The numbers man: Memphis Council’s Ford guides city budget review – The Commercial Appeal
Mayor Jim Strickland offers his 2017-18 budget proposal to members of the Memphis City Council, at City Hall.
Mark Weber/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford Jr. doesn’t get a lot of sleep these days.
Ford is currently leading the council’s annual review of the mayor’s proposed budget, his tenth budget since joining the council in 2008 and his second as budget chairman. But he’s also going on 13 years as an algebra teacher at Central High School, invests in and manages real estate, and runs an online computer retail business with one of his three brothers.
On top of those jobs, he’s also entered an online program May 1 to earn his funeral license to eventually take over father Edmund Ford Sr.’s E.H. Ford Mortuary. Ford said he’s “seen the business” and learned from his father’s work ethic since he was 2.
“Sleep? What is that?” Ford Jr. quips.
Ford was skimping on sleep for the council going back to his college years at Vanderbilt. He approached his father, then a council member, about running for office and was told he needed to “earn it.” So for the next three years, he woke before sunrise to make the three-hour drive from Nashville to Memphis for the 8:30 a.m. start of council committees.
“‘The hard is what makes it great,'” Ford said, quoting Tom Hanks’ character in the 1992 movie A League of Their Own. “This is not an easy job at all. But I believe it’s supposed to be hard — because if it wasn’t hard, everyone would be a councilman. It’s the hard that makes this job great.”
In his first election in 2007, he lost 30 pounds, outlasted 11 other candidates and won a runoff by 195 votes. Since then, he’s become known for his passion and head for numbers around City Hall. He helped resolve many of the council members concerns last year in committee, clearing the way for the council to approve Mayor Jim Strickland’s first budget in a record time of about seven minutes.
But making the numbers add up this year could be a challenge. The council has proposed 1 percent pay increases for all city employees, not counting police officers, who were already slated for a 1-2 percent raise, depending on tenure.
Ford said he wants to see the city spend its money this year on raises, but also public safety, youth and community programs.
“When the mayor presented this budget and we noticed only police were receiving raises, it brought to my attention the same thing that I said last year when I proposed raises for non-public safety officials,” Ford said. “I believe that just because you don’t wear a badge does not mean your work is not necessary in city government.”
But Strickland’s proposed operating budget doesn’t have much wiggle room. Without raising taxes, the budget already includes about $13 million more in spending in the fiscal year starting July 1 than in the current fiscal year, mostly on the three Ps: police, paving and pensions. The city has a goal of employing 2,300 officers by 2020 compared to 1,943 in early May. But the city really needs 2,500 officers, and hiring 500 officers would cost $35 million, Police Director Michael Rallings said this month.
At the same time, the city is losing about $2 million as the state phases out the Hall income tax and President Donald Trump has proposed eliminating several federal programs that give the city millions of dollars per year and fund all 80 staff members of the Housing and Community Development Division.
In the background looms the state mandate that the city fully cover its annual actuarially required contribution to its pension fund by 2020. The contribution, which is the investment required to keep the city’s pension fund healthy, changes yearly but can range from around $55 million to around $85 million. The city had shorted the pension contribution for years before the recession skyrocketed the pension system’s unfunded liability, so meeting that obligation remains a daunting task.
Rather than raising taxes, the council voted in 2014 to cut retiree subsidies and change the city’s pension system, pushing employees out of the city’s system and reducing its unfunded pension liability.
Ford said 2014 budget season was the toughest he’d seen in his time on the council, with council members debating until after 1 a.m. That year was even more difficult than when council members voted to end contributions to the school system in 2009, he said.
The consequences of that vote was an exodus of police officers and firefighters from the city as they realized their retiree benefits had been substantially reduced. Officers and firefighters also realized they wouldn’t receive health insurance subsidies before age 65, even though they typically retire earlier than other employees because of the job requirements and strains.
But Ford said his constituents weren’t in favor of the alternative — raising taxes by an average of about $400. Those decisions are what makes the job so hard, he added.
“Being the budget chair is something I take very serious because it is work,” he said. “… You actually have to look at the numbers very deeply.”