A North Parkway public entrance to the zoo.
28. Fix the broken sidewalk on the north side of the zoo.
29. Cheap bottled water on the river.
30. Water fountains that work in public places.
31. Before building, ask: If you can’t keep a public outdoor bathroom clean, functional, and safe then why do it?
32. Create a journalism endowment.
33. Memphis vs. Louisville, Cincinnati, and Ole Miss.
34. Outdoor basketball goals and soccer goals with nets.
35. A tennis racquet and bike giveaway.
36. Vocational education.
37. Sex education.
38. Nutrition education.
39. A salary cap for nonprofits tied to the salary of the President of the United States ($400,000). More than that and they make “voluntary” tax contributions.
40. Put Bud Chittom in charge of Beale Street.
41. Undercover cops in the Old Forest at Overton Park.
42. Redbox outlets that work.
43. Insurance incentives for not going to the doctor.
44. Shade trees at playgrounds.
45. Deductible payments of principle instead of interest on home mortgage loans.
46. Move the barbecue contest to Tiger Lane.
47. An alternative “Get Motivated” speakers day.
48. Reinvent Peabody Place, soon.
49 and 50. Scratch 1-48. It’s schools and crime.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Scenes from a Hot Day in Memphis

Posted By on Thu, Jun 9, 2011 at 8:21 PM

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I was driving to work this morning when I stopped at a red light at the corner of Poplar and Danny Thomas. On the west side of the street, a man in a wheelchair was getting ready to cross toward the Exxon station. As he turned his chair around, I could see that he had only one leg which he used, in tandem with his arms, to push his non-motorized wheelchair. In other words, he was crossing Danny Thomas at rush hour, against the light, backwards in a wheelchair, powered by one leg. And we think we have it tough. As he started across, a MATA bus made a right turn right in front of him. I was certain he would be hit, but the bus just missed him. Then he navigated his way to the middle of the street, where cars and trucks rushed past hm in both directions. I felt helpless and wished that some motorist would stop traffic for him but no one did. Finally, he made it almost to the Exxon and another MATA bus stopped so he could cross the rest of the way. He gave the driver a little wave, turned his chair around, and went on his way.

The city swimming pools open Saturday. There are a total of 17 of them, both indoors and outdoors, and they are free to children who sign up with their parents Thursday or Friday or have a pass and ID from last year. I visited the Ed Rice Community Center in Frayser, where the pool was being filled this afternoon. There are some slides and a large wading area but no diving boards. The pool supervisor told me they've been gone since 2008. The pool and community center survived this round of budget trimming, meaning that hundreds of kids will be able to play basketball in the gym and swim in the pool this summer until school starts again. Good news, good choices.

The tennis courts next to the Ed Rice Community Center used to be one of my haunts when my friend Don Miller ran the pro shop. That was 20 years ago, and when Don moved to East Memphis the center slowly went downhill. City schools still use the courts for tournaments, but there doesn't seem to be much free play on weekends and during the summer, even though the courts are open and in decent but not great shape. Steve Lang, the tennis pro who has given the last 15 years of his career to public tennis in Memphis, was at the council budget hearings Tuesday making a last-ditch appeal to keep the centers at Whitehaven and Bellevue open. He failed, and Lang said the centers and their indoor courts will have to close. That will leave Leftwich and Wolbrecht tennis centers. I think tennis play is down everywhere, from private clubs to public courts. I can't say I'm surprised. I learned the game on public courts with metal nets in Michigan 50 years ago, played regularly in the tennis boom of the 1970s and 1980s (the subject of a new book about John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg called "High Strung" by Stephen Tignor) and still play a little today at Rhodes College and the Racquet Club. My theory is that tennis is pretty hard to play without someone better bringing you along, and the most promising players gravitate to the schools and centers that have the other good players. Anyway, the two summer pasttimes of my youth, tennis and baseball, are having a hard go of it in Memphis these days. And Jim Northrup, who hit a ball out of Tiger Stadium and a memorable triple off of Bob Gibson in the 1968 World Series and never took steroids, is dead. Don't feel so good myself.

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Barbara Ware and the Divided City Council

Posted By on Thu, Jun 9, 2011 at 11:19 AM

Barbara Swearengen Ware
  • Barbara Swearengen Ware
There's an elephant in the living room, or make that the City Council chambers, that few people are talking about, at least publicly. Actually, there are three of them.

They are, in no special order: missing 13th councilman Barbara Swearengen Ware; the tendency of the other 12 members to split 6-6 along racial lines, contrary to the "One Memphis" era of good feeling over the Grizzlies and Obama's visit to BTW's graduation; and the likelihood that a property tax increase proposal will come up again in two weeks, possibly with some surprises.

Ware was kicked off the council because of accusations, still unproven, that she took bribes connected to car inspections. Ware is tough, informed, and fiercely loyal to her overwhelmingly black constituency. Her absence means the council has 12 active members. And that means the possibility of 6-6 votes that would possibly be 7-6 votes with a full house. And sometimes, as they did this week in budget meetings, those votes divide evenly along racial lines.

Three times Tuesday night, the council voted 6-6 on funding various perks for members such as travel, catered food, and photographs. Six white members voted to cut funding, six black members voted not to cut funding (which had previously been cut to a lesser extent, it should be noted). Trivial, or a coincidence, you say? Sorry, not if you have observed city politics closely for any length of time.

A 6-6 vote means the motions failed.

The most important vote of the night was on a proposed 18-cent increase in the city property tax rate. It failed by an 8-4 vote, with black council members Wanda Halbert and Edmund Ford Jr. voting with white members Jim Strickland, Shea Flinn, Reid Hedgepeth, Bill Morrison, Kemp Conrad, and Bill Boyd.

In some quarters — Conrad in a televised interview and The Commercial Appeal's editorial on Thursday — this was taken as the proposed tax increase being "soundly defeated" or some such words. Not so, as both Conrad and the CA scribes well know. In the council and other legislative bodies, it ain't over until it's over.

And it ain't over. Council rules allow anyone on the prevailing side to bring the matter up for reconsideration, and it is not at all unusual for members to jump sides to extend the game. The council will meet again on June 21st and possibly again on June 23rd to vote on the budget. A tweaked tax increase can and probably will come back again.

"Something has to come back," says Lowery, the council chairman.

Halbert says she could "possibly" vote for a tax increase but has to see what else is on the table first. "I voted against it until I get a better understanding of how we can find a lot of money for certain projects but not others."

Ford was out of town Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

The council's attorney, Allan Wade, says "until we get to the final decision, all of this is parliamentary motions." He noted that Mayor A C Wharton will make another package proposal, as will some council members. He suggested that members were trying to sense the lay of the land at Tuesday's seven-hour meeting in anticipation of another meeting or two.

I asked Wade what happens if there is a 6-6 vote on the "final" budget proposal. Which is the prevailing side? He said it would be the "nays". Then there would be another "final" vote (and another and another if needed) until a budget gets at least seven votes. The new math of a 12-member council, coupled to the old Memphis bugaboo of racial solidarity, makes that about as hard as beating the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Best and Worst of Budget Week

Posted By on Wed, Jun 8, 2011 at 11:45 AM

A week of vacation in Florida ignoring the headlines followed by a dive into budget hearings at City Hall and Anthony Weiner and Sarah Palin dominating the national news. Talk about a shock. Here are my picks for best and worst of the week, so far.

Shameless plug: Read my colleague Jackson Baker's take on perks for members of the City Council and County Commission. Good stuff. The public wears out part-time elected officials over perks. Baker puts perks in perspective.

Easy prediction: I bet that Anthony Weiner, as I write this, is negotiating with Dancing With the Stars. The vanity, the shaved chest, the guilt trip, the celebrity, the childishness, the icky flirting. He's a natural.

Strange nostalgia: For politicians who had affairs with actual adult sexy women. JFK and Marilyn and the Mafia moll, Wilbur Mills and the Argentine Firecracker.

Worst Memphis budget idea: Cracking down on downtown parking meters after blanketing the streets with them and raising the price. The distance from East Memphis and the 'burbs and the panhandling aren't enough of a handicap? And who has $1.50 in change? And how long will it take that $20 parking fine to escalate into a $75 late fee? Who loves a parking garage compared to a free suburban parking lot? And what about free-parking zones like Harbor Town, which lets people park just about any assbackwards way they damn well please, which is one of the reasons why I like to go there and will drive out of my way to do it?

Second worst budget idea: Charging $7 for car inspections. Insult to injury. And county residents outside of Memphis, at least for the time being, don't have to put up with it. Barbara Swearengen Ware and those clerks were ahead of their time. A better idea would be to allow citizens to pay $50 in slush funds to permanently opt out of inspections. Makes me think of that old line, "I don't want to live in a town where you can't get a parking ticket fixed."

Third worst idea: Raising court fees to $135. This smacks of those notorious ticket mill towns in Arkansas and Tennessee that bust Memphians for going five over on their way to Heber Springs or Pickwick. It's traffic enforcement driven by revenue instead of safety. I can see it already from time to time on North Parkway near where I live.

Hardest call: The proposed 18-cent property tax increase that failed 8-4 but could come back again in two weeks. It raises serious money — $20 million — and I personally prefer it to being nibbled to death by the fines and fees that doubtless await me.

Still sacred cows: Police, fire, unannexed Southwind where wealthy residents pay zero Memphis property taxes, nonprofits, eds and meds, AFSCME, the Riverfront Development Corporation, school closings, paid time off that averages 55 days a year, and emergency preparedness where everyone who is anyone gets the latest computer, phone, radio, and maybe an SUV.

All right, so now my house burns down, my appraisal goes up, I get a rash of tickets, flood rescuers ignore me, and a "did not pass because of faulty O2 sensor." Ah, Florida.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

City Council Says No to Property Tax Increase

Posted By on Tue, Jun 7, 2011 at 10:31 PM

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After meeting for six hours, the Memphis City Council on Tuesday voted 8-4 against a motion to raise property taxes by 18 cents for city residents.

Shortly after that, the council voted to adjourn until June 21st with a possible special meeting on June 23rd if needed. The council failed to approve a budget Tuesday but some members believe that major city unions are close to making concessions if given more time. The adjournment motion was 11-1, with only Myron Lowery voting no.

The property tax vote came on a motion by Councilman Harold Collins. Mayor A C Wharton had thrown his support to the tax increase earlier on Tuesday but the only "aye" votes were Collins, Lowery, Janis Fullilove, and Joe Brown.

The council spent most of the meeting on relatively small items as hundreds of members of the AFSCME union, firemen, and police watched from a packed auditorium.

The council deadlocked 6-6 on motions to drastically cut its own budget for catering, professional photographer services, and travel. That means the motions failed.

The council voted to cut $19.9 million from Wharton's proposed budget for privatization of parking meters. That threw the budget out of balance, and the failure of the 18-cent property tax increase left it out of balance until the next meeting.

On Wednesday, Wharton sent out an email urging support for the property tax increase:

"In 2008, the City Council voted to decrease funding to our schools, which resulted in an 18-cent property tax decrease. During yesterday's negotiations, I supported a motion that would have restored this property tax rate, prompted by the court's ruling that we must meet our funding obligation to our public schools. My hope is that we can find a way to fully meet this obligation while preventing widespread layoffs and service reductions that harm our quality of life. The budget proposals I have offered are balanced, fund our schools, and lay the groundwork for more sustainable reforms in the future. There is no question that everyone will need to share the sacrifice next year. It is my sincere hope that the Council will keep this in mind when they meet again on June 21."

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