By Edmund Ford Jr., City Councilman, District 6
On Tuesday, June 7, the Memphis City Council will have its first opportunity to vote on the city budget. The city budget is Memphis’ most significant policy document, as it defines our values and commitment to creating a place where Memphians can live, work, and play. Mayor Jim Strickland presented a balanced budget on April 19th, and the City Council has held several hearings in order to accept, reject, or modify the Mayor’s budget.
The Mayor has preached about being “brilliant at the basics” with his inaugural budget proposal, but there have been several items in his budget to where the brilliance has been questioned by the City Council for its lack of capacity or just existence. The City has endured 90 homicides in the first 5 months of the year, on a pace to break a record. Our youth are given limited opportunities to do things positive. Economic development in our communities is insufficient, where the U.S. Census Bureau stated that local black-owned businesses are receiving less than 1 percent of the revenue in Memphis. Lastly, those who keep our communities safe, clean, and sustainable are enduring salary disparities.
The City Council, through its budget hearings, took the time and energy to tackle these major challenges. First, the Council voted to spend $1.8 million in the form of grants to nonprofit organizations, centering on three elements: (1) lowering our crime rate, (2) providing year-round opportunities for our youth, and (3) enhancing the quality of life for those in our communities who require special needs. Secondly, the City Council subsidized an additional $2.5 million in funding to neighborhood projects and the Office of Business Diversity and Compliance to give MWBEs and our communities a more reasonable playing field for prosperity. Finally, the City Council found money to dispel the salary disparities located in local government. In order to fund these initiatives, savings was found from reductions in the Mayor’s proposed spending budget. The result is a balanced budget with no property tax increase.
Although our Mayor’s desire is to hire 400 more police officers, we, as a city, cannot arrest and police ourselves out of the crime and poverty problem. What we can do is provide resources to nonprofits that can help. The City Council has provided additional funding to 24 nonprofit organizations during our budget hearings. These organizations are located in all areas of Memphis; they have shown expertise in confronting issues that affect our communities, such as homelessness, domestic violence, and mental health. Likewise, some of these groups provide education, reading awareness, organized sports, youth entrepreneurship, and social development.
The Mayor’s budget kept a campaign promise by affording raises for public safety employees, ranging from 2.7 percent to 3.7 percent, but he left out many of those individuals behind the scenes. Although many of those left out may not be police officers or firefighters, they contribute significantly to city government. They help tackle blight, pave roads, and maintain public vehicles and buildings. Moreover, they operate and sustain our parks, libraries, and community centers. Yes, public safety should be our first priority, and it would be understandable if there were no funds available to incentivize non-public safety employees. However, when one looks at the Mayor’s Executive budget closely, one will see that his personnel line item is grossly high compared to other governmental divisions.
Using the City’s HR data and taking the Mayor’s full request for a complement of 99 employees into consideration and current Executive employee salaries, the Mayor can have a full complement of employees at a cost of $6.2 million (including benefits), not the $7.6 million request. So why ask for an extra $1.4 million for salaries? Simple calculations show that extra money would give the Mayor the capacity to give 30 of his current 99 employees an average salary of over $100,000/year. Currently, the Mayor’s office only has 9 employees at that threshold, and he’s recently increased the Deputy Director of Communications salary (new, created position by the Mayor) from $75,000 to $108,000 for 5 months of work. What makes more sense, a 44 percent raise for a Deputy Director or a small 1.5 percent raise for 2,400 non-public safety employees?
On Tuesday, a budget that I support with its changes, will create a better Memphis for our communities. I hope it passes, only time will tell.