Written by Tri-State Defender
Forty-eight hours before he stepped to the podium to deliver the annual State of the City address this past Friday before a packed room at the Pink Palace, Mayor AC Wharton Jr. riffed on how running the city has personally affected him.
"You remember that movie 'The Strange Life of Benjamin Bratt?' That's how I feel," Wharton told The New Tri-State Defender. "I've always looked old, but the job is truly energizing, despite the pitfalls," Wharton said with a good-natured laugh.
An upbeat aplomb underlined his presentation two days later. Notably included in the presentation was the sales tax hike rejected by voters this fall, and a game plan for addressing prosperity.
Leading off with the city's fiscal structure, Wharton acknowledged that proponents did "a terrible job" of advocating for the sales tax hike rejected by voters in November.
"There are some rough times ahead for the city, however, we do see some light at the end of the tunnel, especially if we can get citizen approval for the sales tax," he said. "That would provide for a property tax reduction. Add that to the termination of our obligation to the school system, and what appears to be an easing of the recession, we are cautiously optimistic"
Wharton e listed a few line-item specifics backing his view.
"Our bond rating remains sound at AA, there's over 60 million dollars in our rainy day fund and we are reigning in the cost of government."
The speech listed 214 employees cut from the city's payroll as an example of Wharton's push for leaner, more efficient government.
As an example of economy of scale models his administration is pursuing, Wharton pointed to a new line of credit card-ready parking meters that will be enforceable 24 hours a day (as opposed to the sundown and Sunday cutoff for writing parking tickets) and a 311 call center.
Moving forward with his long term plan to instill a sound pre-K program brought him back to the proposed sales tax increase.
"The first obstacle, and the general resistance of voters to any kind of tax increase is certainly understandable, and it is a substantial hurdle that we have to overcome, but it's for a good cause," Wharton said.
"It's a must if we are going to better this city."
Recently embattled Memphis Police Director Tony Armstrong sat in the front row for the speech as Wharton stated his complete support for how Armstrong was running the department.
"Tony has my full support, absolutely. The key emphasis on crime will be a very comprehensive array of innovations on the local level," said Wharton.
Later that evening, the need for them to remain closely in sync was tragically underlined by a shooting at Westwood Community Center just as they were about to convene a press conference introducing a new platform in the mayor's anti youth violence project.
But it was what Wharton said at the end of the speech that prompted a standing ovation. Referring to the renovations of the Cleaborne and Foote Homes area, Wharton emphatically seared his critics who see him as strictly a silk-hankercheif executive. Noting that the city's poverty rate remains a constant despite any modern growth for the city, Wharton emphasized that balance has to be the priority.
"Having almost a full 25 percent of our population shackled by poverty is untenable and unacceptable. For too many people all of this is just an illusion to them, a nightmare. This is why we will unveil and implement our Blueprint For Prosperity," said Wharton.
"Notice that we didn't say our fight against poverty. People start looking for excuses when you say you're going to fight poverty. They start looking for passages in the Bible where it says the poor will always exist.
"As a former Legal Services attorney and a public defender, I can tell you that folks don't want you coming to them saying, 'I'm going to pull you out of poverty," said Wharton. "They want you to come saying I got a job for you, a training program so you can pull yourself out of poverty."
Referring to the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation, the March on Washington and the recent second inauguration, Wharton said, "Our work still continues. We will not rest until we better educate all of our children during their earliest years and we will not rest until the sound of gunfire is no longer the accepted soundtrack of too many of our neighborhoods.
"As Memphians, we have a proven history of overcoming adversity from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King to the yellow fever epidemic. We are up to the challenge," said Wharton.
"We know we are a city that can. We always say that those who can do, we say those who care do more. We are a city that can, we are a city that cares and as a city we will do more."