Sunday, April 10, 2005

Editorial: No sacred cows in city budget

Commercial Appeal

Around most households, people try to figure out how they'll pay for groceries and utility bills before they start thinking about adding a new wing to the kitchen.

Memphis city government should be run the same way.

With that principle in mind, the city's leaders might want to take another look at some of the "big ticket" projects they've been planning to do over the next five years or so.

Mayor Willie Herenton is scheduled to present his annual budget proposal to the City Council April 19.

Keith McGee, Herenton's chief administrative officer, said he didn't want to discuss specific cost-saving steps until the proposed budget has been finalized.

For months, though, the mayor has suggested the options for balancing next year's budget could include a hefty property tax increase, reductions to city school funding, service cutbacks or some combination of all three.

Council members have a few thoughts of their own about how to save money, including Carol Chumney's suggestion to delay some major construction projects and redirect that money to cover operating expenses.

Of course, neither that idea nor any other will likely be the whole solution to the city's budget problems.

There will undoubtedly be a need to examine whether all city departments are operating as efficiently as they possibly can.

There will be a need to determine whether the city's fees and fines should to be increased to bring in more revenue.

And there will be a need to evaluate whether the city should be giving grants to nonprofit organizations or providing college tuition reimbursement to its employees.

However, there are a lot of big projects looming on the horizon that could cost -- or save -- the city millions.

One example is the Beale Street Landing, a project that includes improvements to the Wolf River harbor entrance and a riverboat docking facility at the end of Beale.

The project's cost would be $27.5 million, of which the city would pay approximately $17.5 million, with the balance coming from state and federal sources.

Another example is the Memphis Area Transit Authority's light rail project. Including money set aside in this year's budget, the city is planning to spend $283.8 million on light rail through the 2008-09 fiscal year. Even with federal and state grants, the city's share would be about $70 million.

At this point, no one here is arguing against spending money to improve the riverfront or ease the traffic flow on local streets. Both of those examples could be good projects, provided money is available to do them. But in the city's current financial situation, they might represent that new kitchen wing or sun room in our household analogy.

It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to cut funding for schools -- or for that matter, delay more vital construction projects like new roads, police precincts or fire stations -- without at least discussing whether the glitzier projects could wait until the city has a bit more cash at its disposal.

Regardless of the city's short-term problems, it's wise to make some investments for the future. In their budget deliberations, council members might conclude either or both of those projects qualify as good investments.

Yet if money is as tight Herenton and his staff say, there shouldn't be any projects left out of the budget discussions this year.

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