It is rare that a Democrat politician comes to visit the Midtown Republican Club meeting. Most do not want to waste time with a group that doesn’t agree with their liberal and intransigent policies.
Jim Strickland, however, is an exception. Last night he talked to our club for the second time. Between our members and the City Council member we had much in agreement.
Strickland began his presentation by dividing it into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
“Crime has gone down 27%,” he began. “We need to double it before we feel it, though. I’m a big fan of Blue Crush. It’s something we based on (former New York Mayor Rudy) Giuliani’s plan. On school reform, for the first time students will be evaluated by student performance. Before, it was based on teacher degrees and how long they’ve been there.”
He went on to highlight the Memphis Zoo (“the best in the nation”), Brooks Museum and the Memphis Botanic Garden. The Sears Crosstown Project “is creating more than 700 new jobs. Overton Park has been turned over to private management. Bass Pro will happen and all the sales taxes will go back to Memphis,” Strickland said.
He also likes the increase of food trucks in Memphis, something he worked to develop. “Look for the health scorecard on them and you will know they are safe,” Strickland said. Of Auto Zone Park, “I was skeptical of it. After looking over the plan I am convinced that the revenue generated will pay for it.”
Then Strickland turned to the Ugly.
“Population loss is the No. 1 problem in Memphis. Detroit didn’t fail because of the economy; it went from 1.8 million to 700,000 residents. We have lost population here,” he said. “From 2000-2010 we lost 80,000. From 1980 to 2010 we annexed 110,000. Our population didn’t really grow. We coerced them by annexing them. They voted with their tail lights. But annexation days are gone,” he said, citing Tennessee laws that now insist a suburb vote on it. “If we lose more population we are in trouble.
“The top two reasons people leave are crime and schools,” he continued. Strickland showed charts that illustrate the crime part. “In July 2011 the mayor stopped Blue Crush and until December 2012 that meant that there were no extra police in high crime areas. (The graph showed an increase in crimes.) I think Blue Crush worked. Since 2013 when Wharton reinstated Blue Crush, crime has gone down.
“The school situation depresses me. Last year we tested reading levels of third graders. Only 28% read at that level. But we (the Council) don’t have anything to do with schools anymore,” he noted.
Another reason, Strickland believes, for Memphians leaving is the high property tax here. “It’s 72% higher than Nashville. My own parents, six months after I got elected, moved from Raleigh to Lakeland. It cut their property tax in half. We are paving the road out of Memphis with this and the city needs to hear it. I’m one of the few who doesn’t look to property tax hikes as a solution to our economic problems. I think we should cut it. They won’t do it unless you contact them and let them know how you feel.”
Strickland detailed that he had come up with a balanced budget that used the current 3.11 property tax rate. However, the Council raised it to 3.4. “All our revenue for our $620 million budget comes from property tax (commercial and real estate) and sales tax. We cannot do anything about a payroll tax on people working here who do not live here. It’s against the state constitution,” he noted, ruling out that possibility.
“Mayor Wharton tried to address the financial problems by restructuring our debt. But it will cost us $23 million more in debt payments than before. In 2020 it’s $40 million more. We’re paying a lot more because of this restructuring.
“Our pension systems is grossly understated and not sustainable,” Strickland said. “Justin Wilson (State comptroller of the treasury) is forcing us to look at it. It’s been a blessing,” he said.
Strickland did not forget to address the Ugly. He humorously put up a picture of himself with some sort of turtle at the Zoo. “I asked them for the ugliest animal and they showed me this one,” he joked.
The Council member stayed for questions.
On the Sears Crosstown expense, Strickland said about the city money contributed that at least $2 million of the $15 would have gone for sewers anyhow. He called the streetlight fee that has now been attached to our MLGW bills “a farce” he did not agree with. As for smart meters, he said he’s had one in his home for three years and does not believe they will catch fire or cause illness. When asked if it saved him money he admitted “no,” that he had not really checked it. Strickland insisted he’s for an opt out for residents and does not approve the time of use fees. Hmm.
It was a great opportunity to ask our representative questions about city government. He is our closest tie to it. Unlike most Democrats Strickland does make the economy and budget a priority and it is largely in line with Republican thinking.
And he is accessible.