More With Less

As city leaders ponder ways to improve public services, MATA seems stuck in neutral.

City of Memphis budget deliberations have become déjà vu all over again. 

Because of declining revenues and increasing public safety costs, the budgetary tug-of-war more and more becomes an exercise in accounting rather than a discussion about what Memphis should be and what it takes to get there. Budget deliberations are now politics at its simplest: It’s all about who can put together seven votes for a particular property-tax rate. Missing is any serious debate about what kind of Memphis each tax rate will create. 

Budgets are made even more difficult because fire and police services are routinely excluded, although their spending is about $10 million more than all the money collected from property and sales taxes. While public safety budgets increased 5 percent over two years, the budgets for all other city services dropped by 7 percent. As a result, providing regular maintenance to parks, libraries, and public facilities — much less responding to a crisis — becomes more and more about robbing Peter to pay Paul.

It’s no wonder that city officials, pressured by the public to keep taxes low while at the same time calling for better services, have little incentive to use budget hearings to discuss a vision for Memphis. By necessity, the hearings tend toward crisis management and about doing just enough to keep from eliminating city services but without investing enough for them to excel. 

It’s a truism that successful cities do many things right at the same time, but generally the public just want the basics right. That’s why parks (ranked 31st out of 40 cities with erratic maintenance); the declining fortunes of city libraries (the Cossitt Branch is a high-visibility downtown embarrassment); and city facilities like community centers (which are often located in the wrong places because of population movement) contribute to skepticism when the City of Memphis announces ambitious economic development and quality-of-life projects.

That’s especially true of advocates for better public transit, whose calls for more funding and improved services for the Memphis Area Transit Authority usually fall on deaf ears. The volume, however, is likely to increase with the release of MATA’s Short-Range Transit Plan with its recommendations to improve the current system and attract more riders.

Caught in a budgetary squeeze play in which it’s unable to identify its own unique funding source and with cuts in federal, state, and local government funds, MATA is treated as a low priority for city government and limps by with poor quality service. With a cut in MATA’s budget of $1 million for the upcoming fiscal year, it is probable that the short-range plan will raise expectations when MATA has even less money to implement it.

Bethany Whitaker, Nelson/Nygaard project manager for the transit plan, says the short-range plan is “cost neutral, but with the budget cut, we have less than when we started. We are confident in the recommendations. They can make things better, inspire people, and encourage people to take them on.”

Whitaker says that over the years, MATA had responded to incremental challenges and addressed minor issues, but it had failed to look at the bigger picture. The plan includes changes in the way services and routes are organized, new standards and guidelines, priority service to large employment sites, and monitoring for the board and staff to measure progress. 

“We stepped back,” she says, “and took a systematic approach to where things are working and where there are opportunities. MATA has worked hard but not made the hard choices. The plan has hard choices that can make things clearer, simpler, and straightforward. Some people won’t be happy, but it’s better overall. There are a few things that make Memphis challenging — pockets of low-income housing not well-connected, where it’s expensive for MATA to run a bus but where one is needed.

“The recommendations are about being more entrepreneurial,” she continues, “because the federal money is not going up, state money is not going up, but meanwhile, expectations are rising and MATA faces increased costs most every year.”

Faced with those higher expectations and armed with a new plan for better service, it is expected that Mayor A C Wharton will launch a national search for a new MATA president/general manager following Will Hudson’s imminent retirement. The primary challenge for that person is to transform MATA into a serious big-city transit system, but most of all, to be someone who, like most city government managers, can do more with less. 

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