Oct 28 2014

Media Fail – 1, Transparency – 0

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, media, Shelby County

How I long for the good ole days.

How I long for the good ole days.

Once upon a time I thought the media was a defender of democracy. It was a check on the power government exercised. It was a force for good that sought to keep the people connected and the politicians and bureaucracy honest.

Perhaps it was naiveté, or my fond memories of great journalists from the late 70’s through much of the 80’s and early 90’s.

I gave up any illusions of this fairy tale long ago.

That’s not to say there aren’t great journalists out there…they’re just fewer and farther between…and they’re trapped in a business environment where quantity, punch, and social media ‘engagement’ trumps a balanced account of the news.

Such is the case with this truly ignorant report from WREG that aired in July.

The web story is pretty benign, but the report that actually aired takes a Gary Vosot approach to reporting that demands you turn every fallen acorn into a “sky is falling” event.

The news item I’m referencing involves a little known report called the “Participating Voter List”, aka PVL.

What is the PVL?

The PVL is exactly what it sounds like. Its a list of people who have participated in an election. It includes your name and address, precinct information, and in primary elections, which primary ballot you chose to vote on.

Independent observers, political consultants, and campaigns use the PVL to see who’s voted, which areas are turning out more than others, and to tailor their communications to people who haven’t voted by purging the names of people who have voted from their direct communication list (mail, phone, and canvassing).

If you don’t want annoying calls, knocks, or mail, vote early and all that will stop…if the campaign is managed effectively.

Aside from primary ballot information, there is no information in the PVL that’s any more dangerous to your privacy than the information from an old school phone book, or white pages dot com.

But reporter Michael Quander’s piece makes it sound as if the very act of voting could endanger your privacy in some way.

That’s simply not the case. There are far easier and more informative ways and places to get that information than the Election Commission…though you’d never know it from his actual report.

Because of Quander’s report, the Election Commission now only sends the PVL out by request, instead of publishing it in the deep dark recesses of the Election Commission website where only people who know where it is can find it.

Why is the PVL important?

The PVL is important because it is a way to, in nearly real time, see what’s going on with an election.

The PVL was how Joe Weinberg and I found the redistricting errors that resulted in over 3000 voters receiving the wrong ballot in the August 2012 election.

At that time, the PVL was posted directly on the Election Commission’s website daily. Because of this, we were able to run our tests promptly and without waiting for a gatekeeper to open the gate for us (other than waiting for the report to be posted). This allowed both of us the ability to work, as volunteers…using our own time and getting paid nothing for our efforts, to expose one of the greatest election screw-ups in recent memory.

Had the PVL’s only been available by request, it may have taken several more days to complete our tests, causing a greater delay in resolving the problem, and potentially disenfranchising thousands of more voters in the process.

There is a small, tightly knit group of mostly volunteers, on both sides of the aisle, who pay very close attention to this report. Any delay is a huge setback because we are working on our own time, and of our own initiative.

Thanks to another barrier being placed due to unnecessary fear drummed up by this report, the next election disaster, should it occur, will take days longer to identify.

Way to go Channel 3.

Playing both sides of the privacy fence

But what is perhaps most perversely ironic is that the PVL is more safe than many of the methods WREG, and other commercial websites use to make money off of you.

Have you ever noticed that things you’ve browsed on Amazon or other online retailers regularly show up on ads at completely unrelated websites?

That monetization of “Big Data” is something every single news website in the country uses to generate revenue. It uses cookies, scripts, and your browser history to tailor ads to you, to increase their revenue.

In doing so, they’re taking advantage of your ignorance of potential privacy concerns far more than the Election Commission or any other government agency that is required by law to publish or make available information about you and yours.

A blow to good reporting

Aside from the report being…just dumb…the Election Commission’s decision to no longer post the PVL is also a blow to reporters who know what to do with the report…other than stir up unnecessary FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in the minds of viewers.

In years past, experienced reporters and election observers have used the report to do good journalism in the public interest. I remember the first time I started seeing reports like this, but in particular, the work of Commercial Appeal reporter Zack McMillian back in 2010 when he was on the political beat.

He used the information in a way that challenged me to dig even deeper into the report…which ultimately led to the discoveries Dr. Weinberg and I made going public.

Journalism is supposed to both inform people, and make those who engage in it, either by profession or by hobby, better. Quander’s report doesn’t do that. It preys on the uninformed fears of people, who are already scared of the very big data his company makes money off of.

So way to go Michael Quander, and the Producers, News Directors, and other influential decision-makers at WREG Channel 3. You’ve just made it harder for people just like you to do their job. I know you’re proud.

Jun 28 2014

Giving Process its Due

Posted by Steve Ross in corruption, lies, media, Policy, Shelby County, shenanigans

Shelby County Commission

Shelby County Commission

The crazy clown car show that has become the Shelby County Commission rolls on…but at least it may hold off until after the fourth.

Of course, the troubles are well known. Now at least two members of the Commission are under scrutiny for not living in their districts: Henri Brooks and Justin Ford.

Oh to be a fly on the wall at MLGW this week. I suspect they got a lot of $175 deposits from area politicians who have made a home outside of the area they represent.

But my purpose is not to throw out allegations, or anything of the sort (I’m not nearly the attention whore that some are…ala Thaddeus Matthews), but rather to mock the maker of the original accusation, the target of the accusation, the so called “conclusive” investigation, and the County Commission for making a mockery of itself.

Terry Roland Loves Checkers

Its too bad for Terry Roland, we live in a chess world. The guy plays checkers pretty well. I’m sure he has all the strategies to get that last checker cornered in such a way that he can go in for the kill.

But Roland hasn’t been as successful in the real world of politics where chess reigns. Sure, he’s garnered a lot of media attention, but most of it, in the end is just the fruitless flailing of a guy who quite frankly is more about attention than effectiveness.

Terry set off this chain of events, and in one way I’m glad, because this has been known a problem for some time, though not necessarily in this instance (that remains to be seen). But in another way, like checkers vs. chess, he forgot that the queen can “move” anywhere on the “board”, and the absence of a queen in one place doesn’t mean the queen isn’t still on the board.

Marcy Ingram and Mishandled Investigation

In the letter to Commission Chairman James Harvey, Ingram provides evidence that Brooks does not live at the location listed on her disclosures, and offers one eyewitness account that she frequently visits her daughter and grandchildren in Cordova (which is what grandparents do, by the way) and may have established MLGW service at that Cordova address (which is also something a parent might do if their child is in financial distress).

Unfortunately, Ingram does not establish anything other than the fact that Brooks does not live at the address on Crump, which is problematic. There are literally thousands of other addresses in District 2 that Brooks could live at. Merely proving she no longer lives at one of them does not prove she doesn’t live at another.

In fact, the lack of evidence establishing that Brooks lives outside District 2 (rather than just not at the Crump address) means that Ingram’s conclusion that Brooks lives outside the district is a huge leap in logic, not to mention other things.

In essence, Ingram sets up a “guilty until proven innocent” scenario in her letter…a flaw that Brooks was ready to exploit.

Defining Residency

I wasn’t at the County Commission meeting on Wednesday, but coverage from the event show Brooks sitting next to Walter Bailey looking like the cat that ate the canary. And despite her counsel getting the address wrong, Brooks did exactly what you would expect her to do in the face of a faulty report by the County Attorney…she offered up another address in District 2 as her residence.

The media guffawed at the new assertion, while failing…as I did initially, to note that Ingram’s report only established where Brooks does not live…rather than affirmative proof that she DOES indeed live outside the district.

Because Ingram never affirmatively proved where Brooks lives, she also hasn’t proved that Brooks doesn’t live in District 2.

Henri Brooks the too willing martyr

All of this could have been avoided if Henri Brooks had only provided the address on Mississippi to the County Attorney. But Brooks seems to relish being in the limelight this way.

Indeed she’s built her career on “standing up for her constituents” by launching invective at both friend and foe, while seeking to highlight an issue. Its unfortunate that she chooses this tactic, because it has made her one of the most disliked and ineffective members of the County Commission during her time in office.

Brooks doesn’t seem to understand that in order to be effective, you can’t shit on everyone around you and then claim moral superiority in the same breath. Her unwillingness to cooperate with the County Attorney’s investigation is just one example of the arrogance she demonstrates on a regular basis to the detriment of both her self, “her constituents”, and the County Commission as a body.

Indeed, she did set off an unnecessary shit show as Memphis Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden put it.

Yes, I still hold that she should prove her residency and end this foolishness.

But this is classic Brooks being Brooks as this CA profile put it. I’m not sure why anyone would expect anything different.

Doing Due Process

Now that there’s another Commissioner whose residency is in question, the County Commission should put in place a process by which they may remove a member who has violated the residency requirement set forth in both State Law and the County Charter.

I tend to agree with this editorial at the CA, the lack of a defined process, and the legal tests that must be met to “prove” someone to be in violation of the law, means that future efforts to enforce the residency requirement will indeed be met with both resistance, and dragged out to the point that they are moot (which is what will most likely happen in the Brooks case).

Residency questions should fall to a body outside the County Commission itself, to remove the appearance of playing politics. Perhaps the County Ethics Committee should be the one to investigate such claims, or the District Attorney (though neither necessarily mean the claims themselves, nor the investigations would be devoid of politics at its worst).

Regardless, there needs to be a real process in place rather than what is happening now, which is a half-assed attempt at best.

Failing to do something of this sort almost ensures another “shit show” such as this one…which is something the public shouldn’t have to endure again.

Conclusion

Lets give credit where credit is due…this whole misadventure getting to this point (and the future if the Ford question comes up) is the direct result of an elected official believing they don’t have a duty prove they meet the qualifications of service.

This belief is founded on something more akin to divine right rather than representative democracy, and has no place in our government on any level.

Scrutiny is the check that should help give us faith in our government. This may have been lost somewhat in an era of scrutiny for sport, which has dominated the past several years, but that doesn’t make elected officials any more immune from answering to the public, even when the question is stupid or politically motivated.

It speaks volumes about the individuals who believe they don’t have a duty to answer to such scrutiny. It says they don’t understand the fundamental nature of their relationship with the public.

It says a lot about a person who would rather allow a fight to escalate unnecessarily than choose to bat it down before it matures into a crisis. This kind of self-absorbed lack of care is all too present in our current political climate…at all levels of government.

But while Brooks’ character flaws (both real and perceived) may make it easy to dismiss her, dislike her, or hold any number of ill wishes on her political future…the simple fact remains that this process is as flawed as the witch trial in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail…which is at least as bad for our republic as Brooks’ irrational behavior, and many other completely preventable incidents she’s been a party to.

You don’t have to like her. You don’t have to support her. But until the County Attorney can prove where she lives and that her address is actually outside of District 2, the conclusion that she’s in violation of any State or County statute is not based on the fact that she doesn’t live in her district…only evidence that she doesn’t live where she previously said she does.

While the standard offered by Ingram may seem on its face to prove something, it doesn’t rise to the standard of proving a violation. Until the County Attorney can provide hard evidence that proves guilt (by proving where Brooks lives and that it is outside the district) rather than lack of innocence (which what Ingram has proved thus far), this whole charade is nothing more than a distraction initiated as a political ploy, continued by a hasty determination, fueled by a bullheaded and self-absorbed elected official, and fanned by an all too compliant and complacent media.

Jun 07 2014

Muzzled In Memphis

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, media, Memphis, Racism, Shelby County, shenanigans

I really hope this works out for both Wendi and the CA, but I’m afraid it won’t for either.

About a week after the Brooks flap, there were some folks who expressed to me they were worried she was being silenced. I don’t work for the CA so I have no knowledge one way or the other.

But I held out hope that her most recent column dealing County MWBE contracts (current policy and the impact) was a way to deal with the issue that started the mess without getting into the distraction that Brooks herself created.

Now, just days after that column, it appears on first glance that the former is true.

I do hope, as others have suggested in other forums, that this turns into a new way to report and talk about crime in the media. There’s no question the current model (bleeds it leads) not only doesn’t address the societal ills that exist, but also enables a guilty until proven innocent attitude that is contrary to our legal system, and in some way glamorizes the crimes themselves.

I don’t have much faith that this will be the case in the new era of “You can have it your way” journalism…but one can hope.

That’s the comment I left in response to this article at the Memphis Flyer regarding the reassignment of now former Metro Columnist Wendi Thomas.

The CA’s decision to reassign Thomas comes at an inconvenient time for the paper. Now, just two months out from County elections, it goes without saying that there would be a great deal to comment on as campaigns kick into high gear. But apparently that’s not on the menu for the CA.

In fact, Thomas’ most recent column probably hit too close to home for some of those candidates…and future columns might have cast doubt on some of the forthcoming endorsements from the paper’s editorial board…a body that consistently engages in false equivalence, lightweight analysis, and an inattention to detail that would lead one to believe they don’t read the very paper in which their editorials are published.

Those issues aside, Thomas’ last column served to illustrate the way local government seeks to shield itself from criticism by using the ‘rhetoric of inclusion’, while hiding persistent sins of omission in terms of published data, and offering little if any true self-examination.

County and City government does and has consistently gone out of its way to do one thing and say another on a whole host of issues, all the while shielding themselves from analysis behind a wall of cloistered data (One can’t ask for it if they don’t know its there).

This strategy isn’t remarkable in any way. It happens everywhere to one degree or another. Its an easy way to say a policy is working without having to do the heavy lifting of actually showing its achieving the intended result. It also shields those who may profit from said policy at the expense of others from being found out…which might be embarrassing or something.

And while Thomas hasn’t always used data to support her arguments, and I certainly have had differences with some of her columns…its mighty suspicious that a county where a large portion of the population is African-American women wouldn’t have a columnist who is an African-American woman…something Betsy points to here at Pith.

So, I go back to my original comment…and wish Wendi well on her new and surprising assignment. I hope she can find a way to use her new role to bring forward some of that cloistered data in a meaningful way, that will help illustrate how some really bad policy is impacting our community.

Apr 12 2014

‘Bangers, Budgets and Bosses…a week in Memphis

So it was kind of a weird week in Memphis. That’s not unusual I guess, but the way things worked out leaves a couple of bad tastes in my mouth…so, I’ve taken to writing aging for now.

‘Bangers

Open carry is one of those things the NRA and groups like it have been pushing just about everywhere in the South.

I’m not a fan of open carry laws because I just don’t think its necessary, and when you remove the requirement that people get proper training to carry a firearm in public, you endanger public safety and the safety of the person carrying the firearm.

On the other hand, I’ve always found the argument by the “conceal-carry” set that a concealed firearm is somehow a “crime deterrent” disingenuous. If its concealed, its more likely you will have it stolen when someone with a gun in their hand gets the jump on you. If its concealed its less likely to give a potential armed criminal pause. If its out there in the open, it may cause someone to think a little before they act…or just kill you first and take your gun to continue whatever violence they intend to commit.

In any case, the bill passed the State Senate, but according to the linked report, will die in the State House because:

“Every gang-banger in Memphis will end up packing. Can you imagine?” – Rep. Steve McDaniel

Click to embiggen

Click to embiggen

McDaniel lives in a little town on I-40 over 100 miles from the nearest “Memphis gang banger”, but apparently there’s enough fear of such a thing in tiny Parker’s Crossroads, TN, that it would stop him for falling in line with the Tennessee Firearms Assn..

It probably helps that the filing deadline has passed and there’s no time to primary him they way they did Debra Maggart.

Betsy brought up the problem with that logic, though I’m not really sure what her point is…

But my buddy Cardell Orrin wins the day with this response to the specter of an “Open Carry Tennessee”…

I have no idea if this will pass the State House, but I hope it doesn’t.

All this proposal will do is lead to more accidental shootings and other mishaps, of which there are already plenty in this country.

Budgets

Its budget season, which is one of my favorite times of year…because you get to see policy both in action and inaction (see what I did there).

Tennessee Budget

The State rubber stamped Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget down to the dollar…leaving out promised money for teacher raises, tuition freezes, and other critical stuff. A proposed additional $2m dollars for rape kit funding was also struck down, because…Memphis. State lawmakers just hate us for some reason.

Shelby County Government Budget

Shelby County Government also released a proposed budget which was praised for lowering taxes and providing raises for County employees.

Looking into the guts of the proposal, it seems that while overall revenue is down by about $53m (due primarily to fewer federal government transfers) property tax collections are projected to increase by just under $2m (which accounts for the penny).

470 employees will be lost, most of them (440) due to the end of the Shelby Co. Head Start program. I haven’t seen news about who, if anyone, has received the federal funds for that program.

This is an election year, so a tax cut, even a small one, is a political instrument as much as anything else. After last year’s hike, any cut will be trumpeted to the hills.

In reality, this budget is a continuation budget. There’s no new great vision or direction to be seen. There’s no great look at what the County Administration wants the County to look like going forward other than “the same”. And with all the structural problems the County has (that they largely ignore) its hard to feel really good about this budget…unless all you care about is the political viability of using a tiny tax cut as a means to garner votes.

Shelby County Schools Budget

The County Schools also released their initial budget proposal to the County Commission to accolades from the body. The budget includes a reported 2316 real job losses and 2380 jobs that move to the six municipal schools.

The real way to look at this budget, is not against last year, but the last year of MCS, since the remaining SCS schools are primarily former MCS schools. Here’s a top level breakdown:

12-13 MCS 14-15 SCS
Employees 13,031 12,818
Enrollment 104,829 117,154
Pupils per employee 8.04 9.14
General Fund 901,799,827 961,298,645
Per student expenditure $8602.58 $8205.43

It should be noted, these numbers represent a “top level” funding and employee count, rather than an actual representation of where and how the money will be spent. So while the “per pupil” and “per employee” numbers seem to be going in the wrong direction, the reality of that will be determined by how the real budget works out…and some deeper digging into the guts of the numbers.

This represents the lion’s share of education funding for the County, but a true picture of education funding won’t be available until the six municipalities present their budgets to the County Commission. How those six seek to claim the remaining 20.6% of county money could possibly be an interesting fight.

University of Memphis

One budget I haven’t paid that much attention to in previous years is the U of M budget. But its an important one, that represents nearly $500m in spending in the area.

This year’s budget represents the first full year of re-prioritizing the University in the image of interim President Brad Martin…whom one must assume is acting on behalf of his friend and former employee, Gov. Bill Haslam.

What’s not certain is if the faculty will endorse the proposal, or if tenured members of the faculty will use their relative safety to fight back against these budget cuts and other proposed changes to the University.

Of course, tenure or not, a certain level of caution should be exercised, as the State government has shown a great deal of disdain for tenure generally (particularly in public education) and probably wouldn’t hesitate to change the rules to suit their desire to quash anything that challenges their supermajority status.

This will be a new area for me this year, but I think its as important as anything. The future of the U of M will play a big role in the future of the County.


The City of Memphis is set to release its budget proposal on Tuesday, so nothing to report there right now. Also, if this year follows previous years, the proposal itself won’t look much like the final budget, as priorities and funds are shifted.

Bosses

A Commercial Appeal article published after Thursday’s Democratic Mayoral Debate, quotes District Attorney candidate Judge Joe Brown as saying he’s something akin to a political boss. Brown was answering a question about the value of his endorsement in the upcoming May primary.

Here’s the actual quote:

If you’re a candidate, is there some value in having Joe Brown on your side? Are you hearing that a lot?

“Yes. In other words, who’s going to make the tough decisions? Alright, you want to do this, you want to do that. You can either work it out yourselves or if you can’t, I pick who I’m going to support. When I support you, that is important to your candidacy. … I’m not going to endorse in every race, but when there’s a big knock-down, drag-out, I’m trying to” — he was interrupted here by a well-wisher.

“So in other words, I smooth it out,” he said, returning to the conversation. “It’s called being boss.”

You view yourself in that role?

“No, that’s what they want,” he said.

Who? Bryan Carson?

“Sorta, kinda,” he said. Then, he characterized how the party talked him into running for district attorney, and his reasons for seeing opportunity there against incumbent Republican Amy Weirich. – via the Commercial Appeal

There’s no question that DA candidate Joe Brown could play a major role in the outcome of the August election. But some things are far less certain:

1. Brown’s influence on a May primary in which he has no competition. The May primary election has historically had incredibly low turnout.

2. The balance between Brown’s influence and the organizing efforts of the three Mayoral candidates (along with the other candidates in the primary contests).

3. Brown’s actual role as a boss.

Shelby County Democratic Party Chair Bryan Carson had this to say about the latter:

“He doesn’t have a role,” Carson said, adding a few moments later, “he has no influence on the Shelby County Democratic Party.”

So, not a boss?

“That was his characterization,” Carson said. “What I did, we needed a candidate for the top of the ticket.” – via the Commercial Appeal

I have a big problem with the characterization of anyone as a “boss”.

First of all, the bosses of old had patronage jobs to toss around. While this is still the case (to some degree) the depth of that influence has diminished in a world of greater scrutiny and dwindling budgets.

Secondly, Brown not only has no such jobs to dole out, but also hasn’t really been involved in local politics in any measurable way until recently.

Finally, the notion of a boss is a rally point for the opposing party. August is set to be a sleeper…except for local races, and for Brown to give the County GOP anything to rally on other than their slate of candidates isn’t particularly helpful.

But there’s another reason…the idea of a “boss” gives the perception of corruption…because of all of the things I listed above. That’s something we really don’t need.

We don’t need a return to the era of “bosses”, despite what some seem to think. The “boss” era in Memphis politics may be looked back on as a golden age, but it also set up all kinds of trouble that we’re still dealing with. More than I care to get into at this point.

Truth be told, there is no one in elective office in Shelby County, with the possible exception of State Sen. Mark Norris that has the political power to be called a “boss”. The political power structure is too diffuse to sustain such a person.

Further, I would argue that no elected official is seeking or could in any way lay claim to the title. There’s too much dissent, and not enough carrots or sticks being used to execute such power.

So while the notion of a “boss” and the perceived power and stability that title might hold for some may seem attractive, it just isn’t likely to happen here again. That’s something that presents both a challenge for the future, and a net positive for those who are willing to forge alliances to get needed things done in the community.

Unfortunately, there remains a “boss mentality” in the area…something that will take a long time for us to get over. The kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” that many feel for the era of bosses, and the new era of the unspoken “bosses” that play a large role in anointing political leaders in the area, is a bigger problem to deal with.

That’s another post for another time. But suffice it to say, we don’t need another boss, and Brown, even if he may think of himself as one…isn’t one.

Mar 05 2013

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Posted by Steve Ross in MCS Media, media, Memphis, Shelby County

I’ve been thinking about a lot of things since last week’s school board meeting.

We all need a some…

That meeting sent me down a whole lot of rabbit holes. The analytical side of me wants to make a rational argument that supports my overall aim of improving life for all people in and around Shelby Co. While I think that’s important, I also know that no matter what I say there are some who are so bought in to their notions of reality, regardless of how little factual basis there is behind that belief, that nothing I can say, no matter how rational, will sway them.

One thing that I think we call can understand is the idea of respect.

Respect is something we all crave. It is a sign of accomplishment. It tells us that others believe we have done something positive with our lives.

The very definition of respect: a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements even evokes an emotional response.

We instinctively understand it. Regardless of the facts surrounding the specific case.

The interesting case of Joe Flacco

Last night, when I was on my way home from work, I was listening to some Sports Talk guys talk about the contract that just got signed by Superbowl MVP and Ravens Quarterback Joe Flacco. Here’s the thing that really hit home.

Joe Flacco
via Wikipedia Commons

“It was never about earning the money and all that. It was about earning the respect,” Flacco said Monday at his press conference announcing the new deal. “Definitely about earning that respect and feeling that respect around here. The fact that we got it done and that they made me [the highest-paid player in the NFL] definitely makes me feel good about how we played and how they feel about me.” – Joe Flacco (Source)

No matter how you slice it, Flacco’s contract is a boat-load of money. But its interesting what he equates with respect in a capitalistic society…namely money.

Of course, Flacco is a highly valued employee of the Baltimore Ravens. Some might say he’s overvalued based on the sheer size of his contract in relation to his ability. But this is what they were willing to give. This is what he wanted to feel respected. In this situation, I guess everyone got what they wanted.

Earnings and Respect

I’m not sure how I feel about the whole idea of equating respect and earnings. There are people who make more and less than me who I respect. The converse is also true. But more than that, there are people who do things that I just wouldn’t want to do, and I respect them for having the intestinal fortitude to actually do them.

What’s interesting is, many of these folks don’t get paid that much. Some are more educated than others. But the value they bring to society far outweighs all that, including their cost…or earnings.

If the principles of simple supply and demand were at play, they would probably be paid far more than they are now. By filling a need that few people want to do, they provide a service to the community that demands our respect (as a group, if not as individuals).

What’s most interesting to me is these are the very people whose earnings have been under attack over the past several years.

– Teachers have been attacked by the State Legislature, not to mention local officials, despite the fact that they do a very difficult job, in difficult circumstances, and most of them do relatively well (it we honestly look at the circumstances).

– Sanitation workers and first responders have been under attack for being a drain on resources. In all honesty, I wouldn’t want to live in a city where these three groups of people were either absent, or in short supply.

– Most recently, the janitors with the school district have been under attack. Tonight the School board will vote on outsourcing janitors to a private company. This contract is said to save the district as much as $11.5m/yr even though none of the details of how this service would be rendered have been provided in the bid.

In all of these cases, people who are doing a job that is necessary for our society to function are under attack because they just happen to be public employees. This is compounded when politicians rate their performance not on what they accomplish, but how much of the tax rate they can cut.

Considering this measure of success, its not surprising that we’ve seen absolutely zero movement on the issues that truly impact our community. They’re not worried enough about those issues to actually tackle them. They’re too focused about the damn tax rate as if that is a panacea.

Putting the Money in Perspective

It ain’t all about the Benjamins.

Now, $11.5m is probably more than I’ll make in my lifetime. Its a lot of money. A savings of $11.5m, if applied to our current tax rate, would mean about $18/yr for the median homeowner in Shelby Co. (for a home valued at $120k).

The way this money gets saved is by cutting $5000 – $6000 of pay a year from the average janitor.

The argument in favor of this idea says that the savings in taxes would provide jobs. I don’t know about you, but $18 won’t even get me a babysitter for 2 hours, so I don’t know what kind of jobs I’ll be providing.

Of course, they’re not talking about me, or even you. They’re talking about businesses with millions of dollars of assets. Based on my very rough estimates, it would take a company with assets totaling more than $850,000 to net enough savings to net even one minimum wage job.

That is assuming that they need to hire to expand their business. The money may just be pocketed in savings, which would actually hurt consumption, which hurts the economy, on top of hurting the 650 janitors currently working for MCS, making at least $5000 less a year and either having to work another job, or go on government assistance.

What about FedEx, AutoZone or International Paper? Our largest local employers already have tax deals called PILOTS (Payments in Lieu of Taxes) as well as other incentives that minimize their exposure to fluctuations in the tax rate, so no, it wouldn’t do one thing to cause them to expand their operations.

End result, not 650 jobs good paying jobs. Not even 1/10th of that.

Where’s the Respect?

Not just no respect. Disrespectful.

What we’re left with is a decision. Is getting $18 (maybe a little more, maybe a little less) back a year worth putting between 650 to 1000 people in financial jeopardy?

These are people, not numbers.

How would you feel about an arbitrary $5000/yr. cut to your income?

How would that make you feel about your employer?

If you worked for a public entity (like the schools or the City or County) how would it make you feel about your community?

Would it make you feel respected to know that your economic wellbeing was being sacrificed for $18 a home?

Is that respect? Is that honoring human dignity? Does that make our community a better place?

I don’t think so. To me its a small price to pay for people to make a decent wage.

Now I’m sure someone out there thinks its totally acceptable to tell these workers that their economic livelihood is worth $18 a home in property tax savings.

I’m sure someone thinks its disrespectful to taxpayers to pay anyone 1¢ more than they have to.

I’m sure that someone thinks the private sector can do this job better, and that custodial work isn’t part of the “core functions” of the school district

But it is.

Providing a safe, clean place for children to learn is absolutely a core function of the school district. And paying people a respectful wage for their labor and their loyalty is something that should be a core belief of any community that isn’t diving into a pit of “eating their own”.

That’s what this has become. From the School Board, the City Council, and on up the tree of government to the Federal level. That doesn’t mean we can’t trim unnecessary things, it means we have to do it in a smart way.

Starting with low income workers in a town with a 26% poverty rate isn’t it…unless you want more poverty.

I won’t hold my breath, but I hope the members of the school board will respect the people who have worked for the district enough to hold firm on their incomes. I don’t believe they will.

What I see is a group of people who are terrified a Judge might disapprove of their decisions and appoint someone to watch over them.

This decision won’t have a great impact on whether that happens or not.

This decision isn’t the hardest decision the school board has put off. But it might as well be. Because if this decision is indicative of the level of thought the School Board is putting into planning the next school year, we’re in a lot more trouble than even the folks wanting their own schools think we are.