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UPDATED: The TSD Interview: Mayor Paul Young: ‘We can certainly cut, but our community also wants better results’

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Say this about Memphis Mayor Paul Young: He ain’t ducking no smoke — especially when it comes to his proposed FY2025 budget.

We learned this during his 100 Day Mayoral Address last month.

“I think it’s time for us to step into a reality that allows us to flourish,” he told hundreds of Memphians during an event at Mount Vernon last month. “When I …present our budget, I’m going to ask for a tax increase. I’m putting it out there straight, no lying, so you can hear directly from me.

“I’d rather not ask,” he said at the time. “But I believe it’s the right thing for our city.”

Since then, the Mayor’s Office has released more details about his proposed budget, including an extensive presentation breaking down how the city is already cash-strapped even as the costs of payroll and essential services continue to escalate. It makes a case for new programs to support schools, fight blight and curb crime. It ask citizens to imagine a better Memphis.

But at the end of the day, it also asks them for more money. Specifically, an additional $.75 on ad valorem taxes, which for a home valued at $100,000 would mean an increase from $675 to $863 — about $188.

This chart shows what homeowners could expect to pay at various tax thresholds. The Yellow line is with no increase; Mayor Young’s proposed increase is highlighted in blue.

Not surprisingly, public opinion on the proposed tax increase is . . . mixed.

I spoke with Mayor Young on the morning of May 6, just hours before members of the Memphis City Council were set to begin deliberating on how (or IF) they would give Young what he’s asked for.

We talked about his proposed budget, how he hopes to get Memphis to buy-in to his tax increase and how people will know if it’s working.

Earlier this week, we posted the video above. Below is a transcript of our interview, edited for clarity and length.

Lee Eric Smith: First, thank you for joining us, Mayor Young. I want to acknowledge that it feels like you haven’t stopped campaigning yet. You’re obviously not campaigning for office, but for the hearts and minds of Memphians to do  . . . something. How would you describe what you’re campaigning for at this stage in your administration?

Mayor Paul Young: I wouldn’t call it a campaign. I feel like I’m working to represent our city. Our city needs a lot of healing. It’s hurting right now. It’s important for me to be present, to acknowledge and address the negative things we’re dealing with, but also remind people we have greatness on the horizon. There’s greatness still in us, even as we go through some of these challenging times. As mayor, it’s important that I champion that message and that, again, I’m present.

Smith: That gets to a question I was going to ask a little later. There’s a big administrative piece to your job, but there’s also an inspirational piece. People look to you to set the tone, to engage us in a vision. How are you balancing the public and inspirational part with the administrative, “got to crunch the numbers and run this city” part of it?

Mayor Young: Well, I’ve been working in local government for many years, and I’ve led major divisions within the government. So, the governance side is very natural for me. Working within the bureaucracy, making it more efficient–those are the reasons I wanted to get into this work, to make our systems work better for the people. We spend a lot of time during our days making sure government operates efficiently. We have a great team. The other side of my role is to be the ambassador for our city. The mayor really is the chief ambassador for our community, and our ambassador needs to be out there spreading a message of hope and putting some action behind the words.

Smith: I tend to think there’s a point when elected officials, especially administrative ones, get into office and get hit with some piece of information that changes their perspective. A candidate may campaign on “no new taxes,” then get in office and realize that’s not possible. What was the piece of information that kind of changed your perspective after you got into office in terms of what would be needed, especially relative to the budget?

Mayor Young: I never campaigned on “no new taxes,” but I certainly had it as a principle going in that we would not raise taxes, particularly in my first year, because I understand how challenging a time it is. 

But as I got deeper into the budget process, I realized if we don’t do something now, we put our city at a really, really risky place financially.

To make it short, we pull out of our reserves, and we want a nice, healthy rainy day fund. Our credit rating agencies say we need at least $80 million in reserve. Ideally, we need $140 million. We’re at roughly $100 million this year. When we finished our budget for this first round, we were roughly $90 million over (budget). We cut it down, and after all the cutting and then adding some of the new expenses, we’re at $53 million over (budget). So if we pulled $53 million out (of the rainy day fund), we’d be below the recommended reserve amount from a credit perspective. And we can certainly cut, but our community also wants better results. 

I felt like it was important for us to go ahead and put us on a strong fiscal path. And in addition to covering the hole, doing some things that are over and beyond what we have been doing so that our community can get better results. 

That means making our community safer through camera technology. It means cleaning up our community and investing in neighborhood-based cleanup crews. They’ll be cleaning on a very regular basis. Then, then investing in our children and opportunities for them to be engaged after hours to get them off the streets doing some of the negative activities that we’ve seen in the past.

Smith: Let’s talk about that a little bit – people may not want to pay higher taxes but if they are going to pay higher taxes, they want to know the money is being spent properly. So in addition to seeing cleaner streets or longer hours at community centers, what other ways will people be able to look and say, “Okay I’m paying more in taxes, but at least I’m seeing X in my neighborhood, on my street, in my school”?

Mayor Young: Well, one is we want to make sure that we are enhancing service delivery. So, the things that we do every day, we want to make sure that we continue to do them well, and where we can do better, we want to enhance it. 

Things like picking up the trash and paving the roads, potholes, I get a lot of questions around that – how efficiently are we doing those things? Those things don’t necessarily demand an increase, but demand that we are on top of our services. So, we want people to see better results there. 

We also want them to see more people out cleaning, cutting grass, picking up trash. People need to see aesthetically, folks out there doing this work because it makes them feel like their government is working on their behalf and blight contributes to crime. If it looks like no one cares in a community, people behave as such. And so, we want to make sure that we’re changing that aesthetic feel and then the reality of crime.

A lot of the crime we’re seeing is happening because we have some idle minds that are occupying their time with things like stealing cars, breaking into cars. So the investment in youth is not just a feel-good program – it’s part of the crime prevention strategy. If you don’t engage our youth, they will find another way to engage. We want to have structured activities in our spaces for them.

And finally, there’s the investment in the technology I spoke about. Even with this much crime, it’s still a small amount of people creating the most havoc in our community. The quicker we can get them off the streets and bring them to justice, the quicker we can restore safety. This camera mesh technology will allow us to do that.

Smith: You’re asking people to buy into a vision where some of the programs may take a while to take root. You’re asking people to, for lack of a better term, kind of ‘suck it up’ for a minute. But people are hurting and they want relief now. How do you get people to buy into this idea of delayed gratification?

Mayor Young: It’s really a matter of making investments where people can see things happening differently, where they can see their money in action. That’s why I think it’s so important to have crews out on all of our major corridors on a regular basis, so people see them as they’re commuting to and from work or school.

We also have to be more thoughtful around how we’re policing in our community. This means stepping up our investigative services and making sure that we are not just patrolling the streets, but also patrolling social media, anticipating where violence may happen based on online conversations. 

These are the types of things, that if we’re doing them and we actually see the reduction in crime that we are looking for, that’s part of my goal to have at least a 10% reduction in overall crime year over year. Once people see the fruits of that, they’ll believe it was worth it.

We also have some opportunities coming up as we pay off a significant debt within two years. That will open up funds in our budget, and we can explore further tax adjustments when we have more revenues available. Right now, things are tight, and this increase puts us on a strong fiscal path moving forward.

Smith: Crime, and violent crime specifically, seems like one of those intractable problems that it’s hard to tie to a line item on a budget. It’s hard to say, “If we spend this amount of money over here, then we’re going to have X fewer kids drag racing on the highways, or fewer gun-toting youth going into convenience stores.” For people who see this every day, how do you measure results or tell them, “Hey, we’re spending the money this way, and this is how you can tell it’s working, even though it’s not obvious”? I hope that question makes sense.

Mayor Young: Yeah, I see what you’re saying. We look for indications of success. Crime is not going to be solved overnight, but we can get it trending in the right direction. We focus on year-over-year reductions during specific periods of time, like a decrease in summertime infractions, because we know criminal activity has seasonality to it. If we get the right people off the streets, you’re going to see fewer shootings and car break-ins. 

In conjunction with that, we want to work with our partners at the state, federal, and county levels, including the district attorney and our sheriff, to ensure that the right people stay off the streets and get the justice necessary for our community. This is an ongoing process, and I think people want to see that reduction. When they see it, I think they’ll feel much better about the direction our city is going.

Smith: Let’s imagine the city council has approved your budget proposal as is. How quickly would people begin to see results of what’s included? Would it be weeks, months, years? What would be some of the signs that it’s working or not working?

Mayor Young: My goal is for you to see immediate action. I’m putting myself out there as a leader and saying, “This is what we need, and failure is not an option.” We have to work really hard to make sure we have all the agreements in place so that on July 1st, the start of our new fiscal year, we’re moving forward. 

We’ll be funding new programs at community centers, deploying crews to clean up major corridors and streets, and starting the process of implementing cameras throughout the city. These efforts will start immediately. While reductions in crime will take some time, my hope is that by the end of the summer and into the fall, we’ll start to see positive trends.

Smith: You’ve been talking about the budget for a few meetings now, including some out in the community. What kind of feedback are you getting from average citizens, say in Orange Mound, Frayser, or other areas?

Mayor Young: I hear mixed things. There are certainly those opposed to any tax increase, some because they literally can’t afford it, especially seniors on fixed incomes. I like to remind them of tax relief programs specifically for seniors. Others, particularly in the business community, point out that higher taxes can be a disincentive for investment and make businesses want to leave, especially since we already have the highest tax rate in the state. 

I understand that, and I believe there’s a balance. But I also know that if we don’t stabilize our community, make it more attractive, and address our problems, we will lose businesses anyway. We have to ensure our community is fiscally solvent and addressing our most pressing needs. 

And lastly, I hear support – but with the caveat that people expect results. They support the investment as long as it leads to reduced crime and a more attractive community. So, for me, it’s about ensuring we execute if and when this budget is approved.

Smith: I imagine there’s a portion of the electorate, those in more affluent areas with higher property values, who will be paying significantly more in taxes. They might say, “I’m fine over here. The problems you’re addressing, while important, are happening ‘over there’.” How do you engage those residents and help them realize that if crime is happening in Orange Mound, Frayser, or South Memphis, then it does impact other parts of the city?

Mayor Young: It might have been harder to make that case 20-plus years ago when crime was more confined to areas facing the greatest challenges. But now, crime is mobile, and our community’s challenges are community-wide; they won’t stay in one area. If we don’t support all areas of our city and all our youth, the negative impacts will be felt across the board. I think that’s more apparent than ever, and it’s not a hard case to make that these investments will result in a safer community overall.

Smith: The council is deliberating on your budget. What would be your ask of Memphis voters and citizens?

Mayor Young: I’d ask them to support our city and our young people. I know a tax increase isn’t something anyone wants, but it puts our city on a strong fiscal path. Ideally, we would be growing, and more tax revenue would be generated naturally. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet. This investment will kickstart that growth. I’m asking for this increase, and I expect you to hold me accountable to deliver the results our city deserves.

Smith: Shifting gears, a few weeks ago, you spoke at the dedication of the new reflection park honoring Martin Luther King Jr. You spoke passionately about the power of love and healing to address the pain many in the city are feeling. This isn’t something you typically hear from elected officials. Can you talk about why this approach is so central to your leadership?

Mayor Young: Memphis is an amazing community with great people and so much diversity. I want to unify our city; we’re more powerful together, and love is the thing that can bind us all. It’s not politically popular to say we need more love, but at the root of many of our challenges is pain. 

We have many young men, particularly young Black men, who carry so much hurt. That hurt manifests as anger and toughness. If we understand that these individuals are hurting and need love and attention, it changes our perspective. It might not sound tough, but it’s exactly what’s needed. If every person takes the time to share kind words, it changes outlooks. 

I’m not naive enough to think everyone will respond, but some hearts and minds will change, and it takes everyone to get us where we need to go.

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