Mayor talks poverty, pensions, potholes, public safety in State - Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Mayor talks poverty, pensions, potholes, public safety in State of the City

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Mayor Wharton focused on what he called the "four Ps", which are pensions, poverty, public safety, and potholes. Mayor Wharton focused on what he called the "four Ps", which are pensions, poverty, public safety, and potholes.
MEMPHIS, TN -

(WMC-TV) – Memphis Mayor A C Wharton spoke about the challenges facing the city and his goals for the future in his annual State of the City address Wednesday morning. He focused on what he called the "four Ps", which are pensions, poverty, public safety, and potholes.

The projects and strategies proposed during the State of the City Address are all being discussed as ways to avoid asking for a tax increase to deal with the nearly $100 million budget gap.

"We've gone through some rough times, it's what I call a perfect storm, but I'm pleased to report that our government is recovering and getting stronger every day," said Mayor A C Wharton. "We have satisfied all the prerequisites from the comptroller's office and I'm proud to report that by the end of this fiscal year, our reserves will be right at the level they should be."

Quality of life issues

Wharton started out his speech by saying, "quality of life does matter."

"There's always a need for us to think of the future, but we have to guard against becoming so tomorrow-minded, that we are no good for the immediacy of today," he said. "The person who is having a rough time today getting to work, has little time to think about what might happen 10, 15, and 20 years from today. The immediacy of today has to be given great weight also."

Before listing a few projects that have been completed to help Memphis residents be more comfortable in their communities, Wharton said, "Quality of life issues are the ones that are burning in the hearts and minds of our citizens every day."

Wharton talked about the replacement and upgrades made to the Watkins Bridge, providing a wider sidewalk to make pedestrians more comfortable. He also mentioned the completion of the "safe routes to school" project on Dellwood Avenue, which will make it safer for students crossing the street at Frayser Elementary, Middle, and High Schools. Sidewalks and crosswalks around Rozelle Elementary School will get upgrades. And finally, a sidewalk will be built near Alcy, Dunbar, and Hanley Elementary Schools, thanks to a grant awarded to the city.

"We have been installing on average 1,000 curb ramps each year to make it easier for our wheelchair-bound citizens to get around the city while also making Memphis safer, and more pedestrian and cyclist friendly."

Redevelopment and restoration

Mayor Wharton said that since 2010, Broad Avenue has gained more than 19 new businesses and more than 30 properties have been renovated, making it one of the most viable areas in the city.

"Keep in mind, just a few years ago, that area was written off as dead, it was just gone," said Wharton. "Through our neighborhood economic vitality project, we have shown how moderate investments, applied in very focused ways can generate huge returns on investment."

He continued, "The MEMFix and the MEMShop programs, which are funded by the Bloomberg philanthropies, have allowed us to support entrepreneurs and dramatically increase commercial vacancy rates in the corridors where they are deployed."

The city will soon unveil a complete plan for redevelopment of Southbrook Mall in Whitehaven. It will also soon break ground on the Raleigh Springs Mall project.

"In addition to these improvements in places across the city, we cannot ignore projects in downtown and midtown, two of our most visited neighborhoods and how these projects will resonate for years to come," said Wharton before mentioning the economic development projects underway in the downtown area like the Pyramid, the Main Street to Main Street project, Beale Street's new management, and Beale Street Landing, which is slated to open this year.

Wharton also said the city is investing in critical capital projects in the medical district to the tune of $1.5 billion.

Potholes and Memphis streets

Public Works Director Dwan Gillom is changing the business model in a way that will reassign personnel and triple the city's capacity to check and respond to potholes. All public works personnel will be expected to report potholes of code violations as they travel Memphis streets.

"Additionally, with the $3.5 million increase in funding for the city street repaving program, public works is set to increase the number of lane miles repaved this fiscal year by 45 percent as compared to 2013," said Mayor Wharton.

Pension programs

According to Mayor Wharton, the city's pension fund lost nearly $500 million in value when the recession hit. That, in addition to a property tax reappraisal and a court ruling in regards to the school system, is what Wharton called "the perfect storm" to cause pension problems.

"We must go to a model in which the City of Memphis and its taxpayers are not the ultimate guarantors of what the pension plan should be regardless of the market, that's what has gotten us to where we are," said Wharton. "We make the contributions, an employee contribution and a city contribution, and when that is not enough to meet our required payment, we have no choice but to go to the general fund, that money comes from the taxpayers and that is the dilemma we must work together to resolve."

The city has in mind a defined contribution plan that will be debated by the city council.

"It is clear that we must make changes and working together we will make those changes," said the mayor. "It is a bit difficult to go to our residents and say we want to raise your taxes to take care of our pension plan when I look them right in their face knowing full well they do not have a pension plan. That is a course that we do not wish to take."

Public safety

Mayor Wharton said he is pleased to report that crime is down in Memphis.

"There are 20,000 fewer victims when comparing the numbers to 2006," he said before asking for a round of applause for the Memphis Police Department.

But even though criminal homicides, robberies, burglaries, and aggravated assaults are also down, the mayor said they are still not satisfied.

He said they are not looking to just make cuts, but to instead become more efficient.

"By looking at the certain equipment, cameras, and GPS systems, we feel that we can cut costs tremendously," he said.

Mayor Wharton cited several public safety and community outreach programs as the reasons why youth gun violence is down by 13 percent from 2012.

"We know we cannot arrest and jail our way out of our current crime challenges and we will continue to offer a broad array of services designed to focus on prevention as opposed to arrests and convictions," said Wharton.

He added, "From 2009 to 2012, when non-public safety divisions were being reduced by $28 million in our effort to fund the schools, the budgets for the police and fire departments increased by $9.5 million, this is in addition to the fact that public safety accounts for 75 percent of all city workers and a comfortable amount of the budget. We are committed to public safety but we are also committed to efficiency.

The mayor said he is willing to have honest discussions when it come to public safety, but he wanted to make sure listeners understand his commitment to keeping people safe.

Poverty

According to Wharton, Memphis has the third highest child poverty rate out of all cities with more than 500,000 people. The poverty rate in the Bluff City is 27 percent. The percentage of working poor is 49 percent.

Wharton said he is looking forward to launching "one of the most innovative programs to reduce poverty of any city in the United States." The program is called Memphis Blueprint for Prosperity, which will cause them to take another look at how they are doing things.

Energy is one of the largest expenditures for those trapped in poverty, he said.

"If we simply reduce the cost of living, we will be able to meet our goal of reducing poverty by 1 percent per year for the next 10 years, taking it from 27 percent to 17 percent," said Wharton. "We are committed to that and we are going to do that."

In conclusion...

Mayor Wharton said once the budget is approved, all of the things he discussed in the State of the City will be put into action.

"We must pull all of this into a plan and we're going to do just that, but the plan has to make sense. It has to be based in realism, based on the budget, as soon as we get through the budget process which will be informed by the various plans you've just heard, you'll be able to see precisely what that vision is," he said.

The mayor wants to see Memphis become a city of choice.

"We must move away from the tail of two cities to a true story of a one Memphis, a one Memphis in which all share in all of the bounty that our great city has to offer," Wharton concluded. "Just as Dr. King died here to bring us together as one city along racial lines, we must work to bring ourselves together as one city along income lines ... We are one Memphis and we will work together against all odds to ensure that opportunity is real in the lives of every citizen."

To read the entire State of the City Address, click here: http://ftpcontent4.worldnow.com/wmctv/memphis-sotc.pdf

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