“People ask me: Am I a Republican or a Democrat? I reply, I am awake.”
That was Mike Williams, mayoral candidate, speaking at the Midtown Republican Club monthly meeting last night at Cafe Eclectic.
The Memphis Police Association President stood confident, strong and ramrod straight, reflecting his 21 years in the military. “I had a great career in the army,” he explained, “working in military intelligence, special forces and with the 101st airborne division. I’m a native Memphian, graduate of Manassas High and attended the University of Kentucky. After the army I had offers from Colorado and San Antonio, but came home and joined the police. Memphis is the best city in the world, but I was a little disappointed when I came back.”
What got him back and continues to propel him is his interest in helping citizens. “I consider myself a public servant. I had no intention of getting into politics, but found myself continually getting involved,” he said. “I go from suits to boots. I like to talk to citizens and find out what they think. Citizens are more likely to help and initiate changes if you talk to them.”
As MPA chief, one of the things he’s been involved in is the pension/debt issue.
“They keep saying we’re broke. We’re not. We no longer owe $57 million to the schools. We’ve closed our inspection stations. We’ve eliminated 400 policemen and saved $20 million and we’ve drawn down our firemen, which was $10 million. We’ve closed down youth programs and libraries. There is money.”
Williams goes on to say that “Our pension fund has $2.2 billion in it. The city only pays 5% – less than Social Security (which we don’t get). If they had been putting in as they should have we wouldn’t have had the problem.” Williams says it went down following the 2008 recession, but it has since rebounded. The state of Tennessee has also enacted further rules to protect it. “It’s one of the strongest pension systems in the U.S.,” he added.
The cuts for police have been particularly bad, he says. “We couldn’t find 90 qualified applicants out of 5,000 for the police academy because we don’t attract them anymore without good benefits packages. Nor could we find 50. We only got 37. The others couldn’t pass the tests and background checks. Some of the officers we lost were our best ones. San Antonio and Florida came and looked and took them. It’s bad because we have a serious crime problem here.”
What we’re doing now, Williams says, is “running up our debt services. My thing is let’s continue economic development, but let’s pay down our debt services.”
As one example of ways to save money, Williams discussed the Coliseum project. “I worked for Memphis in May this weekend. It’s amazing how many people come from Collierville, Germantown, Cordova – even internationally – to attend. Why not put a musical draw in the Coliseum? It goes back to giving citizens a voice again. They(city leaders) want $230 million for this project and an additional $40 million for Tiger Lane. I have an issue with private stuff being put on public property.”
Williams explains that “we already have 5 or 6 baseball/soccer fields and some of them are not being utilized. It (the Coliseum) is not in competition with Fed Ex forum. We have a lot of people saying save it. I think we also need to reevaluate how we do PILOTs (Payment In Lieu Of Taxes). I would reevaluate it, not end it.”
He said that already Electrolux is thinking about leaving. “They’re not getting the dividends they expected. They are thinking of hiring temporary services. If you (Memphis) doesn’t live up, then they give up and go,” he said.
Williams also took aim at TIFs (Tax Increment Financing). “Only one Tif worked,” he said. “That was the Pyramid and it was unique because of its connection near MLGW.”
As an example of what can happen with these programs and projects and what not to do, Williams cited Detroit. “Detroit failed and (former mayor) Kwame Kilpatrick is in jail because he ran up all these contracts. Same thing with Ray Nagin (New Orleans mayor). I am not against economic development, but you have to be smart with it.”
Tomorrow: Williams talks about smart meters, gangs and our future.