The Council had earlier passed an operating budget for fiscal 2013-14 of $622 million that included the restoration of a 4.6 percent employee tax cut dating from 2011. In a previous session last week, the Council, mindful of an implied threat by state Comptroller Justin Wilson to intervene in the interests of a balanced budget, had temporized on the pay-cut restoration. The tax-rate increase passed Tuesday night, coupled with 50 layoffs of yet-to-be-designated city employees (and 300 other jobs cuts via natural attrition), was an alternative route to a balanced budget.
The budget also allowed for retention of a weights and balances division, despite complaints from some members that no other city in Tennessee, Arkansas, or Mississippi maintained such a division, to perform oversight services normally the province of state government.
In early discussion on W & M Tuesday, Council members were throwing around the figure of $500,000 as the annual cost of maintainng the division, and that sum seemed large enough to justify excising the division from the budget on a preliminary vote.. Councilman Bill Boyd later corrected that to $190,000, however, a figure corresponding more or less to the salaries of the division's four employees, and that amended information was the impetus for getting the division back in the budget on an excuse-me second vote.
Community centers, libraries, code enforcement, and the city’s MATA public-transportation system were also favored with modest increases.
Altogether not the austerity budget sought by some members, but not a spendthrift one, either. A genuine compromise.
But it took a heap of doing and involved some heated exchanges between members that took place somewhere between standard improv and Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. "
There was Councilman Shea Flinn, doggedly seeking to maintain what he saw as fiscal common sense and simultaneously attempting to prove that he was not only the Council’s cute Beatle but the witty one as well. “Bueller? Bueller?” he wondered aloud at one point, soliciting an alternate view for one of the matters under discussion.
An interesting irony there — in that Flinn's reference was, of course, to "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," the '80s cult classic starring a hookey-playing Matthew Broderick, a film well-enough known to net the Councilman the audience chuckles he was looking for, but the reality was that nobody, but nobody, was getting any time off Tuesday.
Flinn would put himself in the firing line when he ventured a sharp retort to colleague Harold Collins’ call for “creativity” in maintaining programs (e.g., weights and measures) that Flinn and others saw as both too costly and unnecessary. That was akin to a belief in “magic” or in the eternal life of “Tinker Belle,” Flinn said. in salvoes that followed from Collins and Janis Fullilove, Flinn was chastised for his criticism and abused as what Collins called “a theater major.”
And there was a lot of theater indeed to be seen on Tuesday. Fullilove, one of the holdouts against most of the serious reductions being discussed, objected sardonically at one point that she was being disregarded because “I danced on the pole.” That was a reference to an embarrassing incident on a river cruise for visiting national Black Caucus members in 2010.
Joe Brown, famous for his persistent rhetorical refrain of “in so many words or less,” selected one choice word to hurl at the administration of Mayor A C Wharton after city CAO George Little had promised in principle that new jobs would be found at some point for weights and measures employees if their division were discontinued.
“That’s a lie!” Brown charged.
And there was the incredulous response of Collins to Fullilove's sweetly expressed inquiry — more or less on the order of 'Beulah, can you peel me another grape?' — as to whether another $2 million could be tacked on for summer youth jobs.
This was in the immediate wake of one of several hard-fought and barely won battles to limit employee layoffs — and Collins, after blinking an eye, said, "If we try to add that on, Councilman Fullilove, we'll be here 'til 8 o'lcock tomorrow!"
There was more — enough so that an ambitious compiler could easily distill a Greatest Hits or blooper album from raw recordings of the evening.
A more sanguine view of the proceedings would suggest that it was a first-class example of democracy at work.
In the final analysis, the budget/tax rate outcome was a split-the-middle affair based essentially on rival budgets presented by Council chairman Ed Ford Jr. (with implicit blessings from the administration) and Collins, with input from conservatives like Jim Strickland and Kemp Conrad, moderates like Myron Lowery and Lee Harris, and hold-the-line-on-everything types like Fullilove, Brown, and Wanda Halbert.
Timely interventions to break deadlocks came as well from Bill Boyd, Bill Morrison, and the normally reserved but increasingly outspoken Reid Hedgepeth.
It took the whole village, and, to say the least, not everybody was satisfied, but it got done.
●One of the casualties of the budget season was the long-tenured system of automobile inspection for the City of Memphis. In a simple press release on Thursday Mayor Wharton announced that, as of 3 p.m. the next day, Friday, June 28, all of the city’s motor vehicle inspections stations would “permanently close” and that, beginning July 1, the Shelby County Clerk’s office would renew vehicle registrations “without the requirement of motor vehicle inspection.”
The bottom line was that the cash-strapped city decided to bail on automobile inspection for clear and obvious financial reasons. The Shelby County government, having its own fiscal problems and faced with obdurate suburban resistance to regular auto inspections, declined to take over — as it has in several other cases of the city’s discontinuing involvement with public enterprises (notably the health department). And last month, Governor Bill Haslam informed the city that— contrary to a previous understanding held by both local mayors, Wharton and county mayor Mark Luttrell — the state would not be able to pick up the slack, either.
From a P.R. point of view, the abolition of inspections made perfect sense. Though generally approved of by Memphis citizens as a public service and safety measure, the inspection program was experienced by many of them as a personal nuisance — particularly since their brethren in the outer county have labored under no such requirements. And it was costly, to the tune of some $2.7 million annually.
Left unresolved was the question of what to do about a finding by the Environmental Protection Administration that both Memphis and Shelby County at large have dangerous emission levels. The EPA had recently extended an 18-month window for “good faith” efforts by the local governments to correct the problem.
I’ve told this story may times: It concerns what I still regard, some 30-odd years later, as the greatest compliment I’ve ever received (or am ever likely to receive), and it bears on this “N-word” issue.
It was back when I was teaching English at Memphis State (which is what the U of M was called then). I had just come from one of those perfect class sessions that every teacher is familiar with. We had all been in on the moment, teacher and student alike — which is how it goes when you’re bonded right. In the Zen manner, there was an It at work, and we were all in It together. Thoughts and insights were coming in from everywhere, the energy level was high, and on such days it was no trick at all for me to hold up my end as pedagogue and pacemaker.
After class, I went over to my office across the hall in the Patterson building, and directly was visited by a young female student from the class — an African-American, though “black,” which remains acceptable, was the term of choice back then. She just didn’t want the moment to end; so we sat and relived the high points.
She was — how to say it? — kind in her estimate of my role.
“You were doing this, and you were doing that,” she was saying excitedly, “and I was thinking, ‘Look at that nigger go!’”
And then, realizing what she had said (for the record, I am a plain white Caucasian), she became embarrassed and began trying to stammer out an apology. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that…,” she began.
“No, you don’t,” I said, in the friendliest voice I owned, from someplace high up in the stratosphere. “Don’t even try to take that back. That’s the best compliment I’ve ever received.” It was, and it remains so, for all the reasons you would expect and some you wouldn’t. Recalling E.B. White’s injunction against over-dissection, I’ll still give the subject a brief whirl.
Anybody who has been out and about in the diversified world we live in has heard the N-word employed, fairly liberally, by African Americans in conversation with each other. Not all, to be sure, but many — and often enough for an outsider not to miss it.
“Who’s that nigger that used to go with your sister?” one might overhear. To which the answer might be, “You mean that bright nigger?” (“bright “meaning light-skinned). An innocent usage, as almost all such intramural uses of the word are innocent. It’s a kind of easy vernacular, for which the white equivalent might be “dude.”
And sometimes it’s employed as a straight-out descriptor. Earlier this week I was walking through the men’s department at the Wolfchase Galleria Dillard’s and overheard several young black men discussing a particular garment on sale. “Naw, man, a nigger can’t wear that!” one was saying. And there was a world of nuance in it.
But it’s more, too. Ultimately, the use of the N-word among African-Americans is clearly a kind of self-imposed identifier, a badge of intimacy. Even of pride. And no white need apply.
For one thing, and this is where things get so very, very subtle that I’m not even going to try examining in detail, the term implies not only clanship but a kind of superiority that is one part unfeigned naturalness — honesty, even — and several other parts relating to specific ingrained ways of being and performing: social, physical, intellectual, what-have-you. (Yes, I think I can identify some of these, but I’m going to pass on it just now.)
Let’s just say that for a white to be graced with the N-word by a black is maybe the exact obverse, connotation-wise, of a black’s being called that by a white. It comes from a whole different lexicon than is currently the subject of so much spoken and written discussion — some of it keen, some of it blather.
There was a time, back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when some white folks with impeccably hip credentials used to wield the N-word with great ease and abandon — with the implied understanding that they were using it in the black way, with no intent or implication that could be called racist.
Except that words aren’t so easily appropriated and corralled. And so hip (and good) a man as the late populist music master Jim Dickinson, who used to travel in such circles and speak in such manner, surely nailed it for the whole breed when he pointedly gave up using the term a decade or two back, having come to the realization that it was a presumption to do so, however well intended.
But there still are circumstances in which — said by the right sayer and meant in the right manner — it can be a grace word, believe it or not. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it
But here’s a What-If for you: Given that Wilson, in an interview this week with the Flyer, made a point of citing state law as a basis for his possible intervention in the city’s budget travails, what would happen if the Council, whose members face reelection bids in a couple of years, should allow the Comptroller to do just that, assuming all the onus for a tax increase?
One Council member, asked about that prospect, said, “There have been a lot of jokes about that, but it’s not going to happen.” Instead, he said, it is likely that the Council will reach agreement, when it reconvenes budget discussions on Tuesday, on a tax rate somewhere between $3.30 and $3.40 — in the neighborhood of Mayor A C Wharton’s originally proposed tax rate of $3.36 and up from the present rate of $3.11.
The final tax-rate figure is likely to be based on some restoration of the 2011 employee pay cuts that were temporarily excised again on Tuesday of this week. It will also allow for necessary adjustments in the city’s health insurance programs.
Meanwhile, the Comptroller’s office seems to be brandishing both a carrot and stick in its dealings with Memphis. On Monday, apropos the City Council’s then seemingly stymied budget negotiations, Wilson, citing Section 9-21-403 from the annotated Tennessee code, told the Flyer, “…[T]here’s absolutely no question that I’ve got to approve the budget. If the budget doesn’t balance, I can bring it into balance. There’s no question I can raise taxes…. It’s the last thing in the world I want to do….But just look at that statute. The authority is powerful!”
But on Tuesday, as the Council conducted a come-to-Jesus budget session that gave tentative approval to some $30 million in new cuts, including potential layoffs and abandonment (temporarily at least) of previous plans to restore 2011 reductions in employees’ salaries, the Council and Mayor A C Wharton received a letter from Sandra Thompson, the Comptroller’s director of state and local finance stating that “the City appears to have complied with the Comptroller’s directives.”
Perhaps the operative metaphor should be one of good cop/bad cop.
Wilson’s explicit threat of Monday was in the wake of two letters addressed to city officials. One was to Wharton advising against a debt refinancing plan by Wharton, reminiscent of one employed by the mayor in 2009-10, that Wilson referred to as “scoop and toss” in that it would load too much debt repayment into future years. Another letter, addressed to Council chairman Edmond Ford Jr at Ford’s request, advised that, if the City could not successfully conclude a workable budget within acceptable financial guidelines, “someone else may end up doing this.”
Even as he made Monday’s more explicit reference to potential state action, however, Wilson was at pains to suggest that he thought the Council was moving in the right direction.
Even should the employee salaries be amended upward again next Tuesday, when Councilman Lee Harris, on vacation this week, returns, a tax rate in the range of $3.30 to $3.40 would seem to accommodate the expense and balance the budget, easing the Comptroller’s concerns. (The voters’ concerns, of course, are a different matter.)
Meanwhile, Shelby County’s fiscal plans, apparently on course after the County Commission earlier this month approved County Mayor’s budget and a tax rate of $4.38, increased by 32 cents, hit a snag on the tax rate’s required second reading this week.
With one member, Democrat Melvin Burgess, absent, the tax rate failed to get the required seven votes on the 13-member body. Another Democratic member thought previously to favor the new tax rate, Commissioner Sidney Chism, voted no on second reading. Both Burgess and Chism are targets of an ethics complaint by Commissioner Terry Roland, a Millington Republican who has asked the state Attorney General for an opinion on the two Democrats’ eligibility to vote on the tax rate.
Roland hinges his complaint on the facts that Chism operates a day care center that receives county “wraparound” funds and that Burgess is an employee of the new Unified School System that is directly funded by county government. On the tax rate’s first reading, Burgess declared he would not submit to “bullying” and voted for both the tax rate and Luttrell’s budget, which required only one round of approval for passage. Burgess is still expected to vote for the $4.38 tax rate on July 8, when the Commission has a final vote.
Norris serves as Majority Leader of the state Senate and has been at the forefront of legislative efforts to secure the ultimate independence of the Shelby County suburbs from city/county school merger. He also had a brush with the annexation controversy in 2012, when he co-sponsored two abortive bills on the subject.
One of them would have removed the Gray’s Creek/Fisherville area in eastern Shelby County from Memphis’s annexation reserve, and the other would have made the City’s annexations anywhere else subject to referenda by the populations to be annexed.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and the City Council reacted to that prospect by setting in motion an ordinance for the immediate annexation of Gray’s Creek/Fisherville. Pleading that he had acted only to honor constituents’ requests, Norris would subsequently withdraw the bills, which state Attorney General Robert Cooper had meanwhile declared constitutionally suspect. Wharton and the Council would also stand down.
But annexation and the need to clarify the rights of cities, suburbs, and unincorporated areas vis-à-vis each other have continued to be subjects of potential legislation and are sure to be live issues in the next session of the General Assembly. The annexation question has been a particular hot potato in Shelby County, where de-annexation has also received serious discussion of late, both in Memphis and its suburbs.
In any case, TACIR was tasked in the 2013 legislative session with conducting a comprehensive study on annexation and with making recommendations on the subject to the General Assembly in January.
“This study requires in-depth research by the staff and thoughtful consideration by the members of the commission. I am pleased to continue to lead TACIR as we look into this issue as well as many others,” Norris said following his re-election, which took place during a two-day meeting of the commission in Nashville on June 19 and 20.
Norris has served as chairman of TACIR since 2009. He is also chair-elect of the Council of State Governments.
“The annual budget of each local government with notes outstanding shall be submitted to the state director of local finance immediately upon its adoption. The state director of local finance must thereupon determine whether or not the budget will be in balance in accordance with the provisions of this chapter.
“If the budget does not comply with the provisions of this chapter, then the state director shall have the power and the authority to direct the governing body of the local government to adjust its estimates or to make additional tax levies sufficient to comply with the provisions of this chapter.” [Italics ours]
Wilson repeated that he had no desire to impose this authority so long as the City Council and the administration of Mayor A C Wharton were making bona fide efforts to pass an acceptably balanced budget and establish clear financing guidelines.
“Oh, absolutely not. I think they’re going to work it out. I really do. I do think they are. But it’s there.”
Regarding the clearly stepped-up sense of urgency apparent in Council budget deliberations, Wilson said, “Well, that’s good. My whole goal is to have a balanced budget.” It was not his concern “how they get there,” and he was expressed indifference about specific controversies, such as that over the restoration of salary cuts made in 2011 for city employees.
“That’s not my fight, how that plays out or doesn’t play out,” Wilson said.
Asked if he had an optimistic attitude about the Council’s efforts to establish a workable budget, Wilson said, “Oh yeah, I do. I really do. And the point is they are now talking to each other. And I’m hearing from council members that they want to come to resolution. Now, they may have different resolutions. But that’s all probable. Once you acknowledge there’s a problem and you all want to come together to solve it you get a solution. I think it’s wonderful, and I hope they do.”
More from the interview and on city and county budgets in this week's Flyer issue.
There are three finalists to succeed U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla, who will shortly be leaving the bench to take senior status.
All Memphians, they are: Sheri Lipman, counsel for the University of Memphis; Steve Mulroy, professor of law at the University and member of the Shelby County Commission; and Irma Merrill Stratton, a lawyer in private practice.
All were recommended by 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, and all have successfully undergone interviews by a screening committee and vetting by the FBI.
Ultimately, the appointee will be named by President Obama and will require confirmation by the U.S. Senate.
After taking a year off from his annual political picnic, Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism resumed the affair on Saturday at his sprawling property on Horn Lake Rd.
Basically, the Chism picnic serves as a kick-off event for the coming year's politics and, as such, fills the breach left by the passing of the now defunct St. Peter 4th of July event.
Politicians of all political stripes were on hand and got a chance to introduce themselves to a crowd that refreshed itself on hot dogs, cold drinks, and other goodies. For the first time, the event offered tables at which various independent vendors and agencies could offer information about themselves.
Asked why he took last year off from holding the picnic, Chism explained that he had been too busy running a race (ultimately unsuccessful) for General Sessions clerk.
"That's the last one," said Chism, who is finishing up the second of his two allowable commission terms. "I'm 74, and that's probably too old to run for anything else, but I'm definitely going to stay involved."
Chism, who served twice as commission chair, said he was open to the idea of being on a public-policy board or heading up a task force.
The commissioner dismissed criticism from longtime Democratic Party activist Del Gill about his billing of this year's picnic event as nonpartisan. "It's always been nonpartisan," Chism, a Democrat, said.
And indeed two prominent guests, each with a significant entourage, were County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Sheriff Bill Oldham, both Republican officials.
Regarding another challenge, an ethics complaint levied against him by commission colleague Terry Roland, Chism called it "without foundation." Roland has charged Chism with a conflict of interest for failing, in the course of appropriations votes over the years, to disclose his involvement with a daycare center that receives some county funding.
During last week's first round of voting on the budget presented to the commission by Luttrell, Roland attempted unsuccessfully to prohibit the votes of Chism and Melvin Burgess, another commissioner against whom he has made similar accusations.
Burgess, who is employed by the Unified School System as an audit official, also denied Roland's charges but made a point of prefacing each of his votes on the budget with a disclosure about his employment.
"Making a mountain out of a molehill," was how Steve Basar, another commmissoner on hand Saturday, described the conflict-of-interest charges.
UPDATE: Former Shelby County Commissioner and advertising/public relations executive Deidre Malone was one of the late arrivals at the Chism picnic and used the occasion to formally announce her candidacy for Shelby County Mayor.
Among the other candidates for 2014 who spoke to the crowd were Reginald Milton, Eddie Jones, Patrice Robinson, Van Turner, Steve Basar, and Justin Ford, all candidates for County Commission seats. Ford and Basar are incumbents.>
That kidney donation by Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy is still making news, nationally this time, more than a month after the late April surgery to obtain it by Dr. James D. Eason of the UT-Memphis Transplant Institute.
In a news release Thursday to both local and national media, the Institute is touting extraordinary benefits from the domino or chain effect of Mulroy’s donation. To wit:
The second largest chain of organ transplants in the world began at the Methodist University Hospital Transplant Institute. Chain 221, as it's known at the National Kidney Registry, started the morning of April 30th when Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy made an altruistic kidney donation. The chain consisted of 28 recipients and ended yesterday, June 5. The largest chain had 30 recipients and took place between August and December of 2011, five months. Chain 221 took only five weeks to complete.
Several of the patients were extremely difficult to match and their chance of receiving a kidney was extremely low. Some of the hospitals involved include Emory, UCLA, Brigham and Williams, Cornell, Massachusetts General, Mt. Sinai, Cleveland Clinic…
As was explained at the time of Mulroy’s surgery, altruistic donations (i.e., organs which are banked for future as-needed use rather than being earmarked for family members, friends, or other specific individuals) free up the matching process of available organs with patients needing them. The resulting “chain” can expand the availability of organs geometrically, and this is what seems to have happened in Mulroy’s case.
Within a week of his original surgery, it was announced that it had created a chain benefiting 8 patients who were then awaiting available kidneys.
Meanwhile, donor Mulroy, who timed his surgery for the break between spring and summer sessions of the law classes he teaches at the University of Memphis and who somehow managed not to miss any scheduled meeting of the County Commission, is knitting well and has tentatively begun to resume his exercise routine.
In the aftermath of Monday’s regular meeting of the Commission, Mulroy reported that he’d made a mile run the day before — though admittedly not at his accustomed 7-minute-per-mile pace. That, he assured his listeners, would come in due time.
"’At the very least there was a cloud over his tenure at Saks,’ said Christopher Ideker, a forensic accountant who has participated in many audit committee investigations for companies. ‘To me, you have a guy calling the shots on an investigation about stealing from customers who was investigated for stealing from vendors. That seems pretty straightforward.’