Memphis city government has a chronic case of what political pundits call the "John Kerry" syndrome — when the truth falls victim to an impenetrable conventional wisdom so ingrained in the public psyche that anecdotes have more power than the facts. Here it's not talk about Purple Hearts, but red ink in City Hall.
It's seen in the mantra that Memphis' tax rate is high because City Hall is too inefficient, wastes too much money, and hires too many cronies. Any fact to the contrary gets little traction, much less interest, from the news media and the public.
It also breeds simple answers that defy the depths of the challenges facing city officials. Years ago, a former mayor of Germantown, speaking to Leadership Memphis, said that if the long-time principal of Germantown High School, Ernest Chism, were in charge of Northside High School, the urban students would score the same as suburban students. The class laughed, but even today, suburban mayors and officials continue to suggest that they have the answers to better government for Memphis.
For example, opponents of consolid-ation of Memphis and Shelby County governments contend that city government should get its financial house in order before a vote on a new government is held. And yet, the per capita cost for City of Memphis government is half the cost of Germantown, one-third less than Collierville, and despite public opinion to the contrary, in the past 20 years, property tax increases in Memphis have been few and far between (with smaller percentages than several county towns).
Of course, the dominating presence of city government in the news does not mean that waste and cronyism don't exist in the suburbs. It just means City Hall is where the magnifying glass is focused, but it rarely picks up news that doesn't fit the preexisting narrative — such as massive cuts in employees in the Division of Planning and Development or the $120 million in federal funds that has reinvented public housing here into mixed-use developments.
This doesn't mean that Memphis Mayor A C Wharton isn't right in his recently announced plan to cut the Memphis workforce, increase efficiency, and save money. City Hall insiders say that although the Wharton Administration is confident in the success of their agenda, they have been stunned by the results of eight years of City Hall running on auto pilot under former Mayor Willie W. Herenton.
These days, Mayor Wharton must feel as though he's caught in the perfect storm. The recession has shaken the city's finances to the core, as its major sources of income — property taxes and sales taxes — dry up.
There are high commercial vacancy rates, the epidemic of foreclosures has left 60,000 vacant houses, median household income has been flat since 1990; poverty is climbing, especially among children; five middle class families and three college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds leave Memphis daily; and about $25 million in city taxes is waived in tax freezes to business. To top it off, the Ponzi scheme that is the city annexation policy is collapsing as the expected riches from new taxpayers are unable to fill the increased costs of an urban core that is less dense, much less the costs of services to the newly annexed area.
The convergence of these trends were under way already, but the recession has super-charged them. Developing the city budget in the midst of the current economy is like changing a tire on a speeding car.
In addition to changing contracts like it, Mayor Wharton plans to cut costs by pursuing functional consolidations within city government such as eliminating multiple motor pools, collecting more than $100 million in delinquent City Court fines, and right-sizing facilities. In addition, the Wharton Administration will look at another reason Memphis property taxes are higher than many cities — user fees are among the lowest in the U.S.
As Mayor Wharton understands, there's no job more important for him than building a new confidence in city government. He'll do it by showing results, but he'll also have to educate Memphians that when it comes to their government, nothing is as simple as it appears.