Ahead of the Memphis City Council's vote on setting the tax rate, Councilman Martavius Jones joined the Moral Budget Coalition, a group of nonprofits backing his push for a rate designed to bring in more money for disadvantage local residents. Jones, who drew fire for pushing a property tax hike while delinquent on his own taxes, has said he would pay the back taxes, with interest. (Photo: Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell)

by James Coleman —

Memphis’ FY2022 budget year course, which begins July 1, has been charted after the Memphis City Council Tuesday (June 15) voted to adopt a $716 million operating budget and an $85 million capital improvement plan budget. 

And, perhaps more important for property owners, the council also approved a certified property tax rate of $2.71 per $100 assessed value, which translates in no property tax increase this year.

The revenue gained from the newly-minted rate of $2.71 is in line with the past rate of $3.19 per $100 assessed property value.

In recent years, property values have ballooned. To prevent a revenue windfall for local governments —  something prohibited by the state — the rate was set downward. 

The approval of the tax rate staved off a longshot bid to boost the newly-certified rate to $3.02. 

“Taxes are how we pay for services our citizens deserve and need. The city budget sends a message to the priorities of the community,” said Councilman Martavius Jones, who offered an unsuccessful amendment to raise the rate. The case the amendment’s only “yes” vote.

Jones’ appeal for a tax increase had been supported by a coalition of community activists, who called for the council to pass a “moral budget” that would generate revenue to provide much needed services for the city’s vulnerable citizens.

The coalition held a news conference Monday (July 14) at the symbolic “I Am A Man” Plaza in Downtown Memphis to urge the council to support their request. 

Citing a tacit substandard of service in the budget, Jones’ proposed hike would have netted an additional $40.1 million to the city. 

The additional funds would have allotted $14 million for 3 percent pay raises for all employees, not just Police and Fire Department personnel.

Another $10 million would have gone to MATA.

Further down the ledger, solid waste would have picked up an additional $5 million to expand services to address blight and dumping. Both youth workforce training and the city’s affordable housing trust were slated for $4 million. Capital “pay-go” funding, cash to finance lesser construction projects foregoing bond debt, lost out on $3 million.

The pitch was first made during the budget committee meeting. Jones was informed that the council was required by state law to certify the proposed $2.71 and then let the full committee vote on the amendment.

It failed on a 1-8-2 vote. Voting it down were Chairman Frank Colvett, Chase Carlisle, Edmund Ford Sr., Ford Canale, Cheyenne Johnson, Patrice Robinson, Worth Morgan and Jeff Warren. Council members Rhonda Logan and Michalyn Easter-Thomas abstained, while JB Smiley Jr. and Jamita Swearengen did not vote. 

There were several stabs at amending the budget during the waning minutes of the budget season, where $1.7 million remained to be spent.

In addition to 3 percent pay raises for employees, MPD was given another $1 million for 29 take-home cars for officers who live within the city limits. The cars must be parked in officers’ driveways or on the street. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland backed the outlay.

“We do have take-home cars for people who are on the TAC unit; for people who are on special operations for the CIT unit. This is for patrol sergeants and for patrolmen. It sounds a little bit funny, but actually with take home cars, the cars last longer because the engines are not running 24/7,” said Doug McGowen, the city’s chief operating officer.

Councilmember Ford criticized the amendment, taking issue with the department. 

“I got an issue with the Police Department right now… It’s a bad issue right now with the Police Department. I don’t want no lawsuits or anything like that coming up … I don’t mind giving money to them but we need to hold up right this minute … They need to correct a few things,” said Ford cryptically.

Nevertheless, it was approved.

New Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis began her tenure Monday. In addition to navigating the re-imagining of the department following the protests in 2020, she also faces issues of retention and morale in the MPD.

Ford also proposed and the council approved $500,000 for pedestrian safety upgrades throughout the city. Frayser will see $46,000 of improvement to crosswalks and intersections after Easter-Thomas secured additional funding for District 7. 

After these allotments, it was decided to split the remaining $154,000 amongst the 13 council members, who will use the funds to support community projects in their districts. Each was apportioned $11,846.

Other ambitions weren’t so lucky. 

Hopes of reviving the Mud Island monorail were dashed. Jones couldn’t muster the support of another member for the idea in committee. The $5 million would have been cobbled together by rounding up in the budget from other line items. 

“I spent the better part of a decade working on Mud Island. The monorail is about priority 53,” Carlisle said.

Conversely, the option to set aside a $25.7 million cut of Memphis’ American Rescue Plan funding to boost tourism and hospitality and assistance programs, including for rent and utilities, drew consideration.

The funding would have been procured before the start of the new budget. It too was championed by Jones.

However, council members were unsure if all the money from the CARES had been spent. There also were concerns about how using the money could affect another round of federal funding. 

Memphis Chief Financial Officer Shirley Ford indicated that the cost of line items could swing dramatically, altering future payouts negatively.

The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package was signed into law in March. Its money is to be used to speed up the nation’s economic recovery. 

Memphis’ share is $161 million, with $80 million already received.

Federal officials intend to look into Memphis’ finances dating back to 2019. New revenue streams added since will be considered when the new funding is divvied up. 

The plan is to back-shelf the proposal until the numbers come into better focus.