Some More Thoughts on the City Council

Memphis City Council via their Facebook page
So I’m pretty sure there are some City Council members that think I was excessively hard on them in my last post. Maybe I was, maybe I wasn’t. I said what I meant and I meant what I said, that’s the best anyone can do.

I am, and have been frustrated that this council has really done little to address quality of life issues for our most needy people. It seems that closing community centers and cutting staff is the first thing that comes to mind with this Council when the budget is tight. I understand that payroll is the single largest expense the City has and considering the population contraction, decades of unbridled expansion, and neglect of neighborhoods in the City core, some services may need to be curtailed.

That said, those problems are the direct result of a lack of leadership and direction from City Hall that started long before Herenton and has continued, for the most part. While I understand that 9 members are in their first terms and probably feel these problems started before they came on the scene, I think its clear we’re still caught in the same mindset that got us into this mess.

With the 2010 Census came confirmation that Memphis has lost a fair amount of population density. This wasn’t a surprise, you can drive through just about any neighborhood and figure that out. Despite the lack of density, the size of Memphis hasn’t gotten any smaller. We’re still the same number of square miles we were last year. Little has been done to motivate people to be a part of the in-fill necessary to reverse this trend, and ensure we’re getting a maximum bang for the buck on our infrastructure investments. I understand it took us a long time to get in this hole and it will take a long time to get out of it,

According to the 2010 Census there are over 41,500 unoccupied housing units in Memphis alone out of 292,000 units. Just under 52% of those units are owner occupied. This trails the national average by about 15%, which is nearly the same as the vacancy rate.

I understand that by and large these vacant residences are getting their property taxes paid. I understand Property Tax makes up about 41% of city revenue, so filling them doesn’t bring in instant money. But those new people will have to buy stuff, which will help the second biggest tax collection area, sales tax, which makes up about 15% of revenue. 41,500 new households with an average of 2.6 people will have a lot of crap to buy every year.

But I’m not sure if any Council members have driven through some of the neighborhoods with lots of homes for sale. Some of them are nice middle class areas that most folks would be proud to call home, others are once nice areas that have been allowed to deteriorate into hit or miss neighborhoods populated by unkempt rental property that ultimately detracts from the value of the owner occupied homes in the neighborhood.

I drive past many of these on my way to school each morning and I wonder why every fifth house or so is boarded up or has the entirety of someone’s belongings on the curb like the house was bulimic and just couldn’t hold it in any more. The neighborhood I speak of looks like the one I grew up in in North Little Rock, a once proud working class neighborhood near the tracks that got bought up by slumlords who care more about the rent check than the property or the people living in the property.

On the major arteries surrounding this neighborhood there are boarded up buildings and abandoned foundation pads of businesses long lost. Sometimes I see people congregating in these areas, or someone hocking T-shirts or shoes, but most of the time they just sit there, rubble of a retail center, or factory, or warehouse long lost in the decay of the inner city.

How are we going to create this mythical in-fill while this persists? Why do we allow property owners the luxury of leaving these forgotten lots unattended? What penalty do we impose for leaving these scars on our city? Most importantly, why don’t we reclaim this land, and work to fill these gaps with something that would contribute to the neighborhood and ultimately, the city.

I can’t decide if we don’t do this because it’s just too big or if we’re scared of the blowback from folks that own the land.

Instead of addressing the disease we strike out at the symptoms of our problems. Instead of working to build new revenue we focus on cutting expenses, which ultimately penalizes people who who top out at about $16/hr ($33k/yr) because they cost too much to pick up our trash. We plan to contract further by cutting Fire Department staff and equipment. We call this “right sizing” but really its a reaction to a long-term lack of vision that penalizes the very people whose work keeps the city going.

Through all of this the media gives lip service to the token solutions that are put forward in one breath and then trains their eye on some trivial crap that looks good, but is less than .00001% of the total City budget, as if cutting that would solve anything.

And I admit that I’m as guilty as anyone of getting swept up in the tide of this insignificant crap more often than I wish I would.

So while I wish there was some better vision out there, I know that any land reclamation or redevelopment will take a long time to pay off.

In the mean time, the City Government will have to adjust service levels to the population of the city. This means that all 17 City divisions will have to become lean, mean, and highly efficient. This means that, like all of us, some of those workers will have to do more, better and faster. It doesn’t mean these reforms have to turn into an attack on unions a la Councilman Kemp Conrad’s sanitation solution. It means that there has to be cooperation between management and the workers to deliver exceptional service. There has to be accountability. Processes have to be streamlined, transparency has to become more than just lip service, and some positions will have to be eliminated, hopefully through regular attrition rather than furloughs and layoffs that will ultimately increase our already high unemployment rate.

With all that said, it also means that there will have to be some kind of tax increase, and if that’s all people can think about then they’re too selfish to see the real pain people of far lesser means feel in this city every day, not just twice a year when City and County property taxes are taken out of their escrow accounts.

With all that said, I’m happy to pay a little more on my property taxes if I have a guarantee that the money will be spent in such a way that makes government more transparent and efficient. That should always be the arrangement with any government entity. You may think me a fool for saying this, but I have faith in this city and the belief that we all have a responsibility, beyond just paying taxes and expecting services. We have a responsibility to pay attention to what’s going on, beyond what the media feels like reporting. We have a responsibility to understand the process and crawl up someone’s ass when we feel like they’re doing the wrong thing. Through all of that, we have a responsibility to give the city a chance to change and become agents for that change.

Until that happens, nothing will happen.

Maybe one day the City Council, as a body, will decide to take up that mantle and lead with it…but I’m not holding my breath.

2 Replies to “Some More Thoughts on the City Council”

  1. Steve –

    You are dead on – lack of vision on the part of the council is correct. But, doesn’t that extend to the mayor and the administration, past and present? The place is in a death spiral – why don’t the policy makers see that and act in the best interests of the residents?

    Ron Williams

    1. Ron,

      It absolutely applies to all levels of government. I would say, however, that at least Mayor Wharton has taken some key first steps in making the City divisions more accountable and showing some vision for the city. The investigation of General Services was a good start. Hopefully the lessons learned from that will be applied to other divisions to enforce a kind of transparency and accountability that the Mayor said early on would the be hallmark of his administration.

      We shall see.

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