The Memphis City Council, with nine new members and all decked out in University of Memphis jerseys, got a reality jolt Tuesday when Mayor Willie Herenton asked them to approve a 58-cent property tax increase.
Presenting his 17th budget request since 1992, Herenton said "times have changed" and citizens are going to have to get used to higher taxes and reduced services.
"I stand before you with the will and the political courage to make the hard decisions," he said.
Herenton blamed the recession, stagnant sales tax collections, lower interest rates, gas prices, and the likelihood of lower home values next year for the tax-increase request. He said it would enable the city to "hold the line" for the next four years, when he may or may not become superintendent of the Memphis City Schools.
Asked by Councilman Myron Lowery if he is a "lame duck mayor," Herenton appeared offended and said "I don't think it is appropriate" to discuss the bombshell he dropped three weeks ago.
He said he gives "100 percent" every day on the job and "that is all I need to say to you. I don't know what the future holds."
He will make another presentation to the council on schools on May 6th. The tax increase he proposed Tuesday does not cover any increase the school board requests in its budget of nearly $900 million.
About 60 percent of the proposed $595 million operating budget goes for police and fire protection. Herenton proposed adding 125 more police officers. He said Memphians are going to have to get used to regional services instead of neighborhood services, with fewer libraries and community centers. And he suggested that the era of big houses and big cars is coming to an end, and that consolidation of city and county government will happen this year or next year because of financial strain.
Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton is expected to seek a property tax increase of 20-25 cents on the county rate.
City Council members will begin budget hearings later this month. They got a reprieve Tuesday when members of the University of Memphis men's basketball team showed up to pose for pictures and accept congratulations. Council members pulled on blue and silver Tiger jerseys for the occasion.