Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Councilman Strickland Proposes His Own City Budget ...

... With more cuts and a possible tax decrease.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 10, 2009 at 4:37 PM

click to enlarge JACKSON BAKER
Contending that Mayor Willie Herenton's proposed budget would saddle Memphis taxpayers with a “huge property tax increase,” city councilman Jim Strickland called a press conference Wednesday at City Hall to offer an itemized budget of his own, complete with the promise of a potential tax decrease.

Standing in the Hall of Mayors next to a series of charts contrasting his own budget numbers with those of Mayor Herenton, Strickland told reporters it was up to the council to make the “tough decisions” that the mayor had avoided. The first-term District 5 councilman reasserted his view, set forth most recently as an op-ed in last week's issue of the Flyer, that the council, not the mayor, possesses ultimate authority over the city's budget.

After noting that the city had incurred progressively larger budgets and add-on employment during years in which its population had gradually declined and the local economy had soured, Strickland offered a five-step prospectus for reducing the budget by a total of $34,578,438. That reduction, coupled with accessing the city's reserve fund in the amount of $30,421,562, would make it possible for the city tax rate to be reduced “by approximately 8 cents,” the councilman said.

Under present circumstances, Strickland contended, people and businesses, faced with what is “the largest tax rate in Tennessee,” are “voting with their taillights” and moving elsewhere, making it impossible for the city's financial crisis to be dealt with by any more “forced” annexations.

Taking as a starting point the $10,141,131 in cuts already approved by the council's budget committee or under serious consideration, the councilman outlined further possible reductions as follows:

* $3,574,928 to be derived from reductions in travel, cell phones, furniture, and similar expenses;

* $12,342,328 by eliminating the 3 percent raises for city employees proposed by Herenton;

* $3,356,045 in across-the-board reductions in part-time and temporary city employees;

* $3,374, 620 gained from leaving current vacancies unfilled;

* $1,789,377 in new salary decreases at administrative levels, ranging from 10 percent cuts for council members and most other divisions to lesser amounts for administrators involved in public safety and unspecified other public services.

There should be no reductions in general funding for those services or for “areas directly affecting public safety,” and the city must set aside $57 million for court-ordered payments to Memphis City Schools, Strickland said. He had earlier been critical of Herenton for presenting an idealized first budget draft which didn't take those funds into account.

Strickland concluded with an appeal to members of the public to “please come” to next week's regularly scheduled council meeting and let their voices be heard.

“I'm not sure it's going to make me one of the most popular persons in the world,” Strickland said about his proposal.

Acknowledging that he wasn't “infallible,” Strickland observed that fellow first-term councilman Harold Collins, who was standing nearby, would be offering a budget package of his own later in the day.

A reporter asked Strickland if he might be seen as “grandstanding” for proposing his own budget package. He ought not be, the councilman responded, adding that Herenton isn't accused of grandstanding “when he calls his press conferences.”

(That remark drew some ironic laughter, as did Strickland's quip when asked why he thought he might be listened to. "Because I'm bright, and I'm attractive," he said, before going on in a serious vein to suggest that his voice was no more privileged than that of any other citizen but that, as was presumably well known, he had given the budget serious study.)

When Strickland's presentation was concluded, reporters sought out Collins. Asked his response to what his colleague had said, Collins first jested, “There's enough spotlight for everybody,” and then offered praise for Strickland's suggestions as “promising.”

Collins said that many of his own ideas for amending the budget were similar to Strickland's and estimated his proposed savings -- which included the rollback of city employees' pay increases -- would total something like $30 million. He promised further details when council members met for Wednesday's scheduled 5:30 session on the budget.

That was in plenty time for a live TV feed to evening-news watchers, one reporter offered, to general chuckling from his colleagues.

Both Strickland and Collins reiterated pleas for the public to come to next Tuesday's council meeting, where the essentials of both their plans -- and perhaps more concrete suggestions from other council members -- will be laid out for public reaction.

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