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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Turnout over the weekend was pretty light. Just 923 people voted on Saturday, a quarter of them from District 6, which I took a look at yesterday. As of the close of early voting Saturday, just 3018 individuals had voted. That’s pretty low folks.
With 15 hours of voting that we have information on, and 16 early voting locations, that’s about 12.5 voters per hour or 1 voter every 5 minutes. Hopefully, today’s numbers, when they are released tomorrow, will show a little more interest.
The CA Editorial Board endorsed the incumbents in these races this morning. Here’s my look at how the races shape up.
District 1 is currently represented by Bill Morrison an educator in the Shelby County School District. Morrison won a 2007 runoff in a crowded field. However, with only one opponent this time around the math for a Morrison victory is very different this time around.
Morrison disappointed equality advocates by voting against the Employee Non-Discrimination Order in 2010. His opponent Kendrick Sneed has received the endorsement of the TEP PAC.
Kendrick Sneed is a Sheriff’s Deputy, and is currently seeking a degree in Applied Psychology from Christian Brother’s University. Sneed, a former aide to Harold Ford Jr. and Sr., is running in his first campaign.
I don’t make it up to the 1st district all that much, but this should be a pretty interesting race considering the 2007 contest.
Boyd has been in public service, at one level of government or another, for a very long time. That experience gives him some perspective, even if he can’t always remember all the details. I’ve spoken personally to Councilman Boyd on a couple of occasions, mostly about redistricting over the summer, but one thing sticks out in my mind more than anything else, and that’s the day the Council decided on the CVS in midtown.
Councilman Boyd made sure that everyone in attendance knew that he wasn’t impressed nor moved by the hundreds of people that showed up both in support of and opposition to the demolition of the Methodist Church on the corner of Cooper and Union. In fact, he said this exactly:
|…the people in the audience may not be aware of it but this group of Council-people is not persuaded by the numbers of people that appear here…
I was in the audience when this was said, and honestly, I was shocked. Its no wonder people don’t feel they have any say in local government when an elected official speaks so dismissively to interested citizens.
Sylvia Cox is running against Bill Boyd. A former member of the Memphis Charter Commission in 2006. One of Ms. Cox’s primary issues is the management of the Memphis Animal Shelter. She also volunteers for an organization, Real Good Dog Rescue that seeks to find good homes for animals.
Halbert, a former member of the Memphis City School Board is in her first term. He website has an extensive list of accomplishments and items in the pipeline, though it is interesting that her campaign site links to a Powerpoint on the City of Memphis server prepared by the Division of Housing and Community Development, which, to my way of thinking clouds the line between the office and the campaign.
There are three other candidates in the race for City Council District 4. They are Louis Matthew Morganfield III, Michelle Smith, and George Walker.
I travel through District 4 every day and quite frankly, I haven’t seen any signs of life for any of the campaigns.
I am, and have been frustrated that this council has really done little to address quality of life issues for our most needy people. It seems that closing community centers and cutting staff is the first thing that comes to mind with this Council when the budget is tight. I understand that payroll is the single largest expense the City has and considering the population contraction, decades of unbridled expansion, and neglect of neighborhoods in the City core, some services may need to be curtailed.
That said, those problems are the direct result of a lack of leadership and direction from City Hall that started long before Herenton and has continued, for the most part. While I understand that 9 members are in their first terms and probably feel these problems started before they came on the scene, I think its clear we’re still caught in the same mindset that got us into this mess.
With the 2010 Census came confirmation that Memphis has lost a fair amount of population density. This wasn’t a surprise, you can drive through just about any neighborhood and figure that out. Despite the lack of density, the size of Memphis hasn’t gotten any smaller. We’re still the same number of square miles we were last year. Little has been done to motivate people to be a part of the in-fill necessary to reverse this trend, and ensure we’re getting a maximum bang for the buck on our infrastructure investments. I understand it took us a long time to get in this hole and it will take a long time to get out of it,
According to the 2010 Census there are over 41,500 unoccupied housing units in Memphis alone out of 292,000 units. Just under 52% of those units are owner occupied. This trails the national average by about 15%, which is nearly the same as the vacancy rate.
I understand that by and large these vacant residences are getting their property taxes paid. I understand Property Tax makes up about 41% of city revenue, so filling them doesn’t bring in instant money. But those new people will have to buy stuff, which will help the second biggest tax collection area, sales tax, which makes up about 15% of revenue. 41,500 new households with an average of 2.6 people will have a lot of crap to buy every year.
But I’m not sure if any Council members have driven through some of the neighborhoods with lots of homes for sale. Some of them are nice middle class areas that most folks would be proud to call home, others are once nice areas that have been allowed to deteriorate into hit or miss neighborhoods populated by unkempt rental property that ultimately detracts from the value of the owner occupied homes in the neighborhood.
I drive past many of these on my way to school each morning and I wonder why every fifth house or so is boarded up or has the entirety of someone’s belongings on the curb like the house was bulimic and just couldn’t hold it in any more. The neighborhood I speak of looks like the one I grew up in in North Little Rock, a once proud working class neighborhood near the tracks that got bought up by slumlords who care more about the rent check than the property or the people living in the property.
On the major arteries surrounding this neighborhood there are boarded up buildings and abandoned foundation pads of businesses long lost. Sometimes I see people congregating in these areas, or someone hocking T-shirts or shoes, but most of the time they just sit there, rubble of a retail center, or factory, or warehouse long lost in the decay of the inner city.
How are we going to create this mythical in-fill while this persists? Why do we allow property owners the luxury of leaving these forgotten lots unattended? What penalty do we impose for leaving these scars on our city? Most importantly, why don’t we reclaim this land, and work to fill these gaps with something that would contribute to the neighborhood and ultimately, the city.
I can’t decide if we don’t do this because it’s just too big or if we’re scared of the blowback from folks that own the land.
Instead of addressing the disease we strike out at the symptoms of our problems. Instead of working to build new revenue we focus on cutting expenses, which ultimately penalizes people who who top out at about $16/hr ($33k/yr) because they cost too much to pick up our trash. We plan to contract further by cutting Fire Department staff and equipment. We call this “right sizing” but really its a reaction to a long-term lack of vision that penalizes the very people whose work keeps the city going.
Through all of this the media gives lip service to the token solutions that are put forward in one breath and then trains their eye on some trivial crap that looks good, but is less than .00001% of the total City budget, as if cutting that would solve anything.
And I admit that I’m as guilty as anyone of getting swept up in the tide of this insignificant crap more often than I wish I would.
So while I wish there was some better vision out there, I know that any land reclamation or redevelopment will take a long time to pay off.
In the mean time, the City Government will have to adjust service levels to the population of the city. This means that all 17 City divisions will have to become lean, mean, and highly efficient. This means that, like all of us, some of those workers will have to do more, better and faster. It doesn’t mean these reforms have to turn into an attack on unions a la Councilman Kemp Conrad’s sanitation solution. It means that there has to be cooperation between management and the workers to deliver exceptional service. There has to be accountability. Processes have to be streamlined, transparency has to become more than just lip service, and some positions will have to be eliminated, hopefully through regular attrition rather than furloughs and layoffs that will ultimately increase our already high unemployment rate.
With all that said, it also means that there will have to be some kind of tax increase, and if that’s all people can think about then they’re too selfish to see the real pain people of far lesser means feel in this city every day, not just twice a year when City and County property taxes are taken out of their escrow accounts.
With all that said, I’m happy to pay a little more on my property taxes if I have a guarantee that the money will be spent in such a way that makes government more transparent and efficient. That should always be the arrangement with any government entity. You may think me a fool for saying this, but I have faith in this city and the belief that we all have a responsibility, beyond just paying taxes and expecting services. We have a responsibility to pay attention to what’s going on, beyond what the media feels like reporting. We have a responsibility to understand the process and crawl up someone’s ass when we feel like they’re doing the wrong thing. Through all of that, we have a responsibility to give the city a chance to change and become agents for that change.
Until that happens, nothing will happen.
Maybe one day the City Council, as a body, will decide to take up that mantle and lead with it…but I’m not holding my breath.
One of these lucky Memphis City Council members could have the pleasure of running against me, if only they would reveal their plans for redistricting their seats. Despite pleas from supporters, I can only run against one of them.
Obviously, being that I am but a lowly blogger, I have some preferences. But until they decide who gets the honor, I’m putting the choice up to you. Make that choice, in the comments.
Sorry Councilmen Collins, Ford, Boyd and Morrison. Apparently I live no where near your districts. It’s your loss.