What Memphis elections can and cannot change.
A safer, smarter, more prosperous, and more efficient Memphis. Those were the standard promises in the candidate forums I watched and attended before the October 4th election for mayor and City Council.
The winners will take office in January. So what can they really do, and what was so much hot air? A little recent history suggests some answers.
Crime: Mayor Willie Herenton said no city's crime problem can be solved, and of course he is right. The violent-crime rate fluctuates as much as the annual rainfall and is about as unpredictable. In Memphis and Shelby County, there were 7,247 gun crimes in 2006, 5,780 in 2004, and 6,463 in 2001. What politicians can do is spend money to hire and train police officers and deploy them wisely. Police and fire services accounted for 60 percent of the city budget in 1991-1992 and 59 percent in 2007-2008. Herenton waited 15 years to propose adding 600 more police officers. Bottom Line: Decreasing violent crime by 10 percent is a realistic goal. Making Memphis absolutely "safe" is not.
Lower taxes. Tennessee is a low-tax state – one of the five lowest in the country by some surveys – because there is no state income tax. Memphis, however, has the highest property tax rate in Tennessee: $7.27 per $100 of valuation compared to $4.69 in Nashville. Bottom Line: As some Memphis City Council candidates noted, Nashvillians approved a charter amendment in 2006 that requires voter approval of future property tax hikes. Expect to hear talk of a similar proposal in Memphis in 2008 from a City Council with a majority of new members.
White elephants. The Pyramid is 16 years old and, to hear political candidates talk, you would wonder why other politicians ever agreed to build it in the first place. The remaining city and county debt on it, however, is a surprisingly small $11 million, plus $2.4 million in interest. If Bass Pro Shops doesn't move into it, elected officials will have to consider alternatives, including tearing The Pyramid down. The Mid-South Fairgrounds is eligible for state Tourism Development Zone funds, thanks to legislation passed in 2007. But without private development in the mix, there are no taxes to rebate. Bottom Line: Fresh faces on the council and possibly in the mayor's office means a "fresh look" at these two irresistible hot-button topics.
Schools. Although they are invariably asked about them and often criticize them, City Council members have little to do with public schools except for approving their budget. School board members set the budget, make policy, and pick the superintendent. As mayor for 16 years, Herenton has tried to exert more control over the schools by suggesting that the school board be abolished (that flopped), installing his finance director at the school board (he returned to City Hall), and suggesting that the city and county systems be consolidated (that also flopped). Bottom Line: A new superintendent will take over in 2008. That person, not the mayor or council members, is the key player.
Jobs. Another hot issue that the mayor and council can do little about. The only jobs they control are the ones in city government. When Herenton took office in 1992, there were 5,707 full-time city employees; in 2007 there were 6,806. The most important jobs that elected officials can influence are their own. The indictments of two City Council members in 2005, along with Operation Tennessee Waltz, gave Memphis its worst publicity since the King assassination in 1968. Bottom Line: Business, not government, can attract a smarter, more skilled work force. But a smart, law-abiding, and skilled City Council would help send a positive message.