Jun 05 2013

Who’s driving this bus?

Memphis budget back and forth raises questions about long-term plans, vision for the City among other things

If you’re not confused you’re not paying attention.

To be honest, I’ve been on vacation for a week, and doing everything I can to not pay attention, but the events of yesterday’s Memphis City Council meeting snapped me back into reality.

By my count, I’ve seen five separate budget proposals put before the Council:

• The original plan that increased the rate to $3.39.
• Three plans reported by the CA on May 30th. All three have a variety of options, all dire either through extreme cuts, or tax increases.
• The current plan, which increases the rate to $3.51 reported on June 4th.

I reserve the right to revise and extend this list in case I’ve left one out (I’m a blogger, not a journalist, I can do that).

I haven’t seen the latest four budget proposals, so all I can do is rely on media reports until I can track them down. I also don’t know which one Mayor Wharton is most wed to. I presume its the most recent budget, which seems to resemble the original proposal more closely, but also seems to ignore the results of impasse proceedings that have made their way through the pipeline over the past several weeks.

The long and the short of it is: We’re 25 days out from the new fiscal year, and we seem no closer to a resolution to the budget issue than we were back in the middle of May when I published my last post.

Coincidentally, Nashville just passed their budget. $1.8b for all Metro and County operations. $1.8b is also the sum of all City and County operations, even though our population is nearly 300,000 more people. Maybe if I add in the budgets of the other municipalities it would make more sense, but I kinda doubt it.

Footloose and fancy free

There’s been a lot of rhetoric surrounding this budget season. The reasons for this are many: ideology, political aspirations, and personal vendettas are the first three that come to mind. But beyond the rhetoric is the basic reality of 9th grade civics involving government. Simply put:

It is the responsibility of the Executive Branch to propose a budget.

The proposed budget should reflect the priorities of the Executive branch with an eye towards the long-term direction of the community and the realities of the revenue sources, long-term liabilities, and nuts and bolts expenditures of the city. An accurate portrayal of these financial realities is critical, because they ultimately inform the public, and Legislative Branch, of things that are coming down the pike. This is just a proposal, however, not the final product.

It is the responsibility of the legislative branch to enact a budget.

The enacted budget can be similar or radically different from the proposal. Legislative branches have wide latitude to re-shape all kinds of priorities with the budget pen. The tailoring of these priorities can be surgical in nature, or a Frankensteinian hack-job.

But lets not get it switched. It’s not the fault of the Executive that the Legislative branch passes a budget that conveniently ignores any or all of the revenue streams, liabilities, or expenditures. Once the Legislative branch is done either giving a haircut, creating a monster, or anything in-between, it is the job of the Executive to try and make that budget work, and realize as many priorities as possible, with the tools they have available as a result of that budget.

Seems to me that both sides have forgotten portions of this throughout this and previous budget seasons. And while I believe that a skeptical eye is both critical and necessary to being an effective legislator, personal issues seem to have taken over what should be a professional exercise.

Comptroller Complications

The budget season was on track to be a contentious battle in the first place. Lower revenue outlooks due to decreases in property values meant either a tax increase (from 3.11 to 3.36 to remain revenue neutral) or serious cuts were in the future.

In the midst of that angst, a powder keg was ignited when the Comptroller’s report came out on May 22nd (read the whole report here).

The report detailed many problematic financial issues. The one most widely mentioned is the “scoop and toss” debt refinancing the City has engaged in several times in recent years. While there’s no doubt that using one credit card to pay another is a bad idea, if it means a lower interest payment, and there’s a commitment to actually pay down that debt, it can be an effective strategy for reducing the impact of debt on revenue streams.

It should be noted, Shelby Co. government has refinanced a great deal of debt over the past several years using historically low bond interest rates to reduce short-term liabilities. I’m not sure why Memphis’ use of this tactic is any worse, except that the overall revenue outlook probably doesn’t have as much upside.

So debt is a big deal. The other big deal is revenue, which the report notes, is declining necessitating a tax increase, a reduction in spending, or both.

What most people haven’t keyed in on is the section of the report called Fiscal Concerns located on page 4.

In that section the Comptroller says:

“…We are concerned with the low level of general fund balance after accomplishing the corrective actions listed above. The City appears to have funding needs in the near future for liabilities related to pension obligations, other post-employment benefit obligations, and money owed to the school system. Also, the City has aggressively used PILOTs and other property tax incentives for economic development purposes which have cut into future property tax revenue growth.”

You can take that paragraph a couple of ways, but all of them include the following: We’ve got some big bills coming due.

Really, most of this is stuff people already knew.

Pensions aren’t in the budget, as far as I can tell, but its a subject that some of my more conservative friends consistently herald as a bad long-term liability. Its hard for me to tell if this is reality or just some bias against paying pensions, but I sure would like some clarity on the issue. (though this article mentions the liability problems, though not in detail)

There is a section called OPEB (Other Post Employment Benefits). We borrowed $22m from that fund last year to pay for Pensioners Insurance (that’s what it looks like anyway). From my perspective, that money never should have been borrowed. Period.

So now, we not only have to fund the current year, but also last year. I don’t know who proposed that, but it was a bad idea that follows a trend of folks taking a promise and turning it into a threat when it comes to dealing with retirees.

That ain’t cool.

What’s most interesting to me is the comment about the aggressive use of PILOTs and other tax reduction schemes for business. Does this mean these things aren’t paying off? This year the budget mentions $5m in PILOT payments. Last year, AFSCME had a list of the top PILOT recipients. I used to have it somewhere, but I can’t find it. Needless to say, the savings to business was north of $20m…for the top 10 recipients.

This begs the question…are these incentives doing what they’re supposed to? The Pew Center on the States has a paper from last year that deals with state incentives and some of the pitfalls. It might be a good read for local governments too. While the EDGE Board may be super transparent compared to other IDB’s, I haven’t seen them recommend the revocation of a PILOT due to non-compliance. That’s a little concerning since, I’m pretty sure there is at least one isn’t meeting the terms of the agreement.

What’s the long-term vision?

The Comptroller’s report makes mention of a 5 year strategic plan. I haven’t seen this document. I’ve heard a lot about it, but until someone can point me to a copy its vaporware as far as I’m concerned.

The Administration hasn’t done a good job of selling this plan to the public, and that’s part of why the Council is picking them apart.

The Council has, in the past, sought some kind of longer-term budget guidance. I’m not aware of any vote or resolution that would mandate such a plan. Right now, I’m not sure the politics of the situation would allow some members to give that kind of high ground to an administration that they’re basically actively running against. That’s a missed opportunity in my book.

The Council, by contrast doesn’t have to be as consistent. Legislative bodies, by their nature are supposed to have a somewhat adversarial or at least skeptical eye toward administrations. I’m not sure this level of adversity is productive, but political fortunes and personal vendettas being what they are…this kind of thing isn’t entirely unexpected.

In the absence of an articulated, concrete vision, legislative members are free to roam the hills of fishing expeditions and rhetoric that suits their political needs. I see more of that than an honest appraisal of what needs to happen to make Memphis more sustainable going forward.

The City Council has not seemed to be able to muster any kind of consensus long-term vision. 12 of 13 members are in the second year of their second term. Many of the decisions they have made over that nearly 6 year period have brought us to where we are today. I don’t blame them for the overall national economic conditions, or all the things they inherited, though 6 years in, the timeframe for that pardon is quickly diminishing.

Its time we got serious…and if this is what serious looks like…then wow, just wow.

A couple of months ago I gave a talk on school funding. In that presentation I said:

Budgets are a reflection of the moral convictions of a community.

I hold to that.

I hope our moral convictions are such that we would be very cautious about seeking additional sacrifices from working families that just happen to work for the City. The 4.6% cut last year was a hit in hard economic times. There should at least be a timeframe for restoration of that cut. We can’t be a city that penalizes people who serve our community. That’s no way to grow.

I think everyone understands that some positions will be eliminated while we try to clean up the financial mess we’ve made. Hopefully that can be done through attrition rather than layoffs to give more of a soft landing than a hard bump.

In the mean time, the Council needs to think long and hard about their ideas of revenue, expenditures, long-term liabilities, rate and most importantly, value.

“Reduce spending”, “increase efficiency”, “raise revenue”, “decrease the tax rate” and many of the other phrases used in this and previous budget negotiations are empty political rhetoric unless they include specific proposals backed by accurate data that adds real measurable value to the citizens of Memphis, not conventional wisdom or ideological flights of fancy. Sure, it makes for a great sound byte for the media, but it doesn’t mean anything until there’s some real meat on the bone. I hope all parties concerned will take that to heart.

For reasons unknown to anyone, the Mayor seems to have decided to let the City Council drive the bus. Hopefully, they’ll find a place to stop, get a map, and take us somewhere we can at least deal with for a while…that isn’t FantasyLand.

I can’t clap to keep Tinkerbell alive any longer.

Mar 25 2011

Thinking About What Could Be

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

City of Memphis Website

“There is no question that our current website is long overdue for a complete overhaul. My intent for a new MemphisTN.gov is simply to have the most helpful and dynamic website possible for the people of Memphis. We have surveyed the public extensively and have a very clear idea of what people want: intuitive design, accessible information, and a way to make their voices heard. We have made great strides using our existing website to improve transparency; a new website will only create more opportunities to share the policy documents, data sets, reports, contracts, and permitting documents that people find useful and necessary. I want this to be a convenient and evolving place online where people and their local government to communicate more easily and productively with one another. Our website can be more than a simple repository of information. It will be comparable to our front door and floor directory. We will see that it is as easy to find as 125 North Main Street and as easy to navigate as the ‘you are here’ plaques on our hallways. It can be a virtual gathering place for people to share ideas, create connections, and begin shaping the grassroots action plans that will accelerate community and economic development throughout our great city.” – Mayor A C Wharton

Those were the words emailed to me just two days after the release of this RFP to redesign the City of Memphis Website.

Since the day he took office, Mayor Wharton has been committed to increasing transparency. While his administration has made great strides, they’re hindered by this outdated site that has reached it’s design limitations, and then some.

In addition to being less than visually pleasing, it’s also difficult to navigate, and generally disorganized. Some basic functions are buried under several levels of unnecessary clicks, making it difficult for many users to find anything.

While there may be no perfect design for a website serving a city of our size, there are a heck of a lot better ones. Which got me to thinking. What would you like to see in a redesign? I know what I want, better and more advanced searches, tagging, and simplified URL’s that take you right to a division. But what do you expect?

What kinds of functions frustrate you? What do you need better access to? How can the City government make information more accessible?

If you’re a developer and a Memphian, take this opportunity to look over the RFP and see if this is something you or your group would be interested in undertaking.

The RFP deadline is April 15th with a Q & A period starting on the 30th of this month. Mull it over and let’s think about how we want our city website to work.

Edited to Add: For the record, I am not connected to anyone who may bid, nor do I have any intention to bid on this project, and probably disqualified myself by even writing about it.

Feb 10 2011

SB0025 to Governor, City Council Approves Surrender – #MCS

This morning, as expected, the State House passed SB0025 which now goes to the Governor. There are three actions the Governor can take. He can: sign it, veto it, or refuse to sign it but allow it to become law after 10 days.

Previous press reports have said that he would consult with Mayors Wharton and Luttrell before making a decision. As of this writing, Mayor Wharton noted that Gov. Haslam had not yet signed the bill.

The City Council met at 5pm and only had one item on the agenda. I tuned in a little late because 88.5 didn’t broadcast the meeting. As far as I can tell there were two friendly amendments that tweaked the resolution. Ultimately the resolution passed by a vote of 10-0-2. The two abstentions came from Councilmembers Ford and Morrison who are teachers.

The resolution will be sent to the Tennessee Secretary of State tomorrow.

I hope to have the final version of the resolution soon and will include it in this post as soon as I do.

So what does all this mean? Well, a lot of that is still in question, but according to City Council Attorney Alan Wade, upon the date set forth in the resolution MCS will exist for the purposes of wrapping up business, then, presumably, SCS will take over administration. How long that process lasts is in question as are many things. How it all turns out will depend on who decides to do what and when.

I’ll add updates to this post as necessary, as well as update on twitter as events unfold.

Oct 27 2009

Defining “Greatness”

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

Yesterday in the Eye on City Hall blog Zack McMillan poses the question ”Has Memphis Ever Had a ‘Great’ Mayor? Can AC Become One?”. It’s an interesting read that lists many of the challenges facing our newly elected Mayor as well as the failures of past Mayors. From the post:

Generations of Memphians have taken history from University of Memphis historian Charles Crawford, and he often makes the point that the problems that plague Memphis, with roots dating back to the 19th Century, are so vast and complicated that even the best and boldest civic administration would have difficulty solving them. Each subsequent generation of Memphians — and by Memphians we include all those who live in the eight-county Memphis metroplitan area — wants to believe that problems just shot up out of the soil, but in fact things like deep-seated poverty, violent crime, lackluster universal public education and a low-wage low-skill job base have been here for a long time.

“He will run into the traditional Memphis problems that previous mayors have run into and that I won’t say are impossible but are intractable,” Crawford said in a story we have running today. “Some of these things are outside the capacity of anyone as mayor to solve.”

You know, on several levels, he’s right. First of all the …” deep-seated poverty, violent crime, lackluster universal public education and a low-wage low-skill job base”… is a problem that has faced Memphis for generations. Even our own city history page lists many of these problems. Further, Crawford’s assertion that many in the metro area want to believe that these issues “just shot up out of the soil” couldn’t be more right. Many of these issues have been going on since the inception of Memphis, which is not to say that solving them is hopeless, but that it presents challenges that are far greater than even we may recognize.

Which gets me back to the point of the post I referenced at the beginning. In order for us to determine whether a Mayor or community leader has been “great”, we have to define what “greatness” is. If greatness is fixing everything, then no, we have had no great Mayors. But as the post rightly points out:

“Some of these things are outside the capacity of anyone as mayor to solve.”

So, if these things are outside the capacity of any mayor to solve, then what really defines greatness in the position of Mayor of Memphis?

The truth of the matter is, under this standard no leader of any stripe could be considered truly great. No matter how many problems any leader might solve, there are a hundred more lurking around the corner waiting to be discovered. Taking this reality into account, how does a leader achieve “greatness” in the face of generational challenges that are, to a large degree, outside of his or her power to fully address?

Think back to the beginning of our nation. While the Declaration of Independence may spell out the foundation of American philosophy, and the Constitution may spell out the rights of citizens and the responsibility of government, the truth of the matter is that what we think of as “freedom” today, wasn’t the freedom of the late 18th Century. Just look at the right to vote. Early on many states had restrictive rules about voting. Unless you were white, male, and a land owner, you didn’t necessarily have the right to vote (Source). Over time, as the nation matured, these rules changed, and became less restrictive, removing property restrictions and other hurdles, then allowing women to vote, and eventually guaranteeing the right to “All Americans of voting age” (though for some, particularly those who have served their time in jail, having their right to vote restored is still a huge hurdle).

Of course, none of these changes came thanks to any one individual. It took the voices and actions of thousands of people working for a common goal to extend these rights to the disenfranchised. And while each of these accomplishments are “great”, with every victory came the recognition of another form of disenfranchisement. A good example of this is protecting the choices of the voters through legislation like the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act which is a long way away from early attempts to bring voting rights to the disenfranchised and is still being fought out.

That said, I don’t think anyone would say that those who fought for voting rights for the disenfranchised weren’t working toward something “great” regardless of whether it was for women, minorities, or the poor. While achieving these goals certainly is great, it isn’t the achieving that defines greatness to me, it’s the willingness to stand up and fight for the betterment of those around you. Inspiring that action in yourself and your fellow man is the definition of greatness. Recognizing that the fight is continually ongoing and continuing work on the big goal, long after the little goal is achieved is the definition of greatness.

So, under that definition what would a great Memphis Mayor be? A great Memphis Mayor would be someone who inspired the public at large into positive action…a Mayor who, through their advocacy, action, and attention worked for the betterment of the city and those who have been wanting for generations. A great Mayor would connect the sick with the healthy, the poor with the wealthy, and the undereducated with the scholarly for the benefit of both sides of the equation in every instance.

True lasting solutions cannot be dictated, they have to be discovered. Connecting people of all stripes and backgrounds is the way to discover our individual and societal solutions. Removing the barriers of class, race and God knows what else, and encouraging people to discover the humanity of their neighbors is the way to transformational change that raises tides and lifts all boats.

So I’ll ask again, what would a great Memphis Mayor be? Well, solving all our problems certainly would qualify, but we all know that’s highly unlikely. How about we start with the small goal? Using the office to bring people together, opening up the lines of communication and helping nurture a community wide conversation that lead to community wide action would start a Mayor down the path of greatness.

Will this be AC’s legacy? Only time will tell.

Oct 17 2009

Re-evaluating Through the Transition

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, elections, Memphis Politics, Puke

Two months ago I wrote about the changes that have been going on in my life this year. Needless to say, it’s been interesting so far, and signs point to more interesting developments over the coming months. My recent absence from this blog and the twitter are partially the result of a wacky work schedule and a concerted effort to start down the path of many of the changes I talked about in that August post.

Aside from working my ass off, I’ve also been preparing to sell my house. This is by necessity more than anything else. While my original plan was to continue working and traveling through my first part-time semester back in college, the outlook on the work front isn’t that promising, so I’ve been looking at other avenues.

This is how life goes, and while it’s frustrating and challenging, I feel very hopeful and positive about what has happened so far, and what will inevitably be coming down the pike.

Through all of this, I’ve had little time to devote to the reading necessary to write. Longtime readers of this blog know that while I write a lot of opinion pieces, I usually make a concerted effort to source my material with as many supporting links as possible. I feel this is necessary because opinions ARE like assholes, everyone has one, but opinions pieces backed up by sources don’t necessarily suffer the problems that plague the typical opinionated blog post. This may sound a little arrogant, but I like to back up my opinions because I feel it not only makes them stronger to you the reader, but it also allows me the time to better formulate and hopefully strengthen my argument.

The downside of this is that it takes a REALLY LONG TIME to write…well, anything. Between work and work on my house, I really haven’t had the time. To be honest, even though the work I’ve been doing on the house has largely been of the manual labor sort, there’s a lot of thought that goes into the process, as well as a lot of Advil. I hope that I can get back to writing at the beginning of November, but I’m not making any promises.

In the course of all of this, I’ve also been re-evaluating just what I want this blog to be. For me Vibinc has been about advocacy, policy and politics from a decidedly liberal perspective. I don’t see that changing anytime soon, though I am looking at ways to better focus my attentions and perspectives to things that effect not only the way we live here in Memphis and Tennessee, but also the way we perceive the political environment in our community. I’m not really sure how this will manifest itself, or where it will take me, but I think it’s an interesting path to pursue.

Even though I’m re-evaluating the blog, that doesn’t mean I don’t have some things to say about the election Thursday. I know I promised some people, including @ MphsBlckPolitcs to write about it in the run-up to the election, but for the reasons listed above I never quite made it past the incubation stage. So, consider this a Post-Mortem of the election if you will…


If you didn’t see the complete and total landslide that was Thursday’s election coming, then you aren’t really paying that much attention to local politics. Back at the beginning of the campaign I said that someone (presumably Wharton) could win with only 30% of the vote considering the large field. Under normal circumstances this could have been the case, but the abbreviated nature of the campaign and the strength exhibited by the Wharton camp made that circumstance highly unlikely.

As Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery said election night, AC Wharton has been running since the 2007 Mayoral election, had more money than anyone, and a better organization. This is neither “interesting” nor “odd” nor any other descriptor that would cast doubt on the election results. AC’s campaign organization was ready, and no one else’s was. As a result, EVERYONE that got into the race after the retirement announcement of Mayor Herenton was stuck in a situation that made winning a virtually impossible task.

There were some surprises…

Myron Lowery’s strong showing, despite a late start and a small war chest showed that, given more time, he could have made a run at Wharton. I like much of what Lowery has done so far and hope that Wharton will take note of some of the changes that have taken place at City Hall over the past two months and maintain them through his administration. On the flip side, I’m glad that Lowery will be returning to the City Council. For all his faults, Lowery can be a calming voice on a body that can be quite contentious from time to time.

Carol Chumney’s third place finish should be a wake-up call for the former City Council member and State Legislator. Any rumors of her exit from future runs are not only premature, but also ignore her resolve. Carol wants to be a part of making Memphis better. Through her work in the state legislature and City Council this should be more than evident. However, Chumney suffers from a multi-faceted public perception problem. Part of this comes from what I called her ”cold and combative” posture at the first Mayoral debate. While Chumney did herself no favors in this first performance, media accounts, including my analysis of the first debate, perpetuated many of the long-held stereotypes of women seeking positions of power in the political realm.

As Mary Cashiola reported in the Memphis Flyer, “Women are twice as likely to be described emotionally in the media,” according to Erika Falk, author of Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns.

Folks, this has to stop. We need women and men of all races and socio-economic backgrounds to engage in the political process. The manner in which women, particularly strong, passionate women, are covered in the media is shameful, dismissive and downright ugly. As consumers of media, we deserve better. As candidates, women deserve to be treated with the same level of respect as their male counterparts. Snippets like this are simply dismissive and disrespectful. Not only is the quote used in the piece not bitter, it is a relevant critique of her political opponent that should have been researched rather than used as a blunt object to further a stereotype.

All that said, Chumney did commit some serious tactical errors that likely led to her weak showing at the polls. First and foremost, the early lack of any clear messaging from her campaign, despite a run less than two years before, allowed her opponents to get a jump on her in an area where she could have shown early strength. Considering her strong showing in the 2007 race, the meme of the campaign should have been “Chumney vs. Wharton”. By allowing so much time to pass before any clear message emerged, Chumney ceded a great deal of ground to Wharton early, and Lowery late. Campaigns are about momentum, and unfortunately for the Chumney campaign, this early lack of momentum made the difficult task of overcoming a well-funded candidate even more difficult.

Charles Carpenter was the fourth place finisher, and while he only received 5% of the vote, there is little doubt that he will use this as a springboard for a future run. Carpenter brought some interesting ideas to the campaign, and even though I disagree with him on many of his campaign positions, I hope he continues to engage in local politics. We need all kinds of voices in the mix, even ones I disagree with.

While the rest of the field accounted for less than 7.5% of the total vote, their impact on the race shouldn’t be ignored, particularly from Lawler and Whalum. Both had potent messaging operations, though Whalum seemed to show more late momentum than Lawler. In the end, all the messaging in the world can’t overcome a strong, well run, and well-funded campaign.

Running for any office requires a level of intentional preparation that cannot be thrown together in three months. With the next Mayoral election just two years away, anyone considering a run should start making preparations now. Memphis is best served by a strong and diverse field of candidates competing to lead us forward, not the dominant dynasties of the far and recent past. It is through this competition of ideas that we can grow as a community. Without competition, comes stagnation like what we saw in the final years of the Herenton Administration. Regardless of the intentions of any elected official, it is critical that we foster this kind of competition going forward, lest we fall back into the patterns of the past, and allow the future to slip by us.