[CITY-BEAT] How Real a Crisis? 

Solutions to fiscal

At the end of the day, Mayor Herenton gets his way.

That's one lesson to be learned from the renomination of Joseph Lee to become head of Memphis Light, Gas and Water.

Willie Herenton is still mayor, and the members of the City Council aren't. Even if it takes six months and the sham of a national search, the mayor can outlast them.

Lesson number two is that MLGW and its employees and senior management can apparently run on autopilot. Either that or the managerial abilities of interim president Rev. James Netters have been badly underestimated.

And number three: Herenton is serious about making structural changes in city government. Last year he said he wanted to shake up the corporate culture of MLGW and make it operate more like a division of city government. By insisting that the council accept Lee and by nominating former city CAO Rick Masson to the MLGW board, he's done that. Masson is running the Plough Foundation. A source said he was considered for the MLGW presidency last year, but Masson says if that was so it didn't involve him.

This isn't a mayoral production of Groundhog Day. Herenton announced what he wanted to do, why he wanted to do it, and it took a while but he did it. There shouldn't be a repeat of last year's situation where MLGW proposed a rate increase that preempted Herenton's budget proposal. If the MLGW senior management, several of whom applied for the president's job, stick around, they'll probably get raises scaled to the proposed $215,000 annual salary for the president.

MLGW is only one piece of local government and only one monthly bill. In the bigger picture, how serious are Herenton, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, city schools superintendent Carol Johnson, and Sheriff Mark Luttrell when they say they are facing a financial crisis?

They would be more convincing if they acted in concert once in a while instead of independently. For example, we'll know school closings are imminent when Johnson appears with three of her predecessors -- Herenton, Johnnie B. Watson, and Ray Holt, all veterans of the last round of school closings -- and not just a couple of sympathetic school board members. A superintendents super-alliance could overcome alumni groups and board members opposed to closing any schools. Johnson can't do it alone.

A commitment to close half-empty city schools would make Wharton's job easier too because of the funding formula that ties city and county construction costs together. As Wharton often reminds audiences when he gives a speech, Memphis is part of Shelby County, which is responsible for funding county and city schools.

Another Wharton line is his promise to maintain civil relations with the commission, in contrast to Herenton and the council. "It's not my chemistry," he told a group at a public hearing this week. Fine, but Jim Rout was civil too, and civility got us into this. Wharton wants to "break the back" of the $1.6 billion in county debt, 55 percent of which is due to schools. He said he will announce some new ideas for school funding this week. Watch for how many, if any, city officials back his play.

Finally, there is evidence that the "crisis" and "mess" aren't desperate. One of Wharton's biggest accomplishments is what you don't see: $89 million he slashed from the capital spending budget. Over time, such cuts could break the back of the debt. There are other contrary indicators. This week a new U.S. Census Bureau study showed that Tennesseans pay 20 percent less in state taxes than workers in other states, and other studies say Tennessee has the fourth-lowest overall tax rate among the 50 states.

There was no mood of crisis at Wharton's public hearing Monday at the Central Library. County employees outnumbered ordinary citizens, some of whom were more interested in making a short speech than asking a question. The dire cuts in pretrial services and victims' assistance turned out to involve a dozen or so employees, and there is the possibility of funding them with grants instead. A fed-up citizen threatened to move out of Shelby County rather than pay more property taxes. Just once, wouldn't you like to see a mayor nod and say, "So go. Sorry we lost your business. But I can't change geography"?

Smart growth remains a concept, not a policy. Wharton's proposed adequate facilities fee never got state authorization. Contrary to an advance press release, he did not attend a joint appearance Monday with Herenton at the Memphis Area Home Builders Association to announce new housing incentives inside Memphis.

All in all, a week of politics as usual on both sides of the city/county street, with a lot more to come.

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