[City Beat] Just Say No 

Another year, another budget cut, with more warnings of the same.

It wasn't even that close.

The latest plea for a property-tax increase on behalf of city and county schools got exactly three supporters from the 13-member Shelby County Commission. A last-gasp effort on Monday by those three members -- Cleo Kirk, Walter Bailey, and Michael Hooks -- failed to persuade a single colleague to change their vote.

The mood among the majority of elected officials in the city and county can be summarized as "manage the money you have." When there's a big news story about public money being mismanaged, there have been consequences at budget time.

Memphis Light Gas & Water learned that last year when the City Council slashed its proposed rate increase because of concerns about MLGW leadership, storm response, a bond deal with TVA, and Memphis Networx.

The city and county schools were taken to task for soaring construction costs, suburban sprawl, and ducking the issue of closing schools with low enrollments.

The Memphis Police Department, the biggest city expense after schools, is overdue for hard questioning about the corruption and incompetence in the police property room, formerly run by thieves and drug sellers. On Tuesday, the City Council's Public Safety Committee was supposed to get a briefing, but it was postponed two weeks.

The message to all of them was basically the same: Don't ask us for more money when you apparently waste some of what you already have.

Shelby County Commissioner Joe Ford, a former candidate for city mayor and member of the Memphis City Council, put it bluntly after listening to the last round of pleas for a tax increase, which seemed to move him about as much as an appeal from a spoiled child for an increase in his allowance.

"I'm not going to feel bad voting against a tax increase," he said in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. When the county spends $1.1 billion on city and county schools this year, it is silly, Ford suggested, to say politicians are anti-education.

Most of his colleagues agreed. Commissioner Bruce Thompson said schools are still being built and refurbished in the inner city despite population migration to outlying areas and a small decline in overall enrollment. And he noted that completion of a study of low-enrollment schools that might be closed has been put off until after the school board election later this year. Commissioner David Lillard said he won't consider a tax increase until something is done about the county's growing debt, which cost an additional $30 million this year.

There are signs that Memphis and Shelby County really are going to try to do business differently. For one thing, the old racial coalitions have broken down. There were blacks and whites on both sides of the tax-increase question.

City School superintendent Carol Johnson and Shelby County Schools superintendent Bobby Webb made their case jointly. They failed, but it was a recognition of their common cause.

At City Hall, Mayor Willie Herenton finally has his own man, former city finance director Joseph Lee, at MLGW. Now they have to deliver on their promise of greater efficiency. Herenton also unveiled his latest plan for school funding at Tuesday's meeting of the City Council. So far, he is the most prominent proponent of closing underused schools.

His problem will be to convince people that he can improve MLGW and school funding in light of the scandalous mismanagement of the police property room on his watch. Again, the question is, how are you managing what you already have?

Setting budgets is a continuous process. There's always next year. Here are four indicators to look for in the coming weeks and months that will show how serious politicians are about change.

· What, if any, schools are recommended for closing, and who will join Herenton in supporting the call? If 350-student Manassas High School is rebuilt, as planned, it will be hard to close any other schools.

· Has the gap closed between haves and have-nots? Wealthy suburbs such as Germantown can support their own libraries, sports facilities, and auditoriums. And high schools like Houston and White Station can raise extra funds from well-to-do parents. County school board member David Pickler, a Houston High parent, ought to have pointed out that inequity when he suggested greater reliance on sports and band boosters last week.

· Are superintendents Webb and Johnson willing to support joint operation of certain schools, as Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton has proposed?

· If times are really grave, will privatization of MLGW, Shelby Farms, or Mud Island be on the table? Will Councilman Janet Hooks find any support for a payroll tax? And is former commissioner Charles Perkins correct in his view that nothing short of a state bailout can save Shelby County from its debt problems? n


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