A group of people stand outside the Vasco A. Smith Jr. County Administration Building during a Memphis and Shelby County Moral Budget Coalition rally.
Angelica Baker with My Sistah’s House, a grassroots organization serving the Memphis trans community, holds a sign during the Memphis and Shelby County Moral Budget Coalition rally outside of the Vasco A. Smith, Jr. County Administration Building on Friday. Photos by Andrea Morales for MLK50

City and county officials are building budgets for the coming fiscal year at a time when higher property values plus a stable tax rate could translate into an additional $140 million in city and county revenue combined.

That increase, local nonprofits said at a rally downtown Friday, should go to people who are historically skipped when it comes to public investment.

The Memphis and Shelby County Moral Budget Coalition, a new collaboration of non-profit organizations, is calling for the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission to create a moral budget. 

Elected officials have a choice to prioritize spending for vulnerable people, said Cardell Orrin, executive director of Stand for Children, which advocates for public education and is part of the coalition. 

“A budget is a moral document that defines for the community, our values, our priorities and things that we hold dear,” said Orrin in front of the Vasco A. Smith Jr. Administration Building, echoing the words of Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign. “We want to think about ways that our budget could support people, support workers.”

Orrin acknowledged that the coalition’s request comes after budget hearings have begun, but it’s not too late, he said.

“Timing doesn’t matter when the business community says they need tax breaks.”

Along with Stand, coalition members include Decarcerate Memphis, Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope, Memphis Tenants Union, Memphis Music Initiative, My Sistah’s House, BLDG Memphis, Homeless Organizing for Power & Equality, Memphis For All and Whole Child Strategies.

The coalition’s narrative calls for maintaining the city’s and county’s current property tax rate and using the revenue generated for public education, public transportation, affordable housing, support for people experiencing homelessness and other efforts to support workers and young people.

Some funds the coalition would reallocate come from city and county coffers, while the rest are American Rescue Plan Act dollars.

Among the budget details are a combined $30 million for education and $80 million for housing and support for people experiencing homelessness.

The coalition also wants $20 million from the city and $10 million from the county to go to the Memphis Area Transit Authority. (See the entire budget here.)

The coalition isn’t calling for a property tax increase but rather to keep the same rate and use the additional revenues it would generate, based on an increase in property assessments, to fund public services. According to the state comptroller’s office, state law requires that “the amount of total taxes collected for a county remain the same after a reappraisal, even if the combined value of all property in the county rose or fell following the reappraisal.”

Rising property values and a steady tax rate would mean homeowners pay more in property taxes, Orrin acknowledged. But the systemic devaluation of Black property values would mitigate the hike for the people the moral budget would support.

“In most of the neighborhoods that have the greatest need and have seen the least investment over time, property values are not going up more than average,” Orrin said.

He referred to 2018 research from the Brookings Institution that shows homes in majority Black parts of Memphis are valued 22.6% lower than comparable homes in areas where Black people make up a small percentage of homeowners.

Local government’s spending priorities also have to center workers, the coalition asserts. Jackson Beck, a member of Memphis Restaurant Workers United, was laid off from restaurant jobs twice in 2020, an experience he called “sobering.”

Jackson Beck of Memphis Restaurant Workers United at the Memphis and Shelby County Moral Budget Coalition rally on Friday.

“It’s hard to be without a job and wonder if you’re going to make ends meet,” Beck said. “Many people don’t care about people out of work.”

He asked for $10 million and $5 million from the county’s and city’s respective ARP funds to go toward relief for restaurant workers who have lost their jobs, especially as the pandemic prompted restaurants to slash hours and jobs. These cuts set the stage for Memphis’ restaurant workers to band together and demand better conditions and pay from the hospitality industry.

Sabrina Dawson is vice president of programs for The Collective Blueprint, which focuses on economic equity for young adults.  Many current job opportunities for young people are temporary and/or low-paying, she said.
“We can’t talk about poverty without talking about the wages that keep people in poverty,” Dawson said. “When we invest in our young adults, we are literally investing in our workforce.”

The coalition’s proposed budget calls for local government to fund apprenticeships and internships that lead to full-time, well-paid jobs and to fund organizations that provide the wrap-around services that help workers keep jobs, such as help with transportation and mental health treatment.

Sweetrica Baker of the Memphis AFL-CIO Central Labor Council speaks during Friday’s rally organized by the Memphis and Shelby County Moral Budget Coalition.

Sweetrica Baker is secretary of operations and digital organizing for the Memphis AFL-CIO Central Labor Council. At the rally, she described her experience facing eviction, spending hours on public transit to get to work on time, and how the coalition’s spending priorities would preserve basic dignity for working people.

“The wealth in our city and county has grown,” Baker said. “We need to ensure that working families don’t get short-changed.”

The fiscal year begins July 1 and both the council and commission are expected to have finalized their respective budgets by then.

Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at carrington.tatum@mlk50.com


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