Memphis budget season offers different path to resolution

Leaner than past years but still includes 3% raises for police and firefighters

By Published: May 25, 2019 6:58 PM CT

Jim Strickland is just the second city council member, Wyeth Chandler the other, to be elected mayor in the 51-year history of the mayor-council form of government in Memphis.

That fact has played a role in three consecutive budget seasons at City Hall, where Strickland's budget proposals as mayor passed with little controversy and debate when the full 13-member council voted on them.

His first budget season as mayor, in the spring of 2016, saw the council approve the city’s budget in under two minutes without debate. That set the bar for the next two budget seasons.

From a distance, it can lead to the false perception that Strickland’s budget proposals have whistled through the council’s budget process untouched. The changes by the council have, in fact, been substantial.

But they haven't involved the full council — with less than a month to the new fiscal year — horse-trading in council chambers while watching the clock. Council members poring over line items and scribbling out amendments on legal pads, with the administration keeping a tally of where the budget bottom line stands with each amendment is a familiar June scenario.

Bill Dries: Council sides with police and fire unions in pay raise impasses

That was the nature of how budget seasons ended at City Hall during A C Wharton’s tenure as mayor.

Wharton viewed his budget proposal as an option for the council to consider. If the council made changes, he would then adjust accordingly.

And some council members, including current council chairman Kemp Conrad, were vocal about the need for Wharton to come in with a budget that was more set in stone and less dependent on the council crafting its own version.

Wharton also had the misfortune of being mayor during the worst national economic downturn since the Great Depression.

What Strickland has done is front-load the budget process with a proposal that is firm but has room for council members to make some changes. Those changes are usually made during budget committee sessions before the full council votes on the budget. And the administration usually agrees to them.

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This budget year has been different. And that difference can be found in the one word council members and those in the administration have used to describe it — lean.

City chief operating officer Doug McGowen is on the front lines of the budget deliberations for the administration. He is usually the definitive word on whether the administration will accommodate a budget change by the council or whether there will be more discussion about another way.

“Our business is on the front page of the paper each and every day,” he told council members at the outset of last week’s impasse decisions.

“The work that we do can be thankless. And something as simple as asking for a pay raise is hotly debated,” he said. “That doesn’t happen in the private sector. And that’s because resources are always tight and nobody wants to vote for a tax increase.”

But the city’s budget is hundreds of millions of dollars, an amount that renders several million dollars a relatively small amount to find. On the other hand, a penny on the city property tax rate generates $1,194,555, according to the latest estimates.

Strickland’s philosophy this budget season has been that the city will maintain its level of services in the operating budget and use the annual growth in its revenue to provide pay raises and pay the increase in health insurance premiums for employees.

The pay raises he proposed for the fiscal year that starts July 1 again prioritize public safety, with 3% raises for police, including police dispatchers and firefighters. And taking a page from past budget seasons, Strickland decided to propose a 1% pay raise for all other city employees.

In his first two budgets as mayor, Strickland proposed raises for public safety and no other city employees. The council then amended the budget to include lower pay raises for other city employees.

Then as now, it was up to the council to find the money from other parts of the budget. But when the council proposed taking the money from the executive division – the mayor’s office – one year, Strickland and the council reached an agreement that the administration would find the money elsewhere in the budget.

Bill Dries: City Council budget committee begins operating budget review with police spending

The council approved larger pay raises than Strickland proposed this budget season for public safety and held the line at the 1% pay raises Strickland proposed for the rest of city. Strickland said the council is faced with a choice between a property tax increase in an election year or cuts to core city services in a lean budget to find the estimated extra $5 million for the higher pay raises.

But Strickland didn’t rule out making some suggestions if asked by the council. He has stopped short of saying it’s his way or no way.

“I respect the council’s budgetary authority,” Strickland said the morning after the council decisions. “They have time. They’ve got another month or so to work through that. But the tough part is ahead.”

He listened from home via the council’s webcast of its Tuesday meeting as it ran past 10 p.m. But much of the time spent on the impasse resolutions was for presentations by the unions and the administration making their specific cases.

There was some council debate mixed with axioms from past council budget seasons.

<strong>Berlin Boyd</strong>

Berlin Boyd

“I just hope that my colleagues have brought some cuts or some ways to fund the recommended various impasses that you brought before us. Just based off the numbers that I’ve calculated, you are looking at a five-cent tax increase,” council member Berlin Boyd said. “If you haven’t found the savings, how in the world are you proposing to side with the unions?”

That is a majority, but not a unanimous, opinion on the council over a lot of budget seasons.

But it is usually union leaders who are most vocal in their dissent on the point.

“Quite frankly, no offense meant to my friends in the city, I don’t care what they say,” Memphis Fire Fighters Association president Thomas Malone told the council. “We have the prime distinction of being next to the last in pay (among firefighters in Shelby County).”

Jay Dewitt, the chief negotiator for seven groups of craft employees represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, pushed for a 3% pay raise comparable to the public safety raises proposed by Strickland.

“This is not a number we want. It’s a number we want and need to recruit and retain craft people,” he told the council. “This is not about the money. It is about getting told no time and time again.”

The budget committee is expected to start looking for cuts to line items and get a more specific number for what the pay raises they approved cost at a budget wrap-up session Thursday.

The committee could recommend a set of cuts for the whole amount, come up with enough cuts for smaller pay raises that effectively overrule the impasse procedure decisions it made last week or raise taxes. Raising taxes is highly unlikely in a city election year with a majority of the council members seeking re-election.

The one certainty is that Strickland, who is also seeking re-election and who has said the city’s property tax rate is a major driver of the city’s loss in population over several decades, will not propose a property tax increase of any kind.

The council seems to agree with the general goal. No major  amendments are expected, outside of the public safety pay raises, during the wrap-up.

What has occupied most of the committee's time has been a wide-open competition among nearly 100 community and nonprofit groups for some share of $2.6 million of grants to be allocated by the council.

In the past, the council had a cap on the number of applications. A roiling debate about the grant process in the previous budget season ended with the council reforming the system around the lines of the county commission’s system of a pool of grant money divided among the 13 commissioners evenly.

On the council, that comes to $200,000 of grant money per council member. But the system works much differently than the commission, where the organizations approach individual commissioners seeking a share of their funding. The commissioner then proposes the grants to the full body and the full body votes after vetting the groups for nonprofit status and other safeguards before the funding is given.

Despite the allocation per council members, the groups appear before the council budget committee, which is a committee of the whole, and make their pitch. The committee then makes recommendations.

Budget committee chairman Martavius Jones is among those who favors a single pool of money. Despite a different set-up, Jones says he would rather have the group come before the committee than to individual council members.

“I would expect each council member to make their recommendation for a total amount of $200,000,” Jones said on The Daily Memphian Politics Podcast. “It would be impossible for me or any other council member to meet with everybody who was going to be making a grant request. So instead of just favoring one organization or another, I just said no to everybody and let it be heard before the full council.”

Jones notes that the grant funding is a regular feature on the county commission agenda beyond the budget season.

“They do it throughout the year,” he said.

Once the new fiscal year is underway, the council is expected to take another look at how it awards grants.


Memphis City Council Jim Strickland Doug Mcgowen Berlin Boyd Martavius Jones
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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