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<br />In search of a budget Memphis can live with

The day after the Memphis City Council put in 13 hours in an effort to reach agreement on next year’s city budget, Mayor A C Wharton looked back and found something to his liking. by Tony Jones
Special to the Tri-State Defender

The day after the Memphis City Council put in 13 hours in an effort to reach agreement on next year’s city budget, Mayor A C Wharton looked back and found something to his liking.

“People asked me was I disappointed that we did not pass the budget and I tell them absolutely not. And you know why? Whatever budget we come up with, it is going to absolutely displease a lot of people. But now we are fully communicating and people clearly understand the implications,” Wharton said in an interview with The New Tri-State Defender on Wednesday.

“You ever seen a play where they have a split-level house where you can see one thing going on in one part of the house and another in a second part?  That’s how I was feeling,” said Wharton. “I was talking to union officials in one corner, elected officials in another, my staff people in yet another – communications have opened up as a result of last night.  Now where they will ultimately take us, I do not know, but it is clear that we cannot go on as before.”

Saying that he is careful not to demonize anyone, Wharton said it’s simply a matter of what we can and cannot pay for.

Sacred cow versus necessary expenditure?

Super District 9, Position 1 Councilman Kemp Conrad’s suggestion several weeks ago that the city privatize garbage collection services caused scalding rancor in several sectors where supporters of AFSCME Local No. 1733 say the union’s pivotal role in forcing America to actively fight racism must be given proper weight

Wharton said he agrees in essence that AFSCME has a special role here, all the while noting that AFSCME and all of the city’s union employees, as well as the everyday citizens, are faced with a basic truth – that the City of Memphis, like the federal government and a growing number of homes throughout the nation, must learn how to stretch a dollar “to the fullest.”

“It’s wrong to think that sanitation workers work for a couple of hours and then have the day off, we have to get away from that kind of false thinking and I am dedicated to dispelling it,” he said.

AFSCME union administrator Shelley Seeberg said Super District 9 Councilman Reid Hedgepeth’s move to bring privatization back up in a late Tuesday night proposal was a scary example of what’s facing everyday Americans.  

 “What’s going on here in Memphis is no different that what’s going on in other communities. Look at what is happening to teachers. This is clearly part of a national agenda to attack working people,” said Seeberg.

“The vote (against privatization) was split right down racial divides. The working people are doing our part. They asked us to accept no increases and we did that; zeroes across the board. Yet through overuse of the PILOT (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes) programs, we are funding major corporations that are making record profits. It’s time for the corporations to step up to become good citizens like the rest of us.”

Wharton expounded on his position.

“Long before any of this came up. I went to AFSCME to propose a solution that would make the sanitation department an employee-owned company. I feel that Memphis could become a model for minority economic development if we could do it. Instead of turning it over to a private company, we could contract with an employee-owned firm that would work to create dividends for the workers,” he said.

“As it is structured now, they have no way of passing on wealth to the next generation. No one will ever know how to create the efficiencies needed better than those who do the work.”

Wharton stressed that he believes there is a case to be made for treating the sanitation workers with a different consideration than other workers because of the historical sacrifices those workers have made to get this city where it is.  

“My concern is not with the union, but with the workers. But does that mean we should never do anything to make them more efficient and more cost effective? Absolutely not,” said Wharton.

“But you are speaking of individuals who (for the most part) have salaries that are much lower than other municipal employees and I feel we should be a bit more careful when considering matters that are going to jeopardize their welfare. Times have changed.  AFSCME is not a sacred cow, but I believe we have to look at them through a different prism.  In the end, everyone is going to have to sacrifice.”    

The Fire Department and other unions

“In all fairness I must say that the Fire Department were the first to come to us to offer their cooperation in finding efficiencies in their system,” said Wharton.

“They know, that’s why I want to listen to them, not dictate to them. But change is imminent across the board.  No department is immune to changes.”

Is too much money spent in City Hall?

“I could be sitting here by myself and somebody would be saying, ‘We don’t need a full-time mayor.’ It comes with the territory.  I will welcome an audit anytime.”

At a glance

• The city budget for next year is not settled yet. The Memphis City Council has scheduled a June 21 session to find ways to fill an $11 million funding gap.

• Among the revenue proposals voted down were District 3 Councilman Harold Collins’ call to restore an 18-cent property tax cut from 2008; District 6 Councilman Edmund Ford Jr.’s proposal to restore a $7 fee for auto inspections; and Council Chairman Myron Lowery’s proposal that red light cameras be used to catch more speeders.

• The Parks Service Division summer program funding the city’s public swimming pools and community centers was accepted.

• A more than 100 percent increase in the cost of moving violations was voted in, driving the cost of such tickets from $61 to $135.

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