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.
Any Democrat thinking about challenging Basar might want to start getting their ducks in a row now. He’s a nice guy (that I happen to like personally) and pretty popular in many circles…but that doesn’t mean he should go unchallenged.
I don’t live in his new district, and don’t have any plans of running in 2014. Basar clearly does. If you’re not sure that you’re in his district, you can go here. He’ll be running in District 13.
If you are in his district and interested in running, drop me a line. I have some insights that might help you.
Basar’s decision to seek re-election isn’t the worst idea to befall Shelby Co. or Tennessee. Here are some of them, from the past three days. This sample is just the tip of the iceberg…
DeBerry received $100,000 from the pro-charter, pro-voucher group Students First founded by former DC Superintendent and “education reformer” Michelle Rhee in his primary contest against former Rep. Jeanne Richardson last year.
Apparently, that was an investment well spent for the group.
Apparently, Shelby Co. Mayor Mark Luttrell doesn’t feel like he needs support from Memphians. In a Commerical Appeal article the inspections stations, mandated by an EPA agreement, and recently abandoned by the City of Memphis, will be taken over by the state rather than the County…even though the EPA now classifies the entirety of Shelby Co. a pollution problem.
The agreement with the State of Tennessee would exempt the 1/3 of Shelby Countians who live outside of Memphis from vehicle inspections for up to 6 years. Folks who live in Memphis will not only still be subject to inspections, but will also have to pay for them.
Way to take care of your largest constituency group.
Yesterday, in the State Senate, the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act died in committee thanks to no members making a motion to hear the bill. Two Democratic Senators, Ophelia Ford and Charlotte Burks were noticeably absent when the bill came up.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Minority Caucus Chair, Lowe Finney (D-Jackson), who I have a separate beef with, is a necessary reform if we want to keep the mountains that are a signature of our Eastern Division. Kudos to Finney for carrying the bill, even if he couldn’t muster a motion.
Video of the entire debate on the bill is included below. See also: King Coal Recasts Itself as Friend of Earth After Stomping Environmentalists in Senate
State Rep. Vance Dennis (R-Savannah) thinks he has a way to stop the scourge of Obamacare in Tennessee.
Sit down sir. The moving of your mouth is exposing your ignorance.
As bad as the electoral problems have been in Shelby Co., at least we don’t have a witch hunt going on over our voting rolls (at least not on this scale).
Davidson Co. Election Commissioner Steve Abernathy has taken it upon himself to investigate the citizenship of voters in the state’s second largest county against legal advice.
He says he wants to “Save America”. From what? No reporter had the stones to ask, but one might surmise from his rhetoric he wants to “Save” it from voters who don’t vote like him.
Newscoma has a great post about local control that explores just how deep the State Legislature is willing to wrest control of local issues from local government.
I’m not sure if I’ll make this a regular series, but if you want to know what’s going on in the state on a daily basis, Subscribe to the Daily Buzz. News from around the state, in your inbox every morning.
I’ve been thinking about a lot of things since last week’s school board meeting.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are basically two ways to cut down on spending: lower your projected expenditures on the front end, or lower them on the back end based on reserves and revenues. Its probably a mischaracterization to say that the schools have chosen the latter, though that’s definitely the perception, and conventional wisdom that prevails.
Unfortunately for the cause of honest debate, just what the right amount of “spending” actually is never really comes into the conversation. One naturally assumes that it means the balance of meeting the mission with as little waste as possible. Of course, everyone wants that. But the argument assumes that this isn’t happening now.
With that in mind, I’m going to tackle two of the more popular fallacies spread by the “spending too much” crowd.
One of the most common and widely accepted arguments about school funding is that it is rife with waste. Charges of patronage jobs, and administrators whose jobs are either duplicated elsewhere, or who do nothing have littered the debate over school funding and efficiency for longer than anyone can remember.
The typical counter to this charge is that these jobs are necessary to conduct business.
One thing neither side of this debate does is come forward with numbers, other than the number of employees, to support their claims.
The “bloated administration” side has an easy lift. Americans hate the idea of bureaucracy. MCS has done itself no favors with some of its practices. But ultimately, the charges and counter-claims are left unsupported, leaving the listener to make an uninformed decision based on their personal perspective. Combine that with the constant beating of the drum of bloat, and over time, people come to accept the argument because the school system has never really presented a solid or coherent argument against it.
But is it true? To find out, we have to look at like agencies. How about other school districts across the state.
The challenge here is grouping like things accordingly. Because of the way some districts report expenses, not all expense categories or sub-categories match exactly, but by and large this estimate is within .1% between districts.
The key thing here is that across Tennessee, the state’s largest districts spend about the same percentage of total expenditures on Administration functions, between four and five percent.
So if MCS, as it stands now, is bloated, then so are all the other districts in Tennessee, including SCS, which is often heralded as the model for efficient administration, and has the second highest percentage of all the urban districts.
In short, the allegation that MCS is somehow any more wasteful on administrative functions is false.
Here’s the exact quote:
“Shelby County Schools between $7,000 and $8,000 per student was able to produce more teachers, more teacher assistance, more librarians in their schools than Memphis City Schools was with about $10,000 per pupil,” says Bunker.
This is what one would call “creative math”.
Look back at the spreadsheet above. You’ll note I helpfully provided the per child spending for each district.
Not only does MCS not spend $10,000 per child, they don’t spend as much as other districts around the state. MCS comes in third in terms of per child spending, behind Hamilton Co. Schools and Metro Nashville schools.
So where does Bunker get this $10,000 number from?
To get to $10,000 per child, you have to include all the funds from the General Fund, and all Special Revenue Funds, which include services for kids who are severely economically disadvantaged, or have some kind of special need.
Of the $250m that flows into MCS for these special, need based projects, only $2,000 comes from Shelby Co. government.
But wait, there’s more.
SCS gets this money too. In fact, their per child spending bumps up to over $9000 per child if you include it.
MCS gets more as a percentage of its total budget because it has a far higher percentage of children who are economically disadvantaged or have other special needs.
But to characterize the “General Fund” expenditure for SCS and the “All Revenue” expenditure for MCS as somehow equivalent is not only incorrect, its outright dishonest.
I should note, Commissioner Bunker isn’t the only one to spread this fallacy. He’s just the most recent one to get caught on camera spreading it. There are plenty of other local politicians who have used this creativity for various purposes.
Both of our examples put in perspective the reality of school spending.
First, our local school districts don’t spend more on administration than other large school districts across the state.
Second, our spending per pupil isn’t outside the norm for these same districts.
All that said, it doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for added efficiency. I don’t work for any school district, so I’m not qualified to make a determination.
In fact, no one on the County Commission works for a school district, with the exception of Melvin Burgess, who is well placed to know just how lean the district is running.
Perhaps rather than trying to foist a trumped up “conflict of interest” cloud on him, as Commissioner Terry Roland charged, they could ask him about efficiency measures the district has taken.
I know, that doesn’t play well in the media.
In the end, rather than political gamesmanship we need an honest debate about the budget for the schools. That has been completely absent from this debate to date.
Hopefully, that will change soon. One can hope, right?
I’m going to take a quick detour from the budget issues to talk about something that I believe ties in directly to the way we perceive our schools, and by extension, the amount of investment we’re willing to place in those schools.
In the nearly nine years that I’ve lived here, there’s been a narrative that the City schools are “bad”. This despite the reality that there are many “good” city schools. This narrative plays out in the media by focusing on what I call “Blue Light stories”, or stories that involve the police and stories that focus on district-wide measures with little or no background.
You have a story to tell. If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.
When someone else tells your story, it won’t be the story you want told.
For the majority of the first several years I lived here, the only real stories coming out of the City schools were those that support the idea that there is an inherent “badness” about them. Fights, arrests, and failing schools, including a story that tried to paint a program that would keep pregnant teens in school as a problem rather than a solution. All this has furthered the notion that the City schools are “bad”.
Its easy to blame the media for this, but in reality it is the result of a reclusive organization that hopes to ride under the radar rather than spend the time and effort required to craft a narrative of successes despite the circumstance.
Truth is, there are plenty of examples of success in our City schools. Those successes happen despite the difficult realities that so many of our children face.
Our high rate of poverty means that the family of nearly every child in the district is one paycheck away, or less, from financial distress.
The transient nature of much of our population means that many children will transfer from one school to another, sometimes several times, during the school year. Research shows this can severely delay a child’s development.
High rates of teen pregnancy and crime in many neighborhoods means that children are thrust into adulthood well before they are ready, which often means they end their education prematurely.
These aren’t excuses, they are reality. A reality that the Schools can’t overcome on their own. A reality that most decision-makers in both the public and private sectors don’t want to face because it is an indictment of their continued inaction.
Instead, these same decision-makers tell stories of how the poor should pick themselves up by their bootstraps, ignoring the fact that none of those bootstrap stories we’ve all heard so much about came to fruition without the intervention of a benefactor.
The story was simple, relevant and compelling…triumph over circumstance.
More recently, the naming of MCS Teacher Allison Chick as TN Teacher of the year provided the district with an opportunity to tell the stories of teachers who are going above and beyond to be a positive force in the lives of their children.
There are many teachers in Memphis who are a part of the I teach. I am. initiative. This program tells a compelling narrative. Unfortunately, it took me Googling Ms. Chick’s name to find it.
These examples, and hundreds more like them, are stories that need to be told. Stories of overcoming the odds. Stories that not only highlight individual achievement, but change the narrative that people somehow build success in a vacuum.
People need evidence of success to strengthen their hope, faith and resolve that things can get better. There is no single magic bullet. At this point, the district isn’t even firing a shot. The result is a continued belief that nothing is getting better and nothing can be done.
It is critical that the district challenge that narrative head on.
The disconnect is stunning. As a community, we conveniently ignore the fact that if our schools are failing, we as a community are failing.
Yet those who would seek to discredit the City schools continue to point to them as a failure, even though they themselves are complicit in that failure.
By failing to address the circumstances that are a drag on the development of our children and our overall prosperity we fail to recognize that we’re all in this together…whether we like it or not.
Some try to excuse these failures by characterizing whole classes of people as lazy or worse. Truth be told, if there were as many lazy folks in our community as people claim, the uphill battle would be far steeper than it is today. No man is an island. Without meaningful and widespread support, even the most gifted fail.
The end result is, as a community, we’ve proven to be either too selfish, or short-sighted to even begin to tackle these longstanding problems that ultimately impact educational attainment and community prosperity.
In the long run, we’re doing nothing but hurting ourselves.
In the time since I’ve become a believer.
This isn’t just because of the words, though that helped, but also because of the results. The team went on to prove me wrong in my belief to a point that they changed my belief.
Building success in education takes more than a season, but there are many little agreements that can be sought to build that larger agreement of belief.
Telling your story is the first step to building belief. It shows people that you not only care, but that you care enough to say it in a meaningful, coherent and engaging way.
That’s important. You can’t build agreement with just words alone. You must do it in a way that is mindful of those who may seek a different narrative, and be ready to smack that down clearly and concisely.
Failing to do that, just gives more legs to your detractors.
There are people, both on the USB and on the County Commission, who seek to discredit the USB because it furthers their short-term interests…municipal schools.
The USB has done itself no favors by neglecting to release a detailed draft of proposed expenditures and showing how those expenditures compare to previous years.
I’ve attempted to do this, by showing last year’s budget, but that can only go so far. Without real numbers from the USB, even they can’t defend themselves, not to mention, a blogger who has limited time, and few resources other than passion.
That passion is fading due to the lack of meaningful information from the body. I can write about this all day long, but the ultimate responsibility is for the USB to tell the story of why there’s a $145m deficit. They not only haven’t done that with any clarity, they’ve all but refused to do so.
The result is that individuals, like County Commissioners Chris Thomas, Wyatt Bunker, and Terry Roland, have rolled the USB making them look inept. Whats more, people who would likely take the side of the USB have been left with nothing to present a counter-argument.
Stop being stupid. Get out in front of your story. Your silence is not only killing you, but also hurting the future of children in the district.
It doesn’t matter that the numbers, as they stand right now, are merely projections. They’re the numbers you have. Support them.
It doesn’t matter if the motivation of of the $145m increase was to sow conflict. The USB voted on it, overwhelmingly approved it. Support it. (Note: I’m not saying that was the motivation, I’m just not counting it out as a possibility.)
It doesn’t matter that your main detractors on the County Commission also support municipal schools. Even your supporters can’t get behind this proposal because you haven’t supported it.
Stop making the counter-argument easy for your detractors.
Stop acting like a helpless, hapless body.
Get out in front of your story. Support it with documents and facts. Make it easy for natural allies to not only come out in favor of the proposal, but become evangelists for the cause.
That’s how you build agreement.
That’s how you stifle dissent.
That’s how you tell the story of what we could be…if only people were willing to invest in the future.
Is the USB willing to invest the effort to tell the story of our community?
Only time will tell.