Things Could Be Worse 

After 14 years, can the marriage between Mayor Willie Herenton and the city be saved?

Single Black Mayor, 65, seeks "real people" for long-term relationship. Friends call me: "Tall, dark, and handsome." Enemies call me: "King Willie." Drug of choice: Aspirin. Drink of choice: Merlot. Hobbies: Boxing, sparring with reporters, defending Joseph Lee. Turn-offs: Tuxedos and ceremonial officials. Turn-ons: A long day at the office and 10 p.m. bedtime.

He says he doesn't want "no publicity," but it says something about Mayor Willie Herenton as a newsmaker that his 75-minute press conference last week was carried live on local television and preempted part of Martha Stewart.

The sit-down at City Hall was part Meet the Press, part bull session, and part Oprah, with Herenton acting as both producer and guest. A blockbuster it was not. Herenton's opening monologue and some of his answers were so long-winded and introspective that morning television regulars must have longed for Martha if they didn't reach for the remote. After 14 years, the mayor and the media are like an old married couple who know each other too well and whose routines are getting frayed and predictable. The criticisms of the media as unfair and prone to exaggeration were familiar ones. The sparring was tame. Herenton's upbeat financial forecast ignored his own often-stated warnings of financial collapse. He said he has never been in drug rehab or even heard of Betty Ford, who is as much a household name as Betty Crocker. He characterized himself as upbeat and was pleased to see that assessment seconded in a newspaper headline last week.

In the press conference and a speech to the Kiwanis Club a day earlier, Herenton touched in a general way on ethics, investigations, city finances, tax incentives, union contracts, MLGW, "crazy stuff," his personal life, the charter commission, a recall petition, and his political opponents. Taking it all together, "upbeat" is too strong a word. Aside from a reference to five straight years of multi-billion-dollar investments in Memphis and Shelby County, there wasn't much to celebrate. There was no soaring rhetoric or call for Memphians to make things better in 2006. Herenton's message, and one of the main reasons for his political longevity, is this: Things could be worse.

Fiscal crisis or short-term aberration? "This city is in good shape," Herenton told the Kiwanis Club. The budget shortfall that forced the city to nearly exhaust its reserve fund is "a short-term aberration."

That's an awfully quick recovery. In guest columns in The Commercial Appeal in 2001 and 2003 and in several speeches and interviews since then, Herenton has warned of the "real financial crisis" facing the city and county because of school funding needs. In March 2005 the mayor said, "We have one more year of this kind of budget hit, and it's going to hit rock bottom." So are we there yet?

"There are some trend lines that cause me some concern in the area of personnel costs, health care, and pensions," Herenton said when asked to explain the cheerful and gloomy scenarios. "I've got my guys on it. We have hired two consulting firms to help us actuarially with pensions and health care. We can merge government functions, but sometimes my recommendations get caught up in the politics of the City Council and nothing happens."

Bottom line: "No, we are not in a crisis."

Last year the city's bond rating was lowered to A+ from AA. For comparison, Detroit, home of General Motors and the nation's fastest-declining urban population, saw its bond rating lowered to BBB. Detroit's deficit is $189 million; Memphis' is $25 million, which was met by drawing down reserve funds.

Even as the mayor was speaking, the city's bills were going up. Memphis was one of the cities chosen by lottery by the U.S. Department of Justice for implementation of new rules for the Americans With Disabilities Act. The reported cost last week of $54 million doesn't include school buildings, which are covered by a separate Justice Department order. City councilman Tom Marshall, whose architectural firm is working with the Memphis City Schools on a building-needs plan, says ADA compliance for schools will cost an additional $44 million, bringing the total to $98 million in 2006.

New sources of revenue: "You can reach the limits of efficiency and need more revenue," Herenton said. But where do you get it? City property taxes and sewer fees were raised last year, making another increase this year highly unlikely. The combined state and local sales tax, at just over 9 percent, is one of the highest in the country.

Herenton said business leaders, who opposed a city payroll tax in 2003, must be "for something" and proposed a countywide payroll tax as one option.

"Our membership gets nervous about new taxes and increasing taxes," said John Moore, head of the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce. "But the mayor deserves a chance to define the details. I can't say we are for or against it because I don't know the details. I did not participate in the last campaign [Moore was working for Northwest Airlines], but I think there was so much fear and anxiety because there were no details."

Moore wants a city-county-chamber economic development drive on the order of the $15 million campaign in Nashville and the $10 million campaign in Baton Rouge.

"The nation is in a pretty robust economy with cities achieving 4 to 8 percent growth," he said. "Memphis has had a flat economy. We're not getting our fair share."

A spokeswoman for Memphis Tomorrow, a group of 25 top executives, declined comment.

Wages and benefits: Speaking to the Kiwanis Club, Herenton said working people deserve "a livable wage." This may or may not be the same as the "living wage" of $10 an hour that local activists support. Herenton didn't mention a specific wage or whether it should apply to city contracts.

He'll ask city unions to accept unspecified cuts in benefits and pensions. He wants the police and fire departments to spend less on overtime. Police director Larry Godwin said most patrol officers make a base pay of $34,000 to $50,000 a year, and the department reduced overtime expenses by $1 million in 2005.

"Overtime is not a gimme, and it's not ever going to be a gimme," Godwin said.

Herenton complained that the media have made too much of MLGW president Joseph Lee's salary, car allowance, and security detail. But unions are likely to wonder at negotiating time why their benefits are less precious than management's.

The freeze on capital projects: "We're going to pretty well put a hold on capital projects," Herenton told the Kiwanis Club, leaving some wiggle room. Projects most likely to avoid the freeze get federal funds, are already under way, and have independent boards -- the Beale Street Landing for riverboats, for example. And the school board, which submits its own budget, may have other ideas about capital spending needs.

Tax incentives for businesses: Responding to criticism of the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program, Herenton said, "If we get out of the incentives business, this economy will not grow."

Shelby County trustee Bob Patterson says incentives waive $48 million in taxes each year. Records compiled by his office show that temporary incentives become permanent entitlements. More than 100 projects whose tax freezes have expired after 10 to 20 years either got a renewal or have not been put back on the tax rolls.

Herenton said downtown Memphis development is the envy of other cities, but he didn't say when it will be able to stand on its own without subsidies.

Operation Tennessee Waltz: Herenton said he "hurts" for those indicted, but he declined to hazard an educated guess about the scope of the investigation.

"Nobody brings me funny stuff," he said. "Nobody comes to me inappropriately. Nobody even attempted to come to me."

Former Senator John Ford, of course, didn't know when he was talking to an undercover FBI agent or an informant, so anything is possible.

The timetable for one phase of Tennessee Waltz got pushed back last week by at least 60 days when a judge granted indicted former lawmaker Roscoe Dixon permission to get a new lawyer. Assistant U.S. attorney Tim DiScenza had said he was ready to try the case as originally scheduled on January 17th. A guilty verdict at trial or more guilty pleas could produce additional indictments. So far, no Memphis city officials have been indicted.

"Real people" and Herenton's political plans: The mayor said (again) he plans to run for a fifth term in 2007, when he will be 67 years old. Since Herenton was elected in 1991, Tennessee has had three governors, Shelby County and Nashville have each had three mayors, Memphis City Schools has had four superintendents, and the University of Memphis has had three football coaches.

In his critique of the media, Herenton said the "real people" of South Memphis and North Memphis support him and are more indicative of his overall popularity than the Herenton haters who write letters to the editor and call talk-radio stations. He even resurrected Richard Nixon's favorite phrase, "the silent majority." He also has support from the business community. In December, Herenton raised $80,000 for his annual Christmas party without breaking a sweat. And he got a standing ovation last week from the Kiwanis Club.

What makes Herenton run for office when he has openly expressed frustration, apathy, and disdain for "ceremonial officials" and functions? Because, he said, he can be mayor better than anyone else. Potential challengers, he said, lack "vision" or "courage" or "steadfastness." They also lack financial support because Herenton has dried it up.

He hasn't faced a really tough, well-financed opponent since Dick Hackett in 1991. If he has one in 2007, it will most likely be an outsider with name recognition and fund-raising prowess. Until Herenton gets the silent treatment that Republicans gave former Governor Don Sundquist at public appearances to show their disapproval, that's not likely to happen.

A recall is an even longer shot. (See City Beat, page 10.) The latest thinking in the city attorney's office is that some 65,000 petition signatures -- not 11,000, as other media have reported -- would be required for a recall because the Tennessee Code, which requires the signatures of 15 percent of registered voters in the municipality (435,000 in Memphis), trumps the city charter.

The Charter Commission: The confusion over the recall shows the importance of the Charter Commission, which is a done deal in one sense. Voters have already approved it in concept, but the members won't be elected until August. The city charter is tantamount to the Constitution of Memphis. Seven members will be elected at large, one from each City Council district.

The charter is 507 pages long, plus 271 pages of home-rule amendments. Parts of it date back more than 100 years. "Uncharted waters," said the senior city attorney.

Term limits and pensions have been mentioned as potential discussion topics, but the field is wide open so long as the proposed revision does not violate a state or federal law that supercedes it. Proposals are just that -- they must be approved or rejected by voters in an election, probably in 2007. Herenton said he has no problem with the Charter Commission. He thinks elected officials should be excluded from being commissioners. He is against term limits and thinks they are being used to oust African-American officials. Elections, he says, are essentially term limits.

Hanging questions: If Memphians "should expect the grass to be cut," why wasn't it cut last summer? If Herenton "could sell it [MLGW], it would have been sold," why shouldn't Memphians expect him to propose it again? Finally, if Herenton laments the lack of good political candidates, why, after 14 years, is only one of his protégés (Reginald French, candidate for sheriff) running for local office in 2006?

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