As a long time advocate of Pre-K, and someone who actually spent over a year researching the impact it can have on the development of young children, I understand all too well the high rate of return in the long run. I knew that return wouldn’t be measured in years, but in decades. That’s really how everything should be measured…but will never be as we quest to ever shorten the time we see a return on our investment.
As a society we’ve morphed from a relatively patient people, to the policy equivalent of day traders, buying and selling for pennies of return, to Adderall junkies demanding we be fed pills to fuel our “more better faster cheaper regardless of just how crappy the product ultimately is” lifestyle.
But that’s another point entirely.
The failure of the measure doesn’t have to be the failure of the cause. The slogan didn’t say: “Our Only chance to advance”.
It was a chance. One we as a city chose not to take. Arguing the wisdom of that vote is walking backwards. But in looking backwards, perhaps there are some lessons to be learned for the next time. There can be a next time if we want it.
This is not entirely the City Council’s fault. The state government plays a much bigger role in the way we collect revenue than the City ever could. But because the poor pay a disproportionately larger percentage of their income in taxes than wealthier Tennesseans, there’s ample reason to be leery of a sales tax to pay for something that will largely benefit the poor.
This was my secondary objection to the measure, though I did vote yes on it.
My primary objection was that it was a sales tax increase to pay for Pre-K and mask a property tax decrease, that would amount to basically nothing for middle income people ($20/year).
I feel confident that if all the money were benchmarked for Pre-K, and certain elements were better crafted, the issue would have passed.
Last night, after the election result was certain, I heard several elected officials who lent a good deal of political capital to the cause say several things. To paraphrase the most oft repeated refrains:
1. People don’t want to pay more taxes.
2. People don’t trust government.
3. Things have to change.
There are some important things to note here:
1. None of them said people don’t want Pre-K.
2. Isn’t it the height of irony that an elected government official would acknowledge publicly that the people, who elected them, don’t trust the government they were elected to play a deciding factor in?
3. Taking these first two into account, it seems clear that things do have to change, though perhaps not in the way said elected officials intended.
Speaks volumes in my book.
But there are other issues as well.
The 8 member, unelected board that would administer the funds made folks queasy. Memphis has more than its fair share of unelected boards that handle city money in ways that make even the least observant question the rationale. I’m not sure many people have the stomach for another.
Another thing that added to the discomfort is the charge that the Pre-K system in Memphis already has empty seats…one that, to my knowledge at least, was never verified. Because the City can no more make Pre-K compulsory than levy an income tax, the practical considerations here may have given some voters pause.
Finally, the silver bullet nature of the campaign…
Pre-K isn’t going to solve long-term unemployment, or generational poverty…at least not in any term that I will live to see.
Pre-K isn’t going to train people for the hundreds of jobs at Electrolux that remain unfilled due to a low-skill workforce.
It isn’t going to help get people to those jobs if they are qualified to do them.
It isn’t going to hold slum-lords accountable when they allow their property to deteriorate so they pay lower property taxes, all while charging the same amount of rent to their tenants.
Pre-K doesn’t do anything for the generations that came before this one, that need just as much, if not more help than their kids, so they can take part in making a better future for their community.
It doesn’t work to fill the gaps in skills that people desperately need to get out of the grip of poverty level minimum wage jobs.
It doesn’t give a second chance to the folks who may have made a bad decision or two in their lives, and are now cast aside as economic untouchables with little or no opportunity.
It may help increase educational attainment, and by extension, help decrease crime and poverty, but lets be honest, that’s no less than 20 years out.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to have universal Pre-K here in Memphis, it just means we have to be honest with ourselves.
This ain’t the walk off home run that it was billed to be.
The winners…if there is such an animal in this situation, have a heavy load to carry, though I am skeptical that they will.
I partially agree with Shea Flinn and Jim Strickland when they said, the onus is on the opponents to bring something forward to help make this happen, though I think they give their opposition too much credit. The scant voices who fought this on a wing and a prayer aren’t why it failed. They didn’t help get it passed, but they don’t deserve credit for squashing it either.
The solution, that has been said by some of the anti’s is use the $57m the city owes the schools to pay for it. That assumes a lot…most importantly, that the schools are ok with the city spending their money without their permission. It is also a very short-term plan for funding Pre-K. $57m would last for about two years, if that.
To the anti-salestaxers I ask, “What’s your plan?” How should the city begin the work of addressing the long-term inequities that have brought us generational poverty, low educational attainment, and an opportunity vacuum for those whose circumstances are beyond their control?
I ask this, with the implied understanding that the City, on its own, cannot address all these issues…the State and Federal government have more than their fair share of the blame in complicating…if not exacerbating these circumstances.
I ask this because simply acting as a foil to political rivals isn’t leadership any more than 40-odd meaningless votes to repeal Obamacare is leadership. Opposition without a workable alternative is nothing more than a cynical political ploy.
I’m actually looking forward to it, because perhaps the ideas will net something this initiative never did, which is community input on the final product. Maybe this alternative will actually look, sound, and feel more like the people it seeks to serve. And maybe, just maybe it will be successful at the polls.
Until then, the ball is in your court.
The real thing I’m interested in is seeing just how quickly the next group picks up the ball and runs with it on this and related issues. Something’s gotta give.
We’ve got too much of a whole lot of things that keep us down and a whole lot more of the “it can’t be done” attitude that I fear this result will only fuel.
We can do more, we just have to start. Its that simple. We can start anywhere…housing, workforce training, education…seriously, we’ve got more than enough people that need help in these and more areas that finding a place to start isn’t the issue…starting is.
It all comes down to how bad we want it, and the next few weeks will go a long way to answering that question.
How bad do you want it? I hope the answer to that question isn’t “Not bad enough”.
Noses are funny. Often the most noticed facial feature…next to the eyes, noses are also one of the most complained about things people have on their face.
My nose, is what I affectionately call a “3 finger nose”…meaning, from my face to the tip is three fingers long. You can see it below.
When I was a kid I hated it. I wanted a smaller nose.
It was an object of teasing and torture through my adolescence. I’ve never been so vain as to consider plastic surgery on it, but I certainly “wished it smaller” more than once.
My nose is a feature that provides a great deal of utility from the obvious, smelling, to holding up my glasses. This, of course comes with some costs. Allergies or head colds aren’t a small affair for me. There’s a lot of real estate there. A lot of ground to cover. More than one tree has died in the service of blowing my nose. I’m sure many more will as well.
Eventually, I came to grips with my feelings about my nose, even beating people to the punch with jokes. It is a dominant feature, no doubt, but its one that I have come to embrace over the years.
So what do noses have to do with the Memphis budget? Simply put, by focusing on tax rate, and cutting, cutting, cutting, we’re proposing a solution that not only doesn’t address the bigger problems, but also creates an environment where there’s no oxygen in the room to even discuss them.This is almost like the behavior of a newly single middle aged person trying to find the one thing that will make them attractive once again to the opposite sex.
Its easy to focus in on one thing, and proclaim that by fixing this one thing…everything will somehow be ok. The unfortunate reality is that by focusing in on that one thing, we ignore the real problems…the fact that we can’t see our toes, that we need to eat healthier and exercise, or that we need more therapy than we can afford.
We focus on this one feature, like a nose, because its simple.
We convince ourselves that by correcting this one simple single problem we have shot the silver bullet that will make the others go away. But this never works out. The problems remain, and we are still in the same situation we were before.
Our only choice is to either focus on addressing the real issues, which is hard, or find another distraction that will be our next failed “silver bullet”. Thus far, this Council and the Administration has focused on the distractions.
I do appreciate the support, but this isn’t just about any one person.
I consider Jim Strickland a personal friend. He supported me in my campaign, and I’ve supported him in his past campaigns. We disagree on this issue.
I started down this road because, aside from my belief that “tax rate” is a poor metric by which to judge efficiency, I am also curious as to what the end game is. What is the long-term vision? How will doing this address the long-standing problems that impact Memphis…from crime and education to economic opportunity and flight…especially for those who are suffering most (low income families) and leaving the fastest (middle income families)?
Thus far, that hasn’t been described in any tangible way. So, absent something to convince me otherwise (which would be a tough sell to begin with), I’m left with little understanding as to the long game.
When I ran for County Commission last year, I talked about solutions that outlive political cycles. “Solution” is a word I don’t really like to use, because it implies permanence or that there is a “silver bullet”. Policy is neither permanent nor a “silver bullet”.
Policy, is supposed to be a living, breathing thing that evolves as the situation evolves. This is hard for politicians to accept. We all want things to be simple. We want answers to be certain…”If A then B” type statements. That may make for a good TV sound byte, but it doesn’t make for good policy.What we get, more often, is gut reactions and hill to die on declarations, especially from legislators. This is only compounded when the administration has failed to either articulate, or gain widespread support for their vision.
And that’s where we’re at, and where we’ve been for some time…even before Mayor Wharton took over. We’ve been a city without a policy vision.
The CVB has a vision of Memphis that it is pushing both internally and externally.
A slew of local non-profits have articulated their vision for either attracting or building up local talent. (more than I want to try to mention)
Hell, even the Grizzlies have articulated a sense of self-identity with their “Believe Memphis” and #Grit #Grind mentality.
Why we can’t adopt any of these ideas, these identities, and turn them into an attitude for a long-term policy vision for the community is beyond me. But here we stand, fragmented. Looking toward our future with little to no idea of what we’re working for when we get there, or how to do it.
So rather than do the hard work, we go for the nose job, or the facelift. We buy some snake-oil salve from a late night tv infomercial, or rehash tried and failed “tax cuts = job creation/growth” strategies we borrowed from an administration that saw the single largest devastation of middle class wealth since the Great Depression.
We get caught up in cosmetics, rather than getting on the treadmill and putting down the Pork Rinds, or maybe reading something other than a trashy pulp novel for personal development.
In short, we focus on the fast food solution for our challenges, and leave feeling just as unsatisfied as we were when we started, and a little bit fatter.
I’m not saying I have all the answers. But come on:
If flight out of the city is something you’re concerned about, laying off and eliminating jobs is one helluva way to say don’t move from Memphis. You just nearly guaranteed 400 people will move. They’ll have to.
If Public Safety is something you think we should focus on, eliminating 280ish public safety positions is one really self-defeating way to do that.
If you think taxes are too high, then how will you explain to the public that these very actions will increase insurance premiums by 11% to 15% (which by the way, is more than the tax hike would be).
I’m just saying, with four members of the City Council supposedly angling to run for Mayor, you’d think there would be something better on the menu than the paper plate of failed ideas and broken dreams we keep getting served.
You’d think that some kind of coherent vision would emerge…something people could get behind. Because what’s going to happen now is people are going to love the tax break and be pissed when their house burns to the ground, or Ma-Maw dies of that stroke because response times increased, or you wake up to find some dude rifling through your car at 3am because the police presence just ain’t there any more.
That tax cut isn’t going to mean anything when that happens. And people will use those experiences to drive their decisions and belongings out of town…just like they have been for more than 20 years (with a lot of help from the County Commission, I might add, which has, in turn, negatively impacted their ability to raise revenue).
For 20 years, as a city (and a County) we’ve bought one facelift and tummy tuck after another, expecting our fortunes to magically change, all while not dealing with the real problems facing the city (and County), and chasing after folks that just don’t and ain’t gonna love us no more.
For 20 years we’ve given lip service to the real issues that are driving down revenues, and stymying population growth, all while cramming Ho-Ho’s and pork rinds in our face and ignoring the real hard work that has to be done to correct the problem.
That’s not just dumb, that’s a slow suicide.Its got to stop. But to stop, we have to have leaders who don’t look at the whole enterprise as a lost cause, and I’m not convinced that’s what we have right now.
And while the facelift we’re currently contemplating (aka the rate cut) may make us look pretty on Facebook and Twitter, there’s still all those real issues lingering beneath the cropped edges on that profile picture that have been, and will continue to drive people out, or keep them away.
In the end, this facelift will be just as successful as all the past ones…un…and we’ll still have all the same problems, but worse.
And a year from now we’ll be sitting here wondering why it didn’t work, and still have no long-term plan, and wonder if that stomach electrocution thing really will give us six-pack abs or if they just hired models that already had them and put it on them.
What’s worse, we’ll probably buy that dumb piece of crap looking for another silver bullet.
We shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed when it doesn’t work.
In City Hall, the County Commission, and most importantly, the school board, politicians will be putting together numbers for the upcoming year.
The schools budget hasn’t been released yet, though it is expected on Tuesday, so a complete picture isn’t really available.
What we do know is thanks to a whole lot of economic factors outside of our control, and many more within our control (though few would admit it) we’re going to see a property tax increase in both Memphis, Shelby Co., and likely many of the municipalities that were once thought above such measures.
While we’re talking about an increase, Nashville Metro is talking about a small decrease in property tax rates.
Considering the overall economic climate, this may come as a surprise. I know I was surprised when I heard it. But the underlying reason Nashville gets a cut, while we’ll most likely see an increase goes to a whole lot of issues we, as a community have been unwilling to face. None of which, by the way, have to do with “spending too much”, though that is the most often cited reason.
Property tax is the single largest piece of the City and County “revenue pie”. As property values increase, the tax rate required to remain “revenue neutral” drops. As values decrease, the tax rate required must increase.
Almost no one wants to see critical services cut: Police, Fire and Trash Collection. Trash collection is its own thing, funded by a fee collected by MLGW, so tax rate has basically NOTHING to do with that (regardless of what Kemp Conrad says), but Police and Fire make up a huge percentage of the City budget. Law and order plays a big role in the County budget as well, though the impact is muted because the Sheriff doesn’t have to staff up the way municipal police departments do. The single largest issue the County has to deal with is education, which we’ll save for after the budget comes out.
The data in the above spreadsheet comes from the Census and from published tax rates and calculations listed in the budgets from each area.
There are a couple of things that should jump out at you immediately:
1. Value – The median home values in each area. As you can see, Nashville’s median value is much higher. This means they can collect the same amount of money without levying a higher tax rate. Shelby Co.’s median home value is one reason for our high tax rate.
2. Vacancies – Shelby Co. has a very high rate of vacancies compared to Nashville, and Memphis is an even higher percentage than that. High vacancy rates depress value and overall collections for two reasons: oversupply and weak demand brings down prices over time, and long-term vacancies not only mean lower collections from that home, but often many of the homes in the area as home values decline, especially if there is a high volume of vacancies in a specific area. (Note: Shelby Co. vacancies include Memphis vacancies, because, you know, Memphis IS in Shelby Co.)
None of this is new. We’ve known it for a long time. I’ll have to address why this is the way it is another day, but for now, lets just say both Memphis and Shelby Co. government have been chasing population rather than giving people a reason to stay. This is also reflected in outmigration information. Again, that’s a different post.
A lot of politicians believe that pushing for a tax hike is like getting Herpes. You might be able to manage it, but it will never go away.
This is due in part to politicians focusing on spending rather than what we get for said spending. Most people prefer a visible police presence in their neighborhood. Fully staffed and nearby fire stations bring down response times and, by extension, insurance rates, not to mention that your chance of survival if tragedy strikes is greatly increased.
Understand, we can’t have these things if we don’t have the money to pay for them.
At the same time, almost no one is talking about the conditions that play in to our tax rate, including oversupply, and vacant, often blighted homes. This depresses our ability to get the same level of service for a lower rate. Note, that doesn’t mean your tax bill will go down. Things still cost what they cost. It means the rate would be less.
The reality is, all this fussin’ about “tax rate” is double talk. Everyone with half a brain in their head knows you can’t field the same level of police or fire presence with substantially less money. It ain’t gonna happen.
But “tax rate” is the thing that fits on most political literature. It’s an easy sell. Its harder to explain to people that a series of policies you put into place helped raise home values.
So, in a sound bite driven world, what we end up talking about is what fits on a postage stamp, rather than the big things that actually play in to that “postage stamp” issue.
For a homeowner with a median value, increasing the tax rate in Memphis by the proposed amount will cost $70/year, or about $6/mo.
If you’re fortunate enough to have a million dollar home, it will run you about $60/mo.
In both cases, its pocket change relative to the income one must have to own such things.
Of course, the County is most likely going to raise Property tax rates as well. Even still that’s an increase of about $14/mo. Hardly the oppressive increase that we are told it will be.
When you talk to realtors, they give you a three main reasons people move: Crime, Schools, and Space…not necessarily in that order.
I’ve talked to a lot of realtors over the past several years, and none of them have said someone wanted to move out of Memphis because the tax rate is too high. I’m not saying there aren’t some people who do. I’m just saying its a tiny percentage.
Crime and Schools are the top two things that the City and County could actually tackle to keep people from moving (I don’t think they can do much about space) you have to ask yourself what have they done, and to what effect?
Here’s what they’ve done: They’ve inadvertently fed into the notion that neither are solvable problems.
How have they done this? In a couple of ways.
By threatening to reduce funds for public safety, and thereby planting the idea in people’s heads that the city will now become less safe because fewer police will be on the beat. If you’ve ever had your home broken into (and I have) this plants a seed in your mind that will eventually move you to action.
On the schools front, the lack of certainty, some of it real, some manufactured, and some imagined…along with low test scores and a general feeling that all is lost. This comes from leaders who choose to accentuate negatives as a political wedge to ultimately fund schools less in search of lower tax rates.
In both cases, this is about political rhetoric meant to shift blame from political leaders to “bureaucrats” in the various departments, or just any other political leader, rather than seeking real solutions to the County’s top two self-identified problems.
It’s baloney, pure and simple, and it shows a greater commitment to the four-year political cycle than the long-term health of our community…whether they mean to or not.
If we were really committed to addressing the long-term problems our community faces, we would redirect our efforts from the “Tax Rate Tango” to poverty cessation. 26% of everyone in Memphis lives in poverty. Another 36.6% is considered “working poor”. That’s nearly 63% of the total population of the City, or 410,000 people. Enough to fill the Liberty bowl almost 7 times.
High poverty means lower than average wages (about $7000 less than state household median), which translates to lower sales tax collections (less disposable income) and the necessity for lower housing rates (which means lower property values and less revenue per home).
This doesn’t mean the City needs to undertake a huge Welfare program. We already have that for Corporations…they’re called PILOTS. It means we have to do more to support efforts already underway by the Federal, State and County governments, as well as the litany of non-profits that work on these issues. It means we have to stop doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.
Most of all, it takes a little “outside the box” thinking, and a commitment to correcting this issue.
How does that impact crime and schools? The short answer is poverty, crime, and low educational attainment are all intertwined. Poverty doesn’t cause crime or low educational attainment, but higher poverty rates correlate to them.
I’ll delve deeper into that in my next post.
Who, in their right mind, would want this job?
Think about it: 23 members who can’t seem to come to a decision on anything. 16 of whom would be gone or at least on their way out by the time the new Super takes office. The chance that a vote on a new Super would involved a majority of the “leavers”, and a minority of the “stayer” is not only real, but likely.
Add to that, the litany of questions that have yet to be answered, and the search for a new administrator became too heavy a lift for the search firm.
The irony, yesterday we received a questionnaire from Proact about what we, as parents of an MCS child would like to see in a new Super.
In addition to giving up on the search for a Super, the board took a vote on delaying the merger, which failed. The argument for delay has now come from both sides of the charter surrender vote, which is pretty interesting up to the point that you realize that state law doesn’t allow for a delay in the merger. The timeline is set forth in Norris-Todd, and affirmed by Judge Mays. Short a ruling on the constitutionality of the timeline provision, which is pretty solid honestly, delay isn’t going to happen, so let’s just stop talking about it and get on the to the business of actually getting ready for next year, mmmmkaaay?
The board did vote to approve outsourcing of custodial services to GCA. I don’t generally support this kind of action, but the question hasn’t been about whether or not to outsource for weeks. It’s been about who to outsource to.
I found out late last night that GCA also has a contract with Metro Nashville Public Schools, something that might have been reported before and I just missed. I’m asking my Nashville readers to report back. I know I’ve got a lot of teachers from Nashville that read. I want your perspective on their performance so we at least know what to expect. Hit me up on my contact page if you don’t have my email address or on the tweeter @vibinc.
Other things include transportation and school closings, though I think school closings is a bit of a distraction considering all the other things going on. Seems like we could have brought this up in July, after the approval of the new budget and the start of the next fiscal year, and that would have allowed more time to actually consider some of the open questions that are hindering the release of a proposed budget from Interim Supt. Hopson.
Maybe there’s something about a timeline that I’m missing here. I don’t really know.In any case, I’m sure the County Commission and Mayor Luttrell are itching to get this budget, if for no other reason than to have something to practice hitting the wastebin from their chair. If the new budget comes in as expected at $1.3b (which is $40m more than last year) you can expect to see exasperated looks and Bugs Bunny style steam springing from the ears of folks, not to mention the normal hyperbole that has little if any basis in fact. I’m talking directly to you Chris Thomas/Wyatt Bunker/Heidi Shaffer.
The bellyaching will, no doubt, be more pronounced than the aftereffects of eating a raw pork chop.
In other action, the board approved a policy that would pay teachers based on performance rather than experience and educational attainment, an irony if nothing else. I get that “book learnin’” doesn’t necessarily make you a better teacher, but shouldn’t teachers, who are in the business of education, always be seeking more education? Isn’t that a valuable thing to seek? Apparently not.
I’ll be taking a deeper look at the whole teacher evaluation/pay issue later this week to hopefully better explain the policy that was adopted by the board last night.
So I guess we’re still in wait and see mode until the next meeting of that August body who shall not be named. Until then, there are a lot of questions to be answered. The largest of which begins with a b, ends with a get and has U all up in the middle of it.
Over the weekend, I was honored to give a presentation on school funding for Livable Memphis at Rhodes College.
Since the we don’t have a budget for the upcoming year yet, even though we’re just 60 days out, I talked about the budget from last year, and hoped to give a little insight as to how things are funded, how much we spend, and what’s coming down the pike.
45 min may seem like a long time, but with as much to cover as I had, there were lots of things I couldn’t get into…like enrollment, or drilling down into each system’s administration. That said, as budget primers go, I think it was alright.
As the school budget emerges, I’ll have more to add.
Below are the videos of the event.