With thousands of Memphians behind on their utility bills and en masse disconnects underway after a five-month moratorium, one member of Memphis City Council is calling for the city to spend $5.7 million more in federal money on utility assistance.
Councilman Martavius Jones would like $5.7 million in CARES Act funding currently earmarked to make up the Memphis Zoo’s budget shortfall to go to utility assistance — funding that would be handled by the Metropolitan Interfaith Association. MIFA is already handling $3.5 million in CARES Act the city allocated this spring, shortly after receiving $113 million in CARES Act funds.
To replace the funding the zoo has said it needs to keep animals housed, Jones would like Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration to find $5.7 million to trim from the budgets of the Memphis fire and police departments. Jones and Council Chairwoman Patrice Robinson have sponsored a resolution to transfer and allocate that money.
“I’m asking the administration to find the $5.7 million in funding for the zoo. We have an opportunity to use COVID funds for things we can’t use general fund money for. I think it’ll be in the best interest of those that we serve and provide for the zoo [with] general fund money versus [federal] money,” Jones said in an interview Friday.
Jones noted the roughly $473 million budget between the city’s two largest departments — which make up a majority of the city’s $700 million or so budget.
Without COVID-19, Jones said, it’s unlikely that he would be requesting such a transfer of funds.
“I think this is what’s best for all of Memphis,” Jones said. “We’re talking about a reduction of 1.2 percent.”
The Strickland administration declined to comment for this story. In a June interview, Strickland told the The Commercial Appeal that he did not believe a meaningful amount of money could be trimmed from the MPD budget without reducing services.
It’s difficult to give exact figures on the current year’s adopted budget. Nearly three months after it passed, the city has not posted the adopted budget on its website, which city officials attribute to the small tweaks made by the council in recent months.
Utility cutoffs mount
At the start of last week, about 31,000 Memphis, Light, Gas and Water customers were eligible to be disconnected after the utility resumed cutoffs following a five-month moratorium. At one-point in late July, as many as 38,000 customers were eligible to be disconnected.
On Aug. 24, MLGW disconnected 8,665 customers. Of those, 5,415 then paid enough to have their service restored. The following two days, Aug. 25 and 26, saw no cutoffs because the heat index was too high. Information for Thursday and Friday were not immediately available.
However, people waited in hours-long lines at an MLGW community office on Lamar Avenue to pay their bills. Some told The Commercial Appeal that they had received disconnect notices despite being current on their bills.
As of Thursday afternoon, about 14,000 MLGW customers remained eligible to be disconnected.
Utility aid outnumbered by other uses
On April 28, the City Council approved $1.5 million in utility assistance. Then, in July, a further $1 million was allocated. The council and Strickland administration also allocated $1 million in rent assistance.
However, that funding did not reach MIFA until last week, according to city officials and documents. City spokesman Dan Springer said the delay was due to the city making sure the funds would be spent in a way that did not cause Memphis to reimburse the federal government for misuse of CARES Act dollars.
On Thursday, Strickland announced the $3.5 million previously allocated to MIFA in a tweet and then clarified it could only be spent on people who had lost income due to COVID-19.
The $113 million in CARES Act funding Memphis received has largely been spoken for, including $9.9 million for five civic assets dealing with revenue shortfalls — the Memphis Zoo, Memphis Botanic Gardens, Pink Palace Museum, Brooks Museum and AutoZone Park.
Samuel Hardiman covers Memphis city government and politics. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read or Share this story: https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/news/2020/08/31/memphis-councilman-wants-mayor-cut-police-and-fire-budgets/5662413002/