Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cutting The Threads In Memphis Neighborhoods

It was only a few swearing-in ceremonies ago that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton proclaimed that he was ushering in the era of the neighborhood.

Today, with many Memphis neighborhoods hanging by a thread, he often is the man wielding a giant pair of scissors.

There’s always a disconcerting contradiction between what the mayor says are important to him and what his administration does, and the latest example if his plan to close five libraries and four community centers. To many of the neighborhoods served by these public facilities, the libraries and community centers are fragile anchors helping to hold them in place in the face of massive out-migration of people and the deterioration of the urban core.

Two Cents Worth

Now, in the interest of saving between $1.5 million and $2 million – which amounts to a grand total of about two pennies on the city property tax rate – these nine community anchors will be slammed shut, becoming permanent shrines to the decline of public services in a city with the state’s highest tax rate.

Never has City Council had such an important role to play as right now, because it will be up to its members to demand the data and the information to determine if these plans snip threads and unravel the fabric of the neighborhoods. So far, this has been like too many of the City Hall announcements – a bombshell dropped with no real philosophical context or policy explanation and in a tone that almost sounds like he’s angry at the city he serves.

We accept the statements of his advisors that this is not the case, but we also understand their frustration at these shoot-from-the-hip style announcements that immediately put them on the defensive to explain them. As a result, they are forced to operate in a world too often defined by adversarial positions and public outcries.


The lack of a coherent communications plan speaks to the largely disconnected nature of City Hall, where there is no dependable chain of command, no effective operational oversight and no translation of mayoral philosophy into policy initiatives. In fact, it’s more the rule than the exception that directors and managers learn from the media what the mayor plans for city operations.

In this fragmented – and frequently dysfunctional - environment, managers get little direction, motivated by their own personal commitment to Memphis and their professional priorities. There is little sense of an overall Herenton philosophy of government or a sense of how all of the services fold into a comprehensive operational program.

For example, the announcement about the libraries and community centers triggered more questions than answers. For example, what is the rationale for closing these facilities that serve tens of thousands of Memphians while giving $3 million for 600 students at Lemoyne-Owen College, a private, religious institution.

Taking A Shot

In keeping with a tendency toward personal attacks, Mayor Herenton took a cheap shot at former library director, Judith Drescher, nationally recognized for her record, reputation and abilities.

The mayor said he’s “embarrassed” by the condition of some library branches and placed the blame at Ms. Drescher’s feet. It’s almost as if he forgets that he’s been in charge for 16 years.

If we were him, we’d be embarrassed too, but it would be because of the many times that Ms. Drescher’s requests for additional funding were ignored or vetoed by the Herenton Administration. In fact, in City Hall, Ms. Drescher was criticized for her assertive advocacy and insistent defense of library services and her annual pleas for city government to invest the amount of money in its libraries that would make it competitive with similarly sized cities.

Target On Her Back

Time after time, Ms. Drescher’s requests were brushed aside, and she was attacked for sharing her concern with library supporters and City Council members, leading her to be called disloyal by the administration. Lost in the politicized pressure cooker that is City Hall was the fact that ultimately her loyalty did in fact belong to the public.

The target on her back got even larger when Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton pulled county government out of the library system. Prior to the county pull-out, she often found a sympathetic ear for libraries in the Shelby County Administration Building, which placed political pressure on City Hall to at least give lip service and basic operational funding to them.

Most of all, because Mayor Herenton has been head of city government for 16 years, it raises obvious questions: How has he shown his concern for the condition of libraries in each year’s budget hearings? Why didn’t he include additional funding for their neighborhood anchors if he was concerned about their condition?

The Hard Question

Then, there is the most basic question of all: What city service has improved in the past 16 years? Is it an overstatement to say that we have witnessed the greatest deterioration of city services since the Yellow Fever epidemics?

It also calls into question policy decisions, such as why Mayor Herenton has not done more to rein in tax freezes, which now total $49 million a year in city/county revenues. In fact, in this age of naming rights, perhaps the mayor could ask FedEx to pay less than a third of its waived city taxes - $7.3 million a year - to keep open the community centers and libraries.

After all, $2 million amounts to a mere 6/100,000th of one percent of FedEx’s annual revenues. In the absence of that exercise in corporate leadership, it appears to us that the libraries and community centers are worth two cents on the city tax rate, an amount that could be offset by cuts in administrative staff which is by its nature is always top heavy in the public sector.

Up To Council

We can only hope that City Council takes its oversight role seriously and releases the number of people who use the community centers and the circulation numbers for the libraries. We need a voice in this decision, but first we need the facts.

We hope that City Council will exhibit a better understanding about the building blocks provided by city government that create stronger neighborhoods and a stronger community. These closings strike at the heart of some critically at-risk neighborhoods – such as the Levi and Gaston libraries and all four community centers - and at the heart of neighborhoods whose stability is the backbone of city tax revenues – such as the White Station and Highland libraries.

These closed libraries and community centers will send a powerful message about City Hall’s lack of understanding about the importance of these kinds of public anchors. Meanwhile, it’s ironic – if not contradictory – that city government urged the waver of its taxes to spark a Highland Strip redevelopment but at the same time wants to close the library that’s an instrumental part of that neighborhood.

All in all, the recommendation by Mayor Herenton sends a powerful message that Memphis does not have the political will or political plan to fight and shape a new future. Instead, our city government seems intent on sending the incontrovertible message that we are in spiral that this administration cannot pull us out of.


Anonymous said...

What city service has improved in the past 16 years?
Code Enforcement- Just joking.

Anonymous said...

You're right, this city is in the early to middle stages of a civic death spiral.

Anonymous said...

On the bright side, we're on A&E a lot more than we were when Dr. Herenton took over.

Anonymous said...

This makes perfect sense. At a time when crime is at an all time high and literacy is a major problem, let's close 5 neighborhood libraries and 4 community centers. Let's destroy 9 neighborhoods precipitously. More ironically, let's salute the exiting mayor who claims he loves the children and wants to go back to being the superintendent of MCS. Does this sound like an action of someone who is asking to be considered as the educational leader of the community?

Anonymous said...

These community institutions are not functioning as they should. That is an obvious conclusion that can be drawn upon visiting these libraries and community centers. So what will work? What type of neighborhood institutions/centers do these neighborhoods need to build community? Let's not pretend things are working now and things will be better by keeping them open. Can we step back and discuss that and then take action?

Anonymous said...

I was born in 58 in Memphis and lived there till 1990.I grew up in Parkway Village.This was at one time a great place to live.I remember for many years when I was growing up Memphis recieved the City Beutiful Award for a city of it,s size.Since Herenton was elected he has done nothing for the city but tear it down from the great city it use to be.I left Memphis to persue a better job.
Last year I took my youngest son back there to pick up a car from his older brother .I told him we would ride thru the old neighborhood to look at the old house .I was disgusted at the sad condition it was in.Seems like instead of scheming so Herenton could put more money in his pocket,he would be aman and take enough pride to fix the problems.
If he thinks closing libraries and rec centers is going to help the children and people of the city is going to help matters then he obviously has a screw loose .If he cares so much about education and the well being of children why hasn,t he done anything in the past 16 yrs to solve the problem instead of making it worse.I thought a great man was supposed to lead by example.If he wasn,t doing anything underhanded why does he have to have bodygaurds on the payrole.As a child some of my best memories were involved around playing sports at the community center, or spending my summer days at the park at Knight Road Elem.
It,s time for the people to go and put someone in charge who wants to really make changes for the better instead of some skirt chasing self obsorbed fool.Why the citizens of Memphis would even consider having him be the MCS super again is beyond belief .After what he has done to Memphis he should spend the rest of his days on earth in prison.I guess thru threats and intimidation you can accomplish many things.I think the FBI terms that as MOB TACTICS.The Mafia,KKK and the Nazi Party did pretty well with that also. Come on people, there's 100's of thousands of you & only one of him, & he's got brain damage.

Anonymous said...

Come on people of Memphis, this fool Herenton ain't hiding in a cave in Afganistan, he's sitting right in front of you. You shouldn't have a wishbone where your backbone ought to be. Step up. Take over. Kick his black butt to the curb in the trash pile where he belongs.

Anonymous said...

Old Willie is the most worthless piece of work I've seen in 20 years. What a waste of space. I guess bullets are too expensive to waste on him, in these hard economic times. Can't believe you people can't get rid of the little sissy, before he wipes you off the map. And the kicker here, he's on the short list for 'Mayor of the year.' I'm sure they meant to say 'Crackhead mayor of the year.'