Thursday, June 04, 2009

Council Delivers Lesson On Civics

Yesterday's vote by Memphis City Council's budget committee may have been a political master stroke, but more to the point, it was a lesson in Civics 101.

A day earlier, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton had said in effect that he would decide the future of the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center. Council members used this opportunity to remind all of us that our system of government is based on checks and balances.

More to the point, the people with the checks - or more to the point, the checkbooks - are legislative bodies.

So, while the mayor can keep a line item in his budget for Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center, the Council can zero it out, thus opening the door for it to be moved under Shelby County Government.

Beyond the argument with the mayor, the Council was right when it kept its eye on the ball -- tax equity -- and once again pointed out thata regional service should not be funded only by Memphians.

Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center does indeed serve the entire county and should be part of county government, so all taxpayers in our community are supporting it with their tax dollars.

This particular Council has done more in the past 18 months about serious tax equity than previous Councils in 10 years, and because of it, for the first time, there are serious discussions about moving crucial public services from the city tax base to the county's.

Yesterday's Council vote reminded us of our April 26 post:

Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton sent a stern note last week to the Memphis City Council that said its members need to restore full funding for Memphis City Schools.

It prompted memories here of the late Jesse Turner Sr., the civil rights leader and former long-time chairman of the budget committee for Shelby County’s legislative body. When presented once with a directive about the budget by a county mayor, he responded calmly: “I appreciate your opinion. That’s what you have – an opinion. What I have is a vote.”

It’s a fact of life that’s always been lost to some extent on the news media, which hang on every word of mayors and their budget recommendations as if it’s the administrative branch that determines public budgets.

The truth is that it’s the 13 members of Memphis City Council who will make the final decision. They have the responsibility, not to mention the authority, to set the final budget and the tax rate.

Dollars And Sense

We respect the mayor’s opinion about school funding. As the former superintendent of Memphis City Schools, Mayor Herenton, according to a political adviser, is too passionate about schools to remain silent on the issue of school funding. They said that it was a personal motivation that led him to chastise the Council in a letter to City Council Myron Lowery.

It seems likely that the Memphis City Council will return the favor, asking the mayor for his administration’s recommendations on how to include the school funding in the city budget – are cuts in other city departmental budgets recommended to offset the increase for schools or is the recommendation for a tax increase to produce money for schools.

More than a couple of City Council members think that the mayor may have been trying to paint them into a corner, but think that he instead shot himself in the foot (to mix metaphors). They said that if he were serious about funding schools, he would have put the money in the proposed budget that he presented to Council last week along with the bombshell that he’s planning to run for Congress.

In the words of one Councilman, “he didn’t present a balanced budget at all if he truly believes that schools should be funded at previous levels.”

Politics And More Politics

From their side, however, key finance officials assumed that if they had included the school funding, City Council would “grandstand and cut it like they were the only ones who know how to cut budgets.” Regardless of the rationale on each side, some people believe that it’s created a game of political chicken.

And yet, it’s just as likely, based on early reports from the Council, that its members may opt to ignore Mayor Herenton’s letter altogether, recognizing that final decisions on the city budget are theirs, not the administration’s. One Council member also pointed out that the mayor had similar opinions last year, but had no real influence on the City Council budget decisions.

As superintendent, Mayor Herenton was a rising star and highly regarded for top school jobs from Atlanta to New York City. So, it’s no wonder he has a strong feeling about the city’s funding of schools. We just happen to disagree with him.

As we’ve said before, tax fairness affects every Memphian, and if any one is harboring the delusion that our city can compete for new jobs, new talent and new business investment as higher and higher taxes are paid by fewer and fewer people, they are ignoring reality.

Cycles

That is exactly what current trends foretell. Unless we are able to bring some sanity to our current tax system – which punishes Memphis tax base, which is losing middle-income families faster and leaving a polarized city to pay for the increasing costs of the vortex of social problems that stem from our high poverty rate.

It’s a vicious cycle. The high rate of poverty begets a high drop-out rate which begets a high level of people out of the job market which begets the high rate of crime which begets the high abandonment of the city which begets higher tax rates which begets higher risk to the entire region.

In that way, a fair tax rate for Memphians isn’t just the city’s concern. It better be all of ours. In the end, all of us are at risk, regardless of where we live and how much we earn and how immune we think we are from the economic repercussions of Memphis’ collapse.

Because of this, Memphis City Council was not only right when it tried to bring some sanity to the local tax burden. They were also courageous.

Council Courage


After all, this community talked 25 years about placing all school funding where it belongs – on Shelby County’s larger tax base. We’ve been talking for way too long about making the Memphis tax burden more rational, and despite all the talk, nothing changed.

No one is suggesting that it’s not in all of our best interests – not to mention our common humanity – to pay for the education of our children. It does in fact take a village and we all need to be villagers in that pursuit. The village is Shelby County, not two villages, one in Memphis and another in Shelby County.

But the village doesn’t only have children. It has elderly people, especially the significant percentage here who live in poverty, it needs an economy that doesn’t play down to our low skill levels but helps to improve them, and it’s about neighborhoods that are connected, walkable and served by high-quality public transit.

It wasn’t too many years ago that City of Memphis provided significantly less funding for schools. Also, there was a widely held opinion – in both city and county mayors’ offices and in both city and county legal departments – that Memphis’ funding was discretionary. It could stop it whenever it liked, and as a result, City of Memphis increased school funding to higher and higher levels, but rather than getting a thank you note from city schools, they instead get served with a lawsuit.

Wanted: Logical Laws

The state law that forbids local government from reducing its previous year’s school funding may sound on the surface like a commitment to kids, but in the end, it’s a prescription that erodes the kind of self-determination that every government deserves. After all, the law would require government to keep the same level of funding even if enrollment collapsed.

Let’s say this one more time to make sure every one gets it. No property tax money from the budgets of City of Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Millington and Arlington go to fund schools. Meanwhile, Memphians not only pay for schools in their county property tax bill, but they pay for it again with their city taxes. No one else in this county does that – or has ever done that – except Memphians.

Meanwhile, those same small cities use their lower tax rates and their schools as lures to pull people out of Memphis, and Memphians are forced to help make it possible.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

and there's a problem with lower taxes and greater efficencies and better public services and faster response times and cleaner, safer streets and a collaborative mindset between government and the governed in the surrounding cities?

your own 'mayor' encourages the enabled to flee his domain-

diatribes against the result of the 'big city's' actions by blaming the small cities are growing more humourous each year...

packrat said...

anon, you didn't address the point very well; what about the issue of Memphis being required to fund schools while other municipalities aren't required to? I live in germantown, btw, and I believe SC's point is valid. It isn't a diatribe. The city of Memphis should, as policy, get out of the business of providing those things that are properly and constitutionally the responsibility of the county.

Tom Guleff said...

Here's the money line:

"Memphis .... is losing middle-income families faster and leaving a polarized city to pay for the increasing costs of the vortex of social problems that stem from our high poverty rate."

What are the steps to reverse this ?!?! (rhetorical)

toltecs said...

"The state law that forbids local government from reducing its previous year’s school funding may sound on the surface like a commitment to kids, but in the end, it’s a prescription that erodes the kind of self-determination that every government deserves. After all, the law would require government to keep the same level of funding even if enrollment collapsed."

I believe you are wrong here. I thought the only way we could reduce funding was if enrollment declined. Even then, the funding could only be reduced proportionally to the reduction in enrollment.

Smart City Consulting said...

toltecs:

We've been told by state officials that the current law does not allow for decreasing the funding regardless of enrollment decreases. We'd appreciate your sending information that shows it to be otherwise.

Thanks.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous:

You missed the point. We're not saying anything close to what you are saying: that we are blaming Memphis' problems on the towns. What we're saying is that Memphians are funding services that are used by the towns without any tax support and that's not fair.

Zippy the giver said...

"It’s a vicious cycle. The high rate of poverty begets a high drop-out rate which begets a high level of people out of the job market which begets the high rate of crime which begets the high abandonment of the city which begets higher tax rates which begets higher risk to the entire region."
I guess it's finally obvious.
I guess I can shut up now.

Hey Tom Guleff, there are steps to reverse it, they will have to be put into a core curriculum in public schools. I've said that before, but, until it becomes exceedingly obvious, no one will touch it with a ten foot pole.

SCM, I believe that the state was talking about the city's share can not be reduced, the states share is reduced in the manner or the previous post.

Anonymous said...

Tom Guleff,

Why rhetorical. This is the question we need to be seeking answers to.

victor said...

Its really nice, I agree to tally with your article,
thanks


___________________
victor
The only Satellite Television Delivers the Best Value in Entertainment