• Memphis budget battle blame game


    As the July deadline for the Memphis budget approaches it appears the only agreement among Mayor A C Wharton's administration and members of the city council is that employee layoffs will be part of the solution.
    Councilman Shea Flinn tried to put the problem into perspective during Tuesday morning's council budget committee session.

    "This year's city budget battle is not a crisis of finances, it is a crisis of will,"  he said.

    How do you address short and long term debt problems in this city and yet restore an employee pay cut without layoffs to pay for it and still have money to put into a depleting reserve fund?

    The answer is, some wills are going to have to bend.

    American philosopher and author Thomas Paine, during a time of historical crisis once penned, "These are the times that try men's souls." Paine's observation was fully applicable as members of the embattled Memphis City Council were straining to find any con census on a budget presented by Mayor Wharton.

    In a time of great financial uncertainty it seems destined there's only going to be one sure result at the end of their deliberations.

    "It's not complicated. It's not hard," Councilman Flinn said. "It's difficult. Because someone's got to lose; be it the taxpayers, be it the employees."

    Councilman Flinn's fatalistic forecast came at the finale of a 2.5-hour give-and-take session of the council's budget committee in advance of what could be a marathon evening session for the fractured governmental body. With Mayor Wharton present, but remaining mostly silent, Chief Administrative Officer George Little assumed the point position in presenting an administration plan to fill the $24 million gap needed to balance the fiscal 2014 budget.

    In an effort to comply with written warnings from the state comptroller, to get the city's financial house in order, Little noted cuts would have to be made mostly in the area of city personnel, projected as a major step in making the operational budget work and as a down payment on long term debt.

    "In this budget there is a proposed buyout of 300 FTE's, or employees and 100 layoffs," Little said.

    Little asserted the voluntary employee buyouts, none of which would exceed $50,000 plus pensions, could eventually result in $25 million in savings. However, when asked their reactions to possible cuts in manpower and materials, both public safety heads - Police Director Toney Armstrong and Fire Services Chief Alvin Benson - apparently didn't read the memo about supporting the Wharton plan.

    "If we look at cutting this department further, we're looking at the possibility of cutting fire engines, closing fire stations and those are the strategies that we're looking at," Fire Services Director Benson said.

    "With this tax rate, we'll have to additionally reduce our staff by 190 officers," added Police Director Armstrong.

    With Benson and Armstrong appearing to balk at the administration plan, the floodgates of dissent against the buyouts and council members frustration with how Mayor Wharton has allegedly foisted off budget decisions on them, exploded in a sea of negative reactions.

    "This city is in a financial crisis situation almost and to pay people to leave," said Councilman Myron Lowry. "I think is not in the best practices of this city."

    "We've been used before to do the will of the administration and put out there on the line," added Councilman Harold Collins.

    "Everything we talk about it continues to fall back on the citizens of Memphis," said Councilwoman Wanda Halbert. "If we don't want to govern this city then why are we here."

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