Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Barry Hartzog: One Of Memphis' Best

On those days when discouraged about the course of Memphis events and with questions about the future that seem to have few answers, I always find encouragement in the realization that the real strength of Memphis does not reside in the halls of government or the board rooms of corporate leaders, but in the simple lives of extraordinarily men and women who labor quietly and without fanfare for the good of the community.

Barry Hartzog was just such a person.

Today, Memphis is just a little less Memphis. He died Friday.

Only a fortunate few knew him personally, but most of us benefited from his passion for the Memphis Zoo, where he worked for the last decade and a half. He was part of the “Goldsmith’s Mafia” assembled by the department store chain’s former executive Roger Knox when he took the reins of the new foundation which would manage Memphis’ most popular family attraction.

Together, with Mr. Knox, Barry Hartzog brought a distinctly retail attitude toward zoo operations, and it was part of their wisdom that they never saw any conflict between a profit-minded zoo and its overriding ecological mission.

But Barry brought more than just a customer focus to his work at the zoo. Every day, he brought every thing that he had to give, working long into the night to make sure a special event had just the right dazzle for the public, that the kids at the zoo’s Halloween event would remember it for years to come and that no one entered the zoo without the promise of special memories.

Somehow, it is more than fitting that the last minutes of his 63 years were spent on a ladder getting yet another holiday event ready for zoo visitors.

Barry was largely responsible for the special ambiance of Zoo Rendezvous, one of the most wildly successful benefits ever staged by any local organization, and year after year, he thought of new, artistic ways to make it even more fun (and more profitable). But at the end of the day, he was devoted to families having a good time at the zoo, because it was through their support and tickets that the animals received their best care.

And, he cared deeply about animals. At home, the animals were cats, and few have ever been brought into such a fortuitous situation.

He loved his art: to buy it and to paint it.

And he loved even more getting involved in his neighborhood, whether it was as an active leader in his neighborhood association, in his crusade against smoking in local restaurants, in driving elderly neighbors to the doctor and taking others to church. It always seemed that in finding time for every one else, he seemed to find himself.

To those who knew him, the zoo stands as a shrine to his determination to make it one of the best in the country, but the true testimony to his character is found on his own street where he quite simply, day in and day out, exemplified what Memphians are all about.

Tonight (Thursday) at 6 p.m., there will be a memorial for Barry at his favorite place in Memphis (and the place he made special for all of us) -- the zoo.

It's Time For Memphis City Schools To Take Center Stage In Educational Decisions

More and more, educational decisions in Memphis and Shelby County are the tail wagging the dog.

It’s a strange local phenomenon that it’s not the needs of the nation’s 18th largest school district – Memphis City Schools - that drive the debate on school funding and school site decisions. Instead, it’s the much smaller Shelby County Schools district that seems to get all the attention.

It’s more than a passing coincidence that the county schools district is the nexus between politicians and developers, and as a result, issues concerning county schools are characterized by bouts of hysteria mixed with an ever dependable sense of urgency, particularly when anyone suggests that more deliberative thought should be brought to bear on county schools’ decisions.

Even Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, who calls for more research and analysis into decisions such as the recent Southeast Shelby County high school, seems to get worn down in the process and gives in to what county schools want.

The recent rush to judgment on the Southeast Shelby County high school is a classic case in point.

First, the Shelby County Board of Education selects the most questionable high school site in recent history and does it without consultation with Memphis City Schools despite their pledge of cooperative decision-making on school sites that will be annexed into Memphis in the near future.

Conflict normally surfaces at this point, ushering in Mayor Wharton in his preferred role as facilitator. He routinely urges greater coordination and argues for more evaluation to validate the need and the location. That brings in the Office of Planning and Development - the city/county agency charged with planning but who is roundly ignored in school site decisions – and at Mayor Wharton’s direction, it launches a much-needed independent, exhaustive comparison of trends, school capacities and attendance zones that is regularly lacking in these discussions.

The entry of OPD is intended by Mayor Wharton to create a cooling off period, which generally happens except for the single-minded, venomous attacks by county school officials who resist any outside oversight of its decisions. About this time, the political dynamics usually swamp the process, and while the study is being completed, in truth, the political deal has already been struck. As a result, the OPD study quickly fades away. About now, Mayor Wharton abandons his own study and backs the county-selected school site, and his staff even lobbies the city school board to get them to approve it.

It’s a curious, common ritual, producing conflict, over-the-top rhetoric and behind-the-scenes politicking, and yet, in the end, little change, and local taxpayers are left with dubious projects like the Arlington High School and now the Southeast Shelby County high school.

Sadly, in the midst of this politically-charged atmosphere, the facts are swept away as an inconvenient distraction. That’s why the compelling conclusions of the OPD study presented to the city board of education was dispensed with in just seconds. It was politics, and no one wanted to be confused with the facts.

The study becomes a footnote, and so does its seminal conclusion, which goes uncommunicated to the taxpayers who would pay for the 2,000-student warehouse sought by Shelby County Schools: the overcrowding being used by the county school board to justify a new high school is precisely 79 students.

At the present rate of growth, it will take until 2012 to even justify a 1,200-student school, and if the county gets it way and builds the air hangar school it envisions, it will still be under capacity more than a decade from now.

Further examination of school board data indicates that the concern of African-American county commissioners is well-justified.
That’s because, despite all county board statements to the contrary, the new school will be populated primarily by black students now attending school within the city limits of Germantown.
In other words, other than to allow the relocation of these black students, there is essentially little need for the new school at this time.

All of this points up one of the strangest realities of school site deliberations. For decades, Memphis and Shelby County’s own planning agency hasn’t even reviewed proposals for construction or land acquisition. As a result, the decisions by the county school district is not made within the framework of adopted annexation policy or other public policies or procedures.

It is hard to imagine another major U.S. city that makes these decisions as cavalierly, and the vacuum here creates a process where decisions are made largely on the basis of politics, not planning.

But what is most astounding of all is that it is the smaller school district whose concerns and needs drive so many of these decisions for our community.

For example, every taxpayer now knows that the state-mandated ADA (Average Daily Attendance) is the cause of the burgeoning county debt. The shorthand version of ADA is that school funding must be proportional, so every dollar spend on the county system must be matched with three dollars for the city system, because after all, there are three times more students in that system. Coupled with this understanding of the ADA requirement is the sinister belief that it’s unfair because it requires funding to go to the city school district “whether they need it or not.”

Part of the problem here is of the city schools’ own making, because for decades, it has taken whatever the ADA requirement has provided to it. Long overdue is the need for the city school district to make its own public case to county government for its own capital needs. It would undoubtedly show that the funding that it has received as a result of the ADA law only scratches the surface of city schools’ need.

That only seems reasonable since so many city schools are more than 50 years old. In fact, according to the city schools website, the district is using three schools that have been teaching city students for more than 100 years. For example, it would be interesting for Memphis City Schools to tell the community what it would cost to just get all of its schools up-to-date technologically.

Rather than being content to stand at the cash register and get whatever funds are sent its way when the county schools’ capital needs are addressed, Memphis City Schools needs to make its own case for county funding. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the ADA formula works both ways, and if city schools get capital funds for renovations and construction, Shelby County schools would also benefit, getting funds without even asking or making a case for the money.

It’s time to turn the local educational debate on its head. It’s past time for all of us to have a clearer picture of what Memphis City Schools needs to achieve its mission and Superintendent Carol Johnson’s vision.

In the future, Memphis City Schools will dominate the local educational landscape even more than it does today. According to the agreement reached in the wake of the Chapter 1101 legislation, city schools will ultimately provide schools for about 500 square miles of Shelby County. That means that without any projections of significant population growth for our community, the workforce that will determine if we our region can compete in the knowledge economy is being educated in city classrooms today.

In other words, it’s in our own enlightened self-interest to end the county-centric perspective to one in which we all commit to do whatever it takes as a community for Memphis City Schools to succeed.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Guiding Principles For Public Investments

To continue the conversation about what investments Memphis should make, here's a few guiding principles:

1) Invest in people

2) Build state-of-the-art infrastructure

3) Treat citizens as customers

4) Streamline taxes and regulations

5) Nurture entrepreneurs

6) Create hi-tech magnets

7) Preserve and improve the quality of life

What Would We Have Done with the Money?

Just a few additional thoughts on where to invest then and now...

+ Clean Up. This is one basic that wasn't mentioned in the earlier post. Long-time Memphians took special pride in being the "Cleanest City in America" for years. So the continuing and obvious decline in the cleanliness of our streets and neighborhoods has been a particular sore spot. Cities must project confidence to succeed, and our filthy streets send exactly the opposite message.

+ Think Very Big Region. The previous post called for acting regionally. But what is our region? Is it the MSA? What assets do we capture by defining our region that way? The people who have fled Shelby County? Casinos? I suggest we think much bigger when we talk about the Memphis region. Why shouldn't Little Rock be paired with Memphis? How about St. Louis? Even Nashville? Who can we collaborate with to build global competitiveness?

+ Leverage the Lessons of FedEx. Our typical response to the opportunity FedEx offers Memphis is to build more warehouses to support "just in time" logistics. But FedEx is one of the world's great companies. Its early growth was predicated on finding small loopholes in the law and exploiting them. As a young company, it assumed a cheeky attitude, taking on the U.S. Postal Service in a frontal assault and winning. This is a company -- unlike its competitor -- that can tell you where any package is at any time. And this bunch of Memphians competes nightly in the international marketplace. How do we spread those lessons to hundreds of other local companies? What can City Hall learn from FedEx? Isn't that the real value of FedEx to Memphis?

+ Memphis as a Model for Tolerance? You'd be surprised. Working in other cities, some with substantial African-American populations, I note that civic and government meetings in those cities rarely reflect the same racial diversity as a similar meeting in Memphis. Hard to believe? Yes. But true. We don't give ourselves nearly enough credit on this score.

Memphis needs a project. We need something that can involve and inspire us all, that builds value and values.

What are your ideas?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Nashville Mayor Wraps Up $100 Million Park Improvement Plan

While Mayor Herenton suggests the sale of Memphis parks, Nashville is one of many cities investing in their parkland to make their city more competitive in the knowledge-based economy. Here's a recent article from the Nashville Tennesseean that updates the efforts of their mayor to improve Nashville parks:

Mayor Bill Purcell paid a rare visit to the Metro Parks Board Tuesday, urging members to finish all started projects within the next 22 months – the remainder of his term.

Purcell praised the board for its work and said Roy Wilson is the ideal parks director for Nashville.

“Twenty-two months is plenty of time for me and you to complete most everything we have in front of us right now,” Purcell said.

Metro Parks just entered the second phase of its master plan implementation. This year’s capital improvement money totaled $36 million, with $25 million dedicated to the continuation of improvements and new projects recommended in the master plan, $6 million to do deferred and ongoing maintenance projects, and $5 million for the Nashville Zoo.

Under Purcell’s administration, Metro Parks received $27.3 million in capital improvement funding for year one of the master plan’s implementation (in addition to $6.5 million for deferred maintenance projects) and $23.8 million for year two (plus $3.2 million for deferred maintenance).

“We’re not far from $100 million for capital improvements for parks in Nashville,” Purcell said.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Kicking The Addiction to Tax Freezes

The continuing controversy about tax freezes is about to come to a climax with the release of the long-awaited consultant's report on Memphis and Shelby County's economic development strategies and its overreliance on PILOTs (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) in the recruitment of new business.

The report will be released in early December, but already, its rumored conclusions are producing intense lobbying of elected officials by developers to water down options. In Tuesday's op-ed column, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton for the first time sent a strong public signal that a change is gonna come.

Essentially, he concluded that it's time for more targeted tax freeze policies, more emphasis on workforce development and a more coherent economic development strategy overall. It was welcome impetus for the changes that are long overdue in tax freeze policies, which have lulled us to sleep when we should have been making the investments that create a more skilled workforce linked efficiently to a global economy and that create the higher quality of life that is a greater factor in recruitment than tax breaks.

In light of the impending report and recent developments, we reprise a blog on these subjects:

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to determine if tax incentives for business are legal, and taxpayers are crossing their fingers that finally the courts will do what the politicians don't have the will to do.

It was back on June 14 that we wrote that we might be “witnessing the beginning of the end of “the escalating bidding wars that cost cities and states millions of tax dollars for incentives to attract new companies…”

“Already, a federal appeals court in Cincinnati has struck down Ohio's $281 million incentive package for Daimler Chrysler, and because it is a district court, its ruling applies also to Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee…The governor of Ohio argues that incentives are needed to compete in a global economy, although it's pretty hard for Ohio to compete with Bangladesh on the basis of cheapness.”

Unfortunately, the Ohio governor is not alone. Despite growing public impatience with tax freezes as entitlements and rumbling concerns from local legislative bodies, some Memphis real estate investors continue to extol the virtues of Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT’s) that allow companies to eliminate their property tax payments for years, if not decades.

Clearly, they are in deep denial. One said in The Commercial Appeal that tax freezes are absolutely essential for Memphis to have a level playing field. For about 20 years, Memphis and Shelby County have been waiving property taxes, and if the playing field is still this unlevel, perhaps we should spend more time trying to fix the field than eating our seed corn.

Rather than sell themselves at a discount -- cheap land, cheap labor, cheap taxes – cities that succeed are investing in better workers, high-quality universities, an enriching quality of life and efficient, economical public services.

So, what would we have done if we go back in time – some things that we should start doing right now:

Investments in Universities and Technology. Universities and teaching hospitals are the playing field for the Knowledge Economy. Cities that compete in this economy will be those that maximize these assets and invest in them to create quality research.

Redevelopment in the Urban Core. Memphis has significant underdeveloped and vacant land. The infrastructure in these older areas has been paid for and their reuse makes the wisest investment of scarce public funds.

Balanced Transportation Policy. Memphis should lobby federal and state government to revamp its allocation regulations for urban areas. Too often, federal funding has continued traditional patterns of spending on new roads in suburban areas while neglecting the importance of investing in urban redevelopment and mass transit. Local government should encourage maximum flexibility for the use of these federal funds.

Technology Clusters. Wise cities develop an area of specialization within the technology field based upon university research, biomedical assets, etc. Clusters provide a competitive edge and a critical mass that are important to economic growth. That’s why when we want to see the future, we need to look toward the Bioworks Foundation.

Local Innovation. The best answers to the future begin on our own Main Street today. Solutions from another city transplanted or replicated are less successful because they are artificial. Our best answers are our own, produced organically from a reservoir of innovation and creativity that is embedded throughout Memphis.

Understanding Our Competitive Context. Cities that succeed base their decisions on research and development. Memphis starts by understanding its competitive context, including market and demographic trends in the region and its strengths and liabilities. It can find its distinctive niche to succeed, but it must be based on solid research.

Fixing the Basics. Local government needs to fix the basics, such as safety, taxes, services, land, infrastructure and schools. Governments must look for ways to streamline its structure and improve public services. The foundation of efficient, effective public services are what successful economic development programs are built upon. To support business, particularly small business, local government should reduce redtape and paperwork, particularly in permitting, planning and engineering.

Acting (As Well As Talking) Regionally. Memphis talks a good game of regionalism, but we’ve not truly engrained regional thinking into our plans and actions. Too often, we lapse into a “we versus them” mentality and a “if you’re winning, we must be losing” attitude when it comes to our neighboring counties. Economic activity and innovation occur in a regional context, and we ignore this at our peril. It is increasingly clear that cities and suburbs are inextricably linked into a single economic unit.

Vibrant Culture and Entertainment Centers. To compete, Memphis must be an attractive place to work, live and play. Vibrant arts and cultural offerings are powerful tools in creating the appealing, enjoyable quality of life needed to attract and retain the best and brightest young workers. Too often, we treat these cultural and entertainment centers largely as tourist amenities, but in truth, their value is much broader since quality of life is a chief determinant in workforce growth.

Thinking and Acting Collaboratively. This requires a shift in leadership styles from traditional authoritarian models to a new environment of inclusion, mutual influence and community building. Opening the door widely to all segments of the community and inviting new voices to engage in decision-making is the mark of a mature and competitive city.

A 21st Century Workforce. For Memphis to win in the race for economic prosperity, it needs smart and skilled workers producing goods and services marked by innovation, knowledge and quality. If we are content to compete in the global economy by offering cheap wages, cheap land and cheap taxes, we are fighting for the bottom rungs of the economy. What’s needed is a team of public and private sector partners dedicated to building the skills needed for quality jobs, providing lifelong learning opportunities, improving the competitiveness of all workers and employers, connecting workforce development to economic needs and building a stronger education pipeline to produce skilled workers in the global economy.

Competition on a Global Scale. To succeed, Memphis needs to develop cooperative networks and more sophisticated strategies for the global marketplace. Too often, international business is treated as an extension of traditional domestic economic development programs, and as a result, they often fail. Memphis needs a strategic plan of action tailored for the new world marketplace, and this must include helping business clusters gain access to global markets, finding opportunities for trade, investment and international partnerships and lobbying for federal policies that protect workers at high-risk for dislocation.

Developing a Powerful Brand. Cities are no different from business. They need a brand that tells the world who they are and what they stand for. Place marketing is a major challenges that needs to be faced by Memphis, because before a sound business strategy can be developed, a powerful branding strategy must be in place.

High-Quality Eco-Assets. In competing for the workers of the Knowledge Economy, few factors seem as important as maximizing Memphis’ “green assets.” Preserved and protected open spaces, safe and attractive public spaces, greenbelts, clean air and water and outdoor recreation are not just wonderful public assets. More precisely, they are competitive advantages.

A Reputation for Tolerance. Today, new workers are recruited just as often from India as Indiana. Memphis is competing as much with the country of Georgia as the state of Georgia. In order to compete, Memphis must have a well-founded reputation for tolerance and respect for various cultures, races, and religions. Cities known for their low levels of tolerance will also become known for their low levels of economic growth.

Targeted Incentives. Incentives for new business have become entitlements unrelated to any priorities set by the community for its own development. Incentives often emphasize relocating businesses to the detriment of existing business, particularly small businesses where most jobs growth takes place. This is a playing field that deserves to be leveled.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Local Tax Problem Won't Be Solved By Putting Band-aids On Gaping Structural Wounds

Soon, we will enter yet another budget season for local government, and once again, there will be the regular hue and cry about the tax rate, bonded indebtedness, fund balances and the need for public sacrifice. But for the first time, there’s hope that local government will finally talk about fixing what’s really wrong -- our broken tax structure.

The dilemma for Memphis and Shelby County is that while new sources of revenue, such as impact fees and adequate facilities taxes, are helpful in balancing budgets, they are only short-term solutions. There is no long-term answer until a new tax structure is created to remove the present inequity and unfairness.

In a studied 51-city analysis released last year by the Office of Revenue Analysis for the District of Columbia Government, Memphis is among the half dozen cities which have the most regressive tax structure. In the meticulously documented report, the analysts looked at the tax burden for the largest city in each of the 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Only a few cities fared worse than Memphis. Our city’s taxes are regressive at their core, meaning that low-income families pay a larger share of their incomes in taxes than high-income families.

That’s because local government has an overreliance on property taxes and sales taxes, when compared to other governments across the U.S. With no real options except the two primary tax sources allowed by state law, city and county governments are left with two inequitable places for more revenues – the regressive sales tax or the regressive property tax.

While local efforts to expand tax sources are well-intended, in the end, the current tax structure is so badly flawed that even new sources are just stopgap answers that don’t address the real inequities in the system.

The 2004 study analyzed the tax burden for families with average incomes of $25,000, $50,000, $75,000, $100,000 and $150,000. The assumptions for the study were that each family has four members and owns a single family home within the city limits.

The average tax burden for the 51 cities across the U.S. was 7.3 percent for families earning $25,000; 8.3 percent for families earning $50,000; 9.1 percent earning $75,000; and 9.2 percent at the $100,000 and $150,000 levels. In other words, most cities have a tax structure that responds to a person’s “ability to pay.”

Memphis does just the opposite. The more a family earns, the less it pays. The family earning $25,000 pays 7.0 percent, right in line with the average for the 51 cities.

But, the family earning $50,000 doesn’t pay more; it pays less – 6.2 percent. A family earning $75,000 pays 6.3 percent, one-third less than the national average; and the $100,000 income family pays 5.9 percent and the family earning $150,000 pays 5.6 percent.

In other words, in the higher income brackets, Memphis taxpayers are paying a smaller percentage of their income in taxes than families making one-fourth as much. These Memphis high-income families are paying roughly 40 per cent less than the average of 51 cities.

Under the heading of tax fairness, the only major cities doing worse than Memphis are Houston, Las Vegas and Jacksonville, and they are only marginally worse. In most of the major cities in the analysis, higher income families paid much more than Memphis. For example, in Louisville, higher income families paid 10.7% of their income in taxes; in Washington, DC, 10.8%; in Portland, 12.7%; in Atlanta, 11.3%; in Baltimore, 11.8%; in Providence, 13.4%; and in New York City, 14.8%.

OK, we admit that at this point, we’re battling with our wonkish tendencies, so let’s try to put as simply as possible: the Memphis tax structure is patently unfair and regressive, and nothing short of building a new one will solve the problem.

Of course, as usual, the political challenge is to see if there is any one with the courage to advance such an idea in an election year. This time, Commissioner John Willingham’s has, introducing his Shelby County Fairness Program as a way to correct present inequities in the tax system.

His plan does it by enacting a payroll tax on every one working in Shelby County, aiming at the about 65,000 people who drive in from outside Shelby County to work here every day.

The goals of his plan, as stated in his proposal, are to:

1) reduce and abolish taxes

2) restore an advantage to taxpayer-owned businesses

3) pay down the county’s debt

4) make Shelby County competitive with its neighbors without issuing more PILOTs

5) provide meaningful financial contributions to state government and the seven municipal governments in Shelby County.

The rewards of reforming the local tax structure is the elimination of the widely hated wheel tax; the lowering of the county property tax by 25 percent; and the elimination of the local option sales tax (reducing the county rate to 7 percent). In addition, the plan calls for a 10-year ban on any tax increases, and sets a high bar for payroll tax increases by allowing them only as a result of public referendum.

It’s a gutsy proposal, coming so close to the election season, but finally, it gets the real tax issue on the table – the need to reinvent the county tax structure.

Commissioner Willingham is a Republican with a strong populist streak, and he’ll need to develop a grassroots way to communicate the proposal to the public. But his toughest audience will probably be his own party, which has gravitated toward the no-tax pledges over the years that have contributed to the county’s catastrophic budgetary picture.

Hopefully, his proposal will encourage serious debate on the critical need for a progressive local tax structure, but most of all, it should make sure that every idea or suggestion is viewed through a single lens: Does it correct the structural tax problem that is a drag on the local economy and an unfair burden on most local taxpayers?

Monday, November 21, 2005

County Towns Can Also Give Away County Taxes

Just when you think you’ve heard it all when it comes to tax freezes, you find out there’s always one more way to give away county tax money.

In that parallel universe where $60 million of tax dollars has entered the black hole of business incentives, nothing is stranger than the ability of the smaller towns to give away Shelby County Government’s taxes.

A short article in Saturday’s Commercial Appeal told how Carrier Corporation in Collierville is asking for a PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) that will save it $1.8 million a year in “county and town taxes.” What the article didn’t mention is that this PILOT is being weighed and will almost certainly be approved by Collierville’s own Industrial Development Board.

Unlike the City of Memphis, which only waives county taxes in a collaborative process with county government through the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board, the Collierville Development Board is associated only with that town’s government and is only interested in that town’s economic development objectives.

Memphis and Shelby County have a consultant evaluating its PILOT program and a report is expected in the near future. If we’re lucky, the evaluation will also address ways that county government can exert more influence over the towns waiving county taxes. It might also be a good time to review the processes of the towns that can approve the waiver of county taxes, because cooperation with Shelby County on business incentives policy shouldn’t be limited just to Memphis.

It is a strange curiosity, but state law on tax freezes gives every municipality the right to waive not only their own taxes, but county government’s, too. In fact, years ago, Bartlett granted a PILOT for Brother Industries that even waived county taxes for longer than it waived its own.

Years later, Collierville gave the FedEx Technology Center a tax freeze that exceeded by five years the maximum term for a tax freeze allowed under county government policies. At least in that case, Collierville officials worked with county officials on incentives for FedEx.

The most bizarre use of tax freezes has been when towns use them to lure companies out of Memphis. In other words, some of the towns would have us believe that it’s sound public policy to give away taxes when all a company is doing is changing its mailing address within Shelby County.

In these cases, the companies seeking the tax freezes and the towns giving them fell back on the always dependable justification that if the tax freezes weren’t given, the companies would move to Mississippi. Frankly, it might be a worthy idea for North Mississippi to pay a fairer share of the regional infrastructure, but that’s a subject for another day.

Politics always surfaces in the cases when the towns give away tax money that’s not theirs, but county government’s. However, if you think the elected county commissioner from the district representing these towns should explain to their officials why this is such poor public policy, it’s not likely.

The Collierville Industrial Development Board is paying Shelby County Board of Commissioner David Lillard to be its attorney. At a time when questions about conflicts of loyalty, if not conflicts of interest, are being raised, the presence of a county commissioner working for a board sends an ominous signal about the possibilities of wiser tax freeze policies.

The Commercial Appeal article neglected to report the length of the tax freeze requested by Carrier Corporation, but its application promises a $144 million expansion creating 155 fulltime jobs and 150 seasonal jobs in exchange for the almost $2 million annual tax break. The newspaper also failed to mention the average pay for these jobs.

And yes, this is the same Carrier Corporation that doubles as a Superfund site. It gained this distinction after releasing trichloroethylene in 1978 when 2,000-5,000 gallons of TCE spilled, and in 1985, when an undetermined amount of TCE leaked from underground pipes. On another occasion, the plant had an unlined lagoon where TCE leaked into the soil.

In the 1978 spill, the Collierville fire department washed TCE into Nonconnah Creek where contaminated soil samples were found eight years later. The 1985 contamination in particular caused some anxious days at the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department. In July, 1986, the chemical was discovered in a town water plant serving about 13,000 people. However, health officials were terrified that the trichloroethylene might contaminate the water supply for Memphis and Shelby County and pollute the acquifer.

In the end, the chemical was contained in the Collierville well, which has been shut down since that time. In a ranking of Superfund sites, the Carrier site is the fifth most serious site in Tennessee. As a result of the cleanup ordered by EPA, Carrier has removed about 18,200 pounds of TCI from the water, and the cleanup is expected to continue for about a decade.

Why does all of this matter? It’s just interesting that some of the property whose taxes will be frozen is contaminated by Carrier Corporation, proving once again just how far government will go to give away taxes.

Friday, November 18, 2005

It's Time For City And County To Charter A Plane To Mineola

On September 14, we wrote about the "Miracle at Mineola," spotlighting a Democratic county executive whose brand of direct leadership conquered disastrous budgetary threats and halved the portion of his budget going to pay debt service. At the time, we suggested that Shelby County officials should get a plane ticket and go learn his lessons, but in light of recent news, we think City Hall officials might want to join the county in chartering a plane to Nassau County. This week, Nassau County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi, in "bringing Nassau county back from the fiscal brink" was named by Governing magazine as Public Official of the Year, and we revisit our blog in light of this honor:

The late Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen once notably said, a million here, a million there, and pretty soon, it adds up to “real” money. In Shelby County Government’s case, it's ten million here and ten million there, and pretty soon, you have a “real” crisis.

According to officials in the county finance department, the bonded indebtedness of county government is $1.7 billion. That, too, is the amount widely reported in the local media. However, $1,764,129,948 is only the principal amount.

Because it’s highly unlikely that the county will ever actually write a check and pay only principal, it makes sense also to add the projected interest of $627 million. When you add the principal and the projected interest, the total bond debt comes to $2.4 billion.

But don’t stop there. Also add in refunded bonds that are authorized and issued. That adds $432 million in principal and projected interest of $255 million. When the defeased amount is netted out (subtracting the amount of the refunded bonds), the net amount adds $236 million to the total indebtedness.

So, when you add in this amount, it brings the total debt to $3.1 billion.

But don’t stop yet. Future debt authorized, but not yet issued, is $525 million (and that’s principal only). Add that amount, and it brings the grand total for the county’s debt to $3.6 billion, twice the amount announced so often by the county finance department administrator.

Administration officials contend that the $1.7 billion amount is the right figure, but more and more questions are being asked quietly by commissioners about the larger amount, which has been validated by the county trustee, AKA, the “county’s banker.” For now, the questions are asked sotto voce, but as the campaign season nears, the bond “big picture” will undoubtedly take center stage in some heated political debates.

As candidates look ahead to the campaign season, they might want to book a trip to Nassau County, New York, site of one of the nation’s most impressive financial turnarounds. There, new county executive Thomas R. Suozzi came into office in 2001 saddled with $2.4 billion in debt left by his predecessor and with 23 percent of county expenditures going to pay debt service. Not to mention the small matter of the $178 million budget deficit.

Vowing to bring order to the county’s finances, Suozzi began work from his first day in office, using all of his charms and rhetorical skills to inspire the public to support an era of sacrifice to bring order to county budgets. Suozzi never shirked from making the tough decisions, drawing a line in the sands and never looking back. Resisting the temptation to name committees and appoint task forces to study the issue, and not coincidentally, to give himself political cover, he instead took on all comers, including state and federal governments, in his campaign for county solvency.

A few weeks ago, Suozzi presented his third straight budget with a tax freeze. Meanwhile, Nassau County received its 10th credit rating upgrade to A, and no state or local government in the U.S. has received more. To top it off, he built a “rainy day fund” of $100 million.

Of course, it wasn’t painless. In bringing order to the county’s finances, the Nassau County executive cut his workforce by more than 1,000 jobs, bringing it to its lowest level in 30 years; he saved more than $100 million in efficiencies and reforms; he cut borrowing in half and eliminated temporary borrowing; and most of all, he brought the ballooning debt under control.

Sharing the credit is an innovative independent board, the Nassau Interim Finance Authority, which was created as a temporary financing mechanism to produce short-term relief to Nassau County through lower interest costs, debt restructuring and enhanced debt issuance flexibility

Members of the Authority pointed to the county’s “reliance on debt” as the reason that rating agencies warned investors that Nassau County’s ability to repay its debt was questionable. The involvement of the authority brought transparency to public finances, revealing that in a six-year period when the inflation rate grew 16 percent, county spending increased 72.3 percent.

Interestingly, Public Financial Management (PFM) was hired by Nassau County to help develop and implement the successful comprehensive financial plan. It’s the same financial consulting company that now advises Shelby County Government.

In presenting his recent budget, County Executive Suozzi made a pronouncement, “The fiscal crisis is over. No longer do we convene in crisis to contemplate our county government’s most imminent threat to our survival.”

Finding out how that’s done is certainly worth a few airplane tickets to Mineola.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Where's State Government When Memphis And Shelby County Business Incentives Are Paid?

Next time we’re recruiting an international corporate headquarters like International Paper to Memphis, maybe we should call the governor. In the case of Nissan North America, state government is giving almost $200 million in incentives over the next 20 years to lure the company to the Nashville area.

In case you’re counting, that means that Nissan will get about $155,000 per job in state money, according to yesterday's Nashville Tennessean. It’s enough to give you that good, old-fashioned Memphis “red-headed stepchild at the family reunion” feeling yet again.

The major ornaments on the state’s Christmas tree, Nissan – one of the 25 largest corporations in the world with sales of $57 billion – are relocation costs and tax credits. To attract the auto company headquarters and its 1,300 employees to Middle Tennessee, state government is paying $64 million in Nissan relocation costs. The payments are limited to $50,000 per job, if that makes you feel any better about them.

In addition to the relocation payments, Nissan will get a $5,000 annual tax credit for 20 years for every new job that it creates in Tennessee. By the way, if you’re a small business owner, don’t bother calling state government for help. The law creating the incentive was written to only apply to companies that spend at least $1 billion in capital costs and create more than 1,000 jobs.

In fact, the new state law that gave Nissan these generous benefits was passed without fanfare – or even explanation - in the last session of the Tennessee Legislature. It was essentially a special bill written for Nissan, and it was unanimously passed after being added on the Senate floor.

Now, state economic development officials contend that the secrecy was needed, because negotiations were under way. However, it’s difficult to suggest that legislators shouldn’t have known that they were voting to give away the most state money in history. Already, some legislators gasped when told the amount of the incentives made possible by their action. Arguing that our neighboring states offer relocation incentives, and we were simply not competitive, Governor Bredesen now says the new law was absolutely necessary to reel in Nissan.

In the parallel universe of corporate welfare that has sprung up around corporate relocations, such incentives have become the norm, even though Nissan was moving from California for some compelling business reasons that had nothing to do with Tennessee incentives. As we’ve written before, current lawsuits before federal courts could strike down the out-of-control bidding wars between states for corporations, and it’s high time, because it’s clear that elected officials at the local and state levels across the U.S. are incapable of reining in their largesse with the public purse.

When you add in Williamson County’s expected tax freeze for Nissan, the total amount of incentives for the carmaker is close to $180,000 per job. It makes local economic development officials look downright frugal with their incentives of $159,000 per job for the 94 executives being moved to Memphis with International Paper, the world’s largest forest products cmpany (revenues: $26 billion a year).

Unfortunately, state government officials stood on the sidelines with their checkbook in their pocket during the International Paper negotiations. It’s more than passing strange to some in economic development circles here that Middle Tennessee always seems to have a helping hand from state government when it comes time for its citizens to pay for big ticket projects.

Meanwhile, Franklin and Williamson Counties will vote in the coming weeks on their separate incentives package for Nissan, although Williamson County has already served notice that it will not waive the 53 percent of its tax rate that goes for education, according to the Nashville Scene. That said, the Williamson County officials say their piece of the incentives puzzle should be about $33 million over the same 20 years.

While it is tempting to conclude that this is just one more example of counties offering up tax freezes too generously, it’s worth noting that over the decade that our community was granting 415 tax freezes, Williamson County granted five and Franklin County granted four.

As they have said for years, unlike Memphis and Shelby County, they save their tax incentives for targeted, high-impact projects. Clearly, this is what they’ve been waiting on.

Meanwhile, here in Memphis and Shelby County, yet another tax freeze for 15 years was put before the always generous Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board, this time, by Medtronic Sofamor Danek. While it’s tempting to ask a corporation with a civic-minded ethos and with $12 billion in revenue to forego the waiver of city and county taxes, it’s inarguable that it’s the kind of project that the PILOT program was made for – a major expansion of a target industry creating 600 jobs that pay 66 percent more than the per capita income.

To the company’s credit, it also commissioned an economic impact study that calculates economic impact, new taxes and the amount of money spent for local goods and services. While some of the amounts seem on the optimistic side, Medtronic Sofamor Danek is taking great pains to make a case for the tax freeze, and that’s a welcome change from the political muscle that so many applicants and their high-paid lawyers flex.

One last fact about the state incentives for Nissan: based on the normal sources of revenues in Tennessee, about $40 million or so of the total state incentives for Nissan will come from Shelby County.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Pondering the Imponderables # 4

It was the quote that caught our eye. “For every dollar that comes into the city and county coffers, $1.57 will have to be paid in social costs,” argued Bill Wheeler, executive director of Families First, in his opposition to video gambling in West Memphis. Gosh, we thought he was talking about Wal-Mart.


Shep Wilbun must be asking himself: Where do I go to get my apology? After two years of whispered allegations and hundreds of column inches in the daily newspaper, his state indictment has just quietly evaporated, dismissed by special prosecutor John Overton of Savannah. In the end, the only thing accomplished by the investigation was that it cost him an election as Juvenile Court Clerk, rekindling feelings in Democratic Party circles from three years ago that this was the purpose all along.


Nothing is quite as silly as a public agency fighting to keep from releasing public records. The tug of war continues between local legislative bodies and the Memphis and Shelby County New Memphis Arena Public Building Authority, fueled by the authority’s stonewalling whenever questions were asked about the budgets of the $250 million FedEx Forum. Local legislators have refused to release “storm damage” funds for the arena until their questions are answered. A few months ago, with the Grizzlies about to tip off their second season in the Forum, the long-requested financial reports for the past three years for the city’s most expensive public project were finally sent to county commissioners and City Council members. PBA officials act shocked by the adversarial response they have received from legislative bodies in recent weeks, but it’s basic Government 101: the best thing to do with public records is to make them public.


City Council member TaJuan Stout Mitchell leads the efforts to rein in tax freezes, complaining rightly that no single entity seems to be keeping up with the total amount of taxes that are being waived. Four groups were cited as having the power to give PILOTs (Payments in lieu of taxes) – Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board; Memphis and Shelby County Center City Revenue Finance Corporation; the Memphis Health, Educational and Housing Facilities Board; and the Shelby County Health, Educational and Housing Facilities Board. However, the problem is even greater than that, because no one has any idea of the total taxes being waived in other ways, such as by profit-making companies with facilities on tax-exempt land, like Memphis International Airport and Agricenter International. As the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations points out, frequently overlooked are the taxes being waived by sports authorities (like the Memphis and Shelby County Sports Authority which was the financing arm for FedEx Forum); enterprise zone development corporations (like the Tourism Development Zone set up to pay for FedEx Forum); tax increment financing projects (like Uptown); and city and county property (like the Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority).


Just to prove that consolidation looks easier from a distance, two days ago, the proposal for a merger of the police and the sheriff in Indianapolis went down in defeat. Mayor Bart Peterson proposed the creation of a single dpeartment with the sheriff in charge as a way to save $9 million a year. It failed by a vote of the city-county Council 15-14, when one lone Democrat cross the partisan lines and voted against the proposal. It proves yet again that the merger of law enforcement is always one of the thorniest issues of consolidation. By the way, Indianpolis is the only place where city and county governments were consolidated by an act of the legislature.


The state of Connecticut is considering a novel idea to encourage regional thinking –bring back county governments. There, some believe, reinstating the governments abolished in 1960 would end the competition between towns for business investments. County government, they believe, produces the cooperation that eliminates the towns’ division on issues like education, transportation and economic development. If only it were so.


It was only a few months ago when Council member Carol Chumney’s call for an independent auditor to examine the city books was used to justify her status as a pariah on the city legislative body. These days, she’s looking absolutely prescient. Her call for an independent report on the reason for the shortfalls and a full accounting of all revenues and expenditures sounds like something that’s still needed for the public confidence in the Council’s role as budget watchdog to be restored.


A main reason that the public has no confidence in Washington politicians these days is their views are situational. They don’t seem to have any philosophical center from which their views spring. Rather, a position can change 180 degrees in 24 hours, depending on whose ox is getting gored. A favorite example these days (as frequently happens) is the Radical Religious Right, who is fervent that the next Supreme Court justice must be someone who understands that states should be left alone to make decisions on the important issues facing its citizens, on an issue, say, like abortion. Of course, it was only a few months ago when some states legalized same-sex marriage that the same people argued that the states had no business making these kinds of decisions, because they rightfully belonged to Congress.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Schools Are A Vital Part Of Smart Growth Strategy

As a followup to yesterday's blog about the influence of development interests over county school site decisions, this article from the Montgomery (AL) Advertiser indicates that some places are coming to grips with the role that schools should be playing on smart growth issues:

Written by Chad Emerson

Since March, Jones School of Law and Envision 2020 have partnered in a series of Smart Growth breakfasts as follow-up education and networking opportunities to the February Seaside Institute seminar held at the law school.

As a result, businesses, citizens, and governments in the River Region have continued addressing the most important Smart Growth topics from transportation to city planning to community participation to the economics of Smart Growth. The result is that the River Region is becoming smarter about key growth issues.

That is except for one: Schools.

And this is significant because schools represent an important piece in the Smart Growth puzzle.

Many of us remember attending a neighborhood elementary school, or, in some cases, even a neighborhood middle and high school -- one where we walked or rode our bicycles to easily accessible schools that served as more than classroom space, but rather as neighborhood gathering centers. Those schools served as a community resource that doubled as a playground, ball field, or community meeting space after school hours. A shared place for scout meetings, PTA events, neighborhood festivals and the like. In Montgomery, good examples of these community assets surely included the Forest Avenue elementary school or the former Cloverdale middle school.

Sadly, most of our children will never experience these same memories because many of today's schools have more in common with an industrial park than a neighborhood-meeting place. Indeed, just down Ray Thorington Road in East Montgomery is one of the most alarming school results in the region: a brand new elementary school that must certainly rank among the least walkable schools in the state, with not a single sidewalk leading to the school -- thus creating a situation where not a single student can safely walk or ride a bicycle to that same school.

Worse still, the negative effects go well beyond the loss of community cohesiveness. Organizations such as the Small Schools Project and the Gates Foundation have pointed to other wasteful and downright dangerous effects caused by isolated, super-sized schools. These include child obesity (from the inability of students to walk or ride to school), environmental damage (from massive amounts of land consumed by many of today's schools, massive amounts of energy used, and massive school bus fleets required to service them), even to lowered learning and testing results from these type schools.

And, truth be told, the one major thing that these negative effects have in common is that they are exacerbated by the increasingly isolated and large size of today's new schools -- both in terms of enrollment and actual physical acreage. This is particularly disconcerting since studies show that smaller schools increase student performance -- with a 2000 report by the Rural School and Community Trust and an April 2004 report by the Rural Policy Matters group both demonstrating that this is especially true for schools with lower income students.

So, how does this all affect the River Region? The answer is simple: if superintendents and school boards in this area do not immediately begin a crash course in the importance of small, neighborhood schools, then many of the Smart Growth advances made in this region could be hurt, if not even undone. The possibility of this occurring is directly tied to the reality that new schools often drive sprawl since families generally try to move to the best scoring schools and, sadly, those schools are commonly located in isolated suburban locations.

Fortunately, there are embers of hope in the River Region. For example, some Smart Growth projects such as The Waters in Pike Road and Hampstead in Montgomery have set aside specific sites within their development for neighborhood schools. Even better, Smart Growth projects elsewhere in the state, such as Mt. Laurel near Birmingham and Providence in Huntsville, have recently opened new public schools that are both walkable and neighborhood-based.

Today, the facts are clear that Smart Growth principles provide an answer to the sad situation of underperforming students attending underperforming schools. Smaller neighborhood schools are more cost-effective, often lead to better scoring and healthier students, and foster an important sense of community where the school itself becomes a neighborhood gathering place rather than simply a school bus destination.

With many new schools on the drawing board, citizens, business, school boards and superintendents must pause and reconsider if these plans are simply rehashed versions of the super-sized, unwalkable failures that deprive our children of the educational, social, and health benefits gained by small, neighborhood schools. Never mind the fact that these type schools are also more cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

I can report from firsthand experience that the River Region is quickly gaining a positive reputation for our Smart Growth efforts. Bold, new land planning tools are being embraced. Exciting and innovative projects are being developed. All because of an increasing commitment to Smart Growth and the long-term benefits that it provides.

So, with all that's at stake, isn't it time that we now demand a Smart Growth commitment from our school leaders too?

Chad Emerson is associate professor of law at Jones School of Law.

Monday, November 14, 2005

On High School Site Decision In Southeast Shelby County, It's Business As Usual

Sadly, the city school board members blinked, never seeming to understand it was because the county school board’s finger was in their eye.

Instead of ushering in a badly needed “new day” for school location decisions, in the end, Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners seemed to go along to get along. While the news media concentrate on relationships between some local elected officials and one developer that are way too cozy, those stories pale in comparison to the Shelby County School Board’s absolute intimacy with a bunch of them.

Over the past 15 years, the board has repeatedly allowed developers to pick its school sites and in essence pick the pockets of county taxpayers. County school locations decisions have literally put millions of dollars into the pockets of politically connected developers while fueling sprawl that our grandchildren will pay for.

That’s why it was so easy to be hopeful that finally the Memphis City Schools would bring a dose of reality into this process. Instead, after intensive lobbying by developers and the same people in county government who also brought us the fiscally unwise Arlington High School, the city board members unanimously voted to accept the school site picked by its county counterparts, although it did vote to reconsider the size of the tract and its price.

It’s too bad, because if there’s ever been a school site that so egregiously exemplifies the stranglehold that development interests have on the county board, this was it. It’s easier to justify Dr. Kevorkian as an emergency room physician than to justify the site at Hacks Cross Road and Shelby Drive.

It’s the wrong place, it’s the wrong size, it’s the wrong price and it’s for the wrong reasons.

After all, an objective reading of the enrollments of the “overcrowded schools” and their capacities undercuts the justification for the new school building boom in Southeast Shelby. Those charts indicate that four schools now proposed so vigorously by the county school board are to handle capacities that are exceeded by about 100 students.

It’s no wonder that some members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners have expressed misgivings about the official reasons given for the new schools. Despite all the protestations by county school officials to the contrary, it’s hard to get around the feeling that all of this is being done to move the large number of African-American students who travel to Germantown schools every day back outside that town’s limits.

As for the location, it’s hard to imagine a worse site for a school. Imagine, Shelby County Schools actually believes that the best site for a high schools is the most dangerous intersection in Southeast Shelby County and one of the county’s worst. The prospects of dumping hundreds of teenaged drivers into the chaotic mix there will make it the #1 place to avoid in the future. Eventually, the seven lanes of Winchester Road running east and west will cross the seven lanes of Hacks Cross Road will be an obstacle course for students crossing the road to school or running over to the Walgreens and the gas station across the street for a snack.

Then, there is the question of why the county school board wants to buy a site that is 50 percent larger than the standard for the nation. Rather than buy only what they need – about 40 acres – county schools officials want 60 acres, a requirement that baffled even its supporters on the city school board. Commissioner Tomeka Hart, in particular, seemed baffled that the while the city school district will inherit the high school in a few years, the size of the acreage is being determined by the county board members.

Meanwhile, the county school district’s plans continue its traditional tendency to warehouse county students. Once again, it bucks national trends to opt for a 2,000-student school. Progressive systems are moving to smaller, more manageable facilities, and in fact, Dr. Johnson has espoused such an approach.

All of these are troubling enough, but it’s the adamant attitude that David Pickler has toward the price of the land that is the most unnerving. He seems offended by any suggestion that the city schools might negotiate a lower cost for the land. Surely, he’s not suggesting that the county system engaged in some real hardball negotiating that resulted in a price of $84,000 an acre. It begs the question of why the other possible sites carried a price tag of $40,000 - $50,000 an acre.

And most amazingly of all, the county school board added 10 acres to its original site recommendation, and those acres sold for $20,000 an acre a year ago. It means that it’s a $640,000 windfall for its developer owners.

What was merely suspicions became worse when Shelby County Schools Board President David Pickler, presented with the possibility by the city board that it would reopen negotiations, discouraged the idea. As expected, he fell back on the county schools’ always reliable excuse that time is of the essence because the school is so badly needed.

It’s pretty hard to understand why county board members would have any objections to their city colleagues working to save some money. At $84,000 an acre, it is impossible for them to do any worse than county school officials. And anyway, there’s still details to be nailed down. A simple call to city government turned up the fact that the site doesn’t even have sewers, so that’s $84,000 an acres without sewer connections.

While there are questions about the price, how it was reached and who benefits from it, the more basic question is why, as a matter of policy, school sites are not simply taken by condemnation and the price set in court. As shown in other projects, this doesn’t slow down land assembly and it leaves the taxpayers footing the bill with the assurance that the price is fair and reasonable.

And yet, any suggestion of changing the way Shelby County Schools pick school sites are always met with hostility and argument from its Pickler. Hopefully, although the city school board has approved the site, it can bring some reason to the rest of the process and not allow the county school board to continue to stampede it into allowing business as usual.

Stay tuned: the county school system hasn't given up on its plan to convert a grocery store owned by developer Kevin Hyneman into a school.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Falling Behind Our Rival Cities In A Wireless Age

In our blog of October 12, we bemoaned Memphis’ tendency to be cautious and ignore trends until they’re commonplace everywhere else, and then rush to copy them here. The subject on that occasion was Wi-Fi, which is being developed by a number of cities which see it as the backbone for their infrastructure of the future.

About 300 cities are now exploring whether to build their own broadband networks. But Memphis isn’t one of them. It’s enough to make you wish Rusty Hyneman was in the Wi-Fi business.

As we say, broadband access is to the 21st century what the telephone was to the 20th century, but with Elvis still the poster boy for our city marketing, perhaps we can be forgiven for being stuck in the 1950s. Wi-Fi? We’re still excited about Hi-Fi.

Once again, Memphis is trailing the pack in identifying cutting edge issues shaping cities in the decades to come. And if you want to an idea of just how far back in the pack we are, just consider:

• Memphis is the 68th most unwired city in the U.S.

• University of Memphis isn’t even in the top 100 most unwired college campuses.

• Memphis International Airport isn’t even listed in the top 25 most unwired airports.

Those are the verdicts in Intel’s surveys on places with the greatest wireless internet accessibility. In checking into the options for Wi-Fi, the company considered wireless hotspots within each city. According to Intel, accessibility is getting so widespread that it’s now being found in gas stations and bowling alleys.

Apparently, we still don’t have enough coffee shops to chart well. We trail Nashville (# 27), Knoxville (# 52) and Little Rock (# 59). Well, at least we can find some solace that we’ve probably moved up on the list at least one notch. Surely New Orleans isn’t still # 38.

Here’s the top 15 most unwired cities, and it seems more than coincidence that they are also some of the country’s most successful economies over the past 15 years:

1) Seattle-Bellevue-Everett-Tacoma

2) San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland

3) Austin-San Marcos

4) Portland, Oregon-Vancouver, Washington

5) Toledo

6) Atlanta

7) Denver

8) Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill

9) Minneapolis-St. Paul

10) Orange County, CA

11) San Diego

12) Chicago

13) Boston

14) Washington, D. C.

15) Colorado Springs

Meanwhile, our universities are left in the dust by their competitors around the U.S. The top 10 unwired campuses are Indiana University in Bloomington; Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN; University of Texas at Austin; Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland; Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH; Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh; University of Akron; Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo; American University in Washington, D.C.; and St. John’s University in New York City.

The list is populated with state universities, but none from the entire state of Tennessee, attesting to devastating effects of budget cuts on the abilities of our institutions of higher education to keep pace at the very time when successful research universities are an indicator of cities’ future economic success.

Somehow, in the face of financial challenges of their own, other states recognize the importance of universities and the economic wisdom of investing in them. Some of these states include Maryland, where the university bearing its name is ranked 23rd; Louisiana, where LSU is ranked 29th; Vermont, whose namesake university is ranked 35th; and Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wyoming whose universities are ranked 64th, 66th, 67th. There are others, but you get the picture. Tennessee’s universities are in a period of quiet decay, and the absence of investments in WI-Fi is just one more piece of evidence.

Meanwhile, our airport prides itself on always doing things right. It’s got its own sources of revenues and enjoys autonomy in how it spends all this public money. In traveling around the country, we all know that no place tends to have Wi-Fi than major airports. And yet, when the survey listed the top 25 unwired airports in the country, Memphis International Airport wasn’t among them.

Here are the top 10 airports -- Dallas-Fort Worth International; New York’s LaGuardia International; Atlanta Hartsfield International; Chicago’s O’Hare International; Baltimore/Washington International; Minneapolis/St. Paul International; Seattle-Tacoma International; San Francisco International; Los Angeles International; and Denver International.

Memphis International Airport can’t even get on the list, although Buffalo, Oakland, Cincinnati, Raleigh and Pittsburgh do.

At a time when Memphis needs to be attracting members of the so-called “creative class,” the mobile, young, knowledge workers of the global economy, with progressive images of a city that’s on the move, we once again send the message of a slow-paced, provincial city that’s stuck in time.

Let’s not wait until Wi-Fi invades Covington before we decide we need to invest in it here. We talk a lot these days of how dynamic Memphis is. Let’s prove it.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Much Remains To Be Done On The Recommendations For Shelby Farms Park

It’s now been 10 months since the special Shelby Farms Park Advisory Committee agreed on its recommendations for the 4,500 acres of parkland in the heart of our county, but so far, only one of the recommendations has been acted on.

In the wake of the resolution of the controversial Kirby-Whitten Highway through Shelby Farms Park, it would seem a politically fortuitous time for Shelby County Government to act on the remaining advisory committee recommendations. If it did, for the first time since October, 1975, when the “Basic Report: Shelby Farms Public Use,” more commonly known as the “Eckbo Plan,” was issued, definitive actions would have been taken to ensure the future of the park.

Chaired by Dr. Gene Pearson, University of Memphis’ director of the graduate program in city and regional planning, who led a diverse, divided committee toward consensus, the advisory committee issued key recommendations in January that called for the following:

· Shelby Farms Park should be treated as a single entity. Gone would be dueling entities and conflicting philosophies, such as those that erupt periodically between Agricenter Commission and the Shelby Farms Board. There may be a variety of uses on the 4,500 acres – parks, Agricenter, shooting range, and trails – but it would have a single vision and a single plan for the future.

· The uses of the 4,500 acres should have the least amount of disruption to nature and ecology as possible.

· The future of Shelby Farms Park should be mapped out in a “single master plan” implemented by “a unified organizational structure that achieves a marriage of public and private resources.” County government should look to a public/private, independent partnership that operates the park and attracts private financial support for the implementation of a master plan. (This recommendation for a non-profit organization to manage the park mirrors the one in the much-ballyhooed, $500,000 efficiency study prepared for the Wharton Administration.)

· Any development that is not recommended by the master plan should be banned, and no changes should be made on the 4,500 acres until the master plan is finished.

· The entire park footprint – all 4,500 acres – should be protected by a conservation easement, land trust, or other means. Any part of the park that doesn’t have a realistic use or the financial resources to sustain it should be land banked, because piecemeal development should not be allowed.

· The entire area should have a unified image. Signage, trails, roads and parking areas should be part of “a unified whole that creates and promotes the Shelby Farms ‘brand.’”

· The development of the park should complement and support Wolf River green belt and the CSX “Rails to Trails” corridor.

As it did in the case of the consensus recommendations by the advisory committee studying the alignment and design of the highway within the park, conventional wisdom predicted that the 18-member advisory committee on Shelby Farms Park would never reach agreement. And yet, it did.

So impressive was the accord that the Shelby County Board of Commissioners approved the advisory committee’s recommendations in April, and against all odds, the vote was unanimous. It was hoped at the time that the vote would create the momentum that would lead toward the implementation of all of the committee’s recommendations.

But that has not been the case. A few weeks ago, Mayor Wharton appointed a master planning committee to select the firm that will develop a master plan for the park, and it has held one meeting. The charge to the committee is to hire and direct a nationally known consultant who develops a bold vision and actionable plans for the entire park footprint.

The creation of the master planning committee was a major recommendation of the Pearson Advisory Committee, but the rest of his committee’s report languishes. The beginning of the master planning process is a hopeful sign that there is a new attitude toward the park within county government, but good intentions is not enough to allay the fears of the many people who have seen environmental interests swamped in previous processes by the interests of Agricenter and the development industry.

To send a strong signal that the times have truly changed, Shelby County Government should take action now to enact all of the recommendations of the advisory committee report. Any recommendations that can receive the unanimous backing of the entire board of commissioners are clearly ideas whose time have come. What's missing so far is a political leader who will take the lead to get the recommendations implemented.

For example, as the master planning committee begins its work, without a conservation easement or a land trust in place to protect the entire 4,500 acres, how can members of the committee be confident that the land they are planning for will even be there when their master plan is completed?

And since the master planning committee seems serious about developing a park plan that sets the national standard for major regional parks, it only makes sense that there should also be a moratorium on any plans for the use of the land – especially any proposals to sell the Germantown Road frontage. Whatever happens to the frontage long coveted by developers (and there may even be some arguments that can be made to support its development), it should be a decision made as part of a comprehensive master plan that looks out for the best interests of the entire park’s future.

After 30 years of benign neglect and various schemes to gobble up Shelby Farms Park acreage, park lovers can be forgiven for a lack of optimism despite the perceived progress being made. They’ve seen too many processes, they’ve heard too many promises and they’ve received too many pledges that later evaporate, leaving the park underfunded, underappreciated and undervalued.

The master planning committee has a historic chance to change all this, and as it begins its work in earnest, Shelby County Government needs to support it by adopting and implementing all of the recommendations of the advisory committee from earlier this year.

Like nothing else, that would show all those who are skeptical of county government’s sincerity that it shares their vision of a Shelby Farms Park that is nothing short of the Central Park of the 21st Century.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Katrina's Implications for Disaster Management: Lessons Learned From New Orleans

Since Hurricane Katrina, we've written about the lack of a cohesive, well-coordinated disaster plan for the Memphis region and about the confusion over the powers of the Emergency Management Agency and the regional Homeland Security Committee. The following article from offers some timely reminders about some basic lessons that would make a good beginning point for disaster prepareness here:

Two months after Katrina, what have we learned? Graham Stroh analyzes Katrina's disaster management lessons on law enforcement, communication and social infrastructure.

A major disaster can be defined as an event that destroys, in whole or in part, infrastructure supporting a city, such as roads, airports, railroads, hospitals, fire and police protection, mail service, water and other necessities. In such a situation, the working infrastructure is outside the disaster area while people and failed infrastructure remain inside the disaster area. Ferrying relief in and people out becomes the first priority.

As we saw in New Orleans, after a disaster wipes out a city's entire infrastructure, looting and lawlessness will occur. Lawlessness can detract from rescue operations or even make them impossible, as when FEMA suspended rescue operations when rescuers were in danger of being attacked.

In the disaster zone, police and firemen will be stretched thin, and will not be able to both help people and protect property. In addition, these police and fire units, made up of local residents, will be personally affected by the disaster. While it might seem counterintuitive, as more and more people leave the city, the opportunity for lawlessness increases, not decreases. Thus, if the decision is made to evacuate a city, the National Guard must also be deployed in order to bolster local law enforcement efforts. Local law enforcement officers can best help local citizens by capitalizing on superior knowledge of the impacted area, whereas the National Guard can provide basic peacekeeping services in any locale.

An additional group of responders who must be taken into consideration are private individuals who volunteer in the rescue, recovery, and cleanup efforts at natural disaster sites. This large, often growing, group should not be ignored, and should be plugged into communications, food and shelter in order to increase effectiveness. In order to successfully utilize this willing force, communication and infrastructure parallel to the official response operations must be created, in and of itself a substantial coordination effort.

Communication among responders seeking to accomplish different tasks is critical. In major disasters, however, backup linkages for communication networks go down completely, and a ready alternative is needed for both rescuers and victims. In the absence of television, radio and internet, dropping leaflets, using bullhorns, or providing talking points to all responders are effective alternatives for communicating to citizens in the disaster zone.

A major evacuation of a city also means that stakeholders are dispersed and unable to easily participate in the rebuilding process. For example, this can significantly distort the rebuilding process in New Orleans, where the poorest citizens have been moved to distant refugee centers, while wealthier citizens are staying with friends and family closer to the city, and are thus far better situated to return to New Orleans and guide the rebuilding efforts. To begin and participate in the rebuilding process, refugees must do more than wait in camps. Small jobs, some as simple as receiving per diem wages to use trucks to gather debris, can actually help turn the victims into saviors of their city and aid in rebuilding the lost social infrastructure. Thinking of ways to turn victims into saviors can be difficult, as each victim may require a different compassionate and empowering solution, but this process is necessary for an inclusive rebuilding effort.

For disasters like Katrina, we have seen that there is a fine line between over-reacting and not responding enough. In order to get adequate attention, leadership at the local and state level must over-react to a certain extent, but not cry wolf -- not an easy balancing act. Government response to disasters is inevitably inefficient, messy, mistake ridden, and wasteful of money, all characteristics that can sideline careers in government. However, success in disaster response is not measured by the number of positive press releases, but by the responders’ confidence that their decisions are ultimately helpful to neighbors in need.

New Orleans will prove that substantial disaster recovery is not as simple as reconstructing the buildings that were lost. The disaster extends miles in each direction along the Gulf Coast, where towns are stressed with new temporary and permanent residents. There will be no one master plan for rebuilding, and no one single administrative coordinator. Rebuilding and resettling people on their own property are the first order of business; compliance with new plans, codes and visions comes second to recreating the social infrastructure that existed before the disaster. In the end, the rebuilding effort should be able to repair both the floodwalls and the social infrastructure to a higher standard.


Graham Stroh received a B.A. in Economics from Bard College in 1999. In May 2005, he received a Master of City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania, where he focused on international planning practices and domestic security planning.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Historic Road Design Process Produces Historic Results

For a generation, the proposed highway through Shelby Farms Park has been political quicksand that trapped county mayor after county mayor. Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton – with the considerable help of Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner Gerald Nicely - not only has escaped the trap, but he can now claim credit for the process that produced a solution that the entire county can embrace.

It seemed an unlikely outcome in February when Mayor Wharton launched yet another process to search for answers to the long-standing question of where and how the highway should be situated in Shelby Farms Park. And yet, the 17 people whom he appointed have hashed out their differences and found a road alignment and design that would resolve the 20-year battle between park lovers and development interests.

For the first time in the history of this controversial project, the committee appointed to look into this question was actually balanced with equal attention given to environmentalists, the public and development industry representatives. For the first time, it was not environmental interests that were grumbling about the process. Rather, the grumbling has come from developers who complained that the committee too quickly dispatched the design they had championed for years - a six-lane, high-speed highway just west of Patriot Lake.

The committee’s compromise proposal – which appears to give park lovers more than they gave up in the process – is a major achievement for the Wharton Administration as it looks for achievements to spotlight in campaign brochures for next year’s election.

To get an idea of the significance of this recommendation, just consider that there are children who entered kindergarten and have graduated from college and never remember a time when there was not a divisive dispute about the design and alignment of Kirby-Whitten Parkway Connector Road through Shelby Farms Park.

Conventional wisdom said that the battle lines were immutable. Yet new attitudes by Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Wharton Administration and Friends of Shelby County Park came together to create a new dynamic that gave birth to a “context sensitive solutions (CSS)” process that produced the new road recommendations.

Endorsing the use of this CSS approach for the first time in Shelby County, TDOT sent the strong message that road-building in Tennessee has fundamentally changed under the direction of Commissioner Nicely, the first non-roadbuilder to head up the department in recent memory. Instead of building roads, Nicely’s reputation was made as an advocate for public-private partnerships that revitalized downtown Nashville. His philosophy has predictably met with some bureaucratic foot-dragging, but slowly and surely, he has forced TDOT to see its constituency as more than the politicaly powerful road-building industry.

With this encouragement, Mayor Wharton appointed the special advisory committee that has now recommended a gently curving, four-lane highway that snuggles against the western border of Shelby Farms Park as much as possible. The shift westward – removing once and for all the intrusive wider, faster highway near the heart of the parkland – was the first indication that this time around, things would be different. When the road was reduced from a six lanes to four lanes and the speed limit set at 40 to 45 miles an hour, the hand writing was on the wall.

The entire process has been a stunning victory for environmental interests, which did not get everything they wanted but found room for compromises they could live with. Some “no roaders” remain unconvinced, but their number has dwindled as environmentalists stuck with the process and ended up winning most of the major issues.

Major credit goes to Friends of Shelby Farms Park, which shifted from a recalcitrant position opposed to any road to becoming a source of influence for a site-sensitive design. A key decision by the group was the hiring of nationally prominent engineer Walter Kulash, who evaluated every planned alignment and provided convincing evidence of why the six-lane, high speed highway with massive interchanges (proposed as recently as three years ago by county government) was simply unnecessary and would devastate the park.

The Context Sensitive Solutions process has been slow to get to Memphis. It’s been used for years by traffic engineers across the U.S. as they balanced the transportation needs and environmental needs of their regions. In recommending this process to city and county governments early this year, Friends of Shelby Farms Park cited a list of benefits that included the following:

• CSS meets traffic needs.

• CSS reflects a sense of place and fits in physically and visually with the community’s environmental, scenic, historic and natural resources.

• CSS involves and engages a range of stakeholders, forging cooperation and buy-in.

• CSS exceeds the expectations of everyone by elevating the quality of the solution.

• CSS minimizes controversy and divisiveness in the community.

• CSS adds lasting value and beauty to the community.

• CSS emphasizes open, honest, early and continuous communication.

• CSS involves a multidisciplinary team and the public.

• CSS reflects community values and an openness to ideas.

• CSS considers a full range of innovative alternatives for transportation, including walking, biking, light rail, etc.

It appears that the rhetoric of the endorsement has been fulfilled in the reality of its use. The road through Shelby Farms Park has been on local governments’ transportation plans for 36 years. What’s been missing during that time has been a single, simple element – sensitivity to the impact of the highway on the 4,500-acre park.

In the end, injecting this balanced approach into transportation decisions – for too long the province of development interests and government engineers – may be a legacy contributed by Shelby Farms Park that’s almost as important as its recreational assets.

There remains 24 to 27 new lanes of roads pointed directly at Shelby Farms Park and still on our community’s transportation plans, and it would be tragic if each of them results in the protracted, divisive debate that has characterized the Kirby-Whitten Parkway.

If the Metropolitan Planning Organization (chaired by Mayor Wharton) is smart, it would use this occasion to take more definitive action to ensure that the Context Sensitive Solutions process is not a one-time experiment, but a policy for every highway built in our community.

That’s an outcome that would make this committee’s recommendation more than copy for a campaign brochure, but a chapter for the history books.

Friday, November 04, 2005

U.S. Census Bureau Numbers On Commuting Could Fuel Payroll Tax Move

Every day, the population of Memphis swells by 102,743 people who flood into the city to work.

In fact, the percentage of population change that is due to commuting – 15.8 percent – is one of the highest for cities with populations of more than 500,000.

These are the first-ever estimates on daytime population changes compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau and released recently. They provide information on commuting patterns that are valuable in city planning and disaster planning.

The rankings of the nation’s largest cities (more than 500,000 people) and the percentages of their increased population every day are:

71.8 percent -- Washington, D.C.

41.1 percent -- Boston

28.4 percent -- Seattle

28.0 percent -- Denver

23.0 percent -- Portland, OR

21.7 percent -- San Francisco

21.2 percent -- Charlotte

20.6 percent -- Houston

19.5 percent -- Nashville

19.4 percent -- Austin

19.1 percent -- Dallas

18.7 percent -- Oklahoma City

15.8 percent -- Memphis

15.6 percent -- Indianapolis

14.2 percent -- Baltimore

14.0 percent -- Fort Worth

11.6 percent -- Columbus, OH

The data demonstrates convincingly that Memphis remains the economic engine of the entire MSA, and indicates that reports about the death of its dominance are greatly exaggerated.

Besides contributing to better planning, the data might also provide ammunition for the advocates of a local payroll tax. Of course, the key statistic for that tax proposal is the number of commuters traveling into Shelby County to work and that number is 61,398, which is a sizable number on which to base a plan to spread the local tax burden to non-residents who work here. Shelby County’s population grows by 6.8 percent, and that’s the sixth largest percentage of all of Tennessee’s 95 counties. In sheer numbers, it is second only to Davidson County, which has 113,710 commuters working there every day.

Over the years, the idea of a payroll tax has surfaced from time to time, but it has been torpedoed by various interests, normally led by major employers. With the deepening crisis in the finances of both Memphis and Shelby County Governments, it just may be resurrected again.

Projections distributed within county government by Commissioner John Willingham say that a 2.5 percent payroll tax would net $480 million. That new source of revenue, according to this particular plan, would allow for the wheel tax to be abolished; for the county property tax rate to be lowered by $1.04; and for the local option sales tax to be eliminated.

The proposal also calls for a 10-year freeze in the payroll tax rate and a referendum to approve any increases after that time; a 10-year freeze on the property tax rate; and a 10-year freeze on the sales tax rate. (It also proposes that all tax freezes under the PILOT program be subject to the approval of the county board of commissioners.)

The theory for the payroll tax is simple. It shifts part of the tax burden for local infrastructure and amenities to the 61,398 people who drive into Shelby County to work every day, and then drive back across the county line without investing in the infrastructure that keeps the regional economy strong.

In case you are wondering, the percentage change of the daytime population of DeSoto County is minus 18.8 percent, precisely because only 36 percent of the people who live there actually work there. (95.2 percent of Shelby County residents work here.)

Trends similar to DeSoto County’s also exist in Fayette County, where the daytime population drops 21 percent; in Tipton County, where the daytime population drops 20.7 percent; and in Crittenden County, where the daytime population drops 7.4 percent.

The new census estimates form a fascinating glimpse of Memphis’ magnetic pull to the region, but they may also form the basis of a fascinating political dance to pass a payroll tax.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Let's Not Be Dense About Density

Here’s the mantra for Shelby County. Let’s all say it together: Sprawl is bad and density is good.

But if you ever wonder why high density has such a bad name in Memphis, it’s because some developers are just dense when it comes to it (see photo on bottom).

Prime examples of how prime real estate is squandered and reenforce the negative perceptions of density here are the housing developments north of Shelby Farms Park. Most incredibly of all, as the master planning process begins to transform the 4,500 acres into one of the world’s finest parks, the cookie cutter development continues.

On the agenda of the Land Use Control Board next week is the application for a 10.48-acre residential development that is the poster child for the bleak kind of development that gives density a bad name in Shelby County. Filed by Terransky LLC, it would essentially turn Raleigh-LaGrange Road into a private drive serving a development that is barren and brutish.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with 253 3,000-square foot lots, what is wrong with this one is that it is devoid of green space, it has no connectivity to adjoining neighborhoods or park trails, and it creates impervious surfaces that will exacerbate already problematic draining runoff in the area.

Expectations are that the staff of the Land Use Control Board will oppose the application, but as usual, the Board is expected to approve it. There was a time when the Land Use Control Board injected a voice of reason into the planning, zoning and development of Memphis and Shelby County, but long ago, this citizens’ board was captured by development industry interests, and today, it has trouble finding any development project that it cannot love.

The tipping point came in the late 1990’s when several homebuilders and relatives of homebuilders were appointed as members to the Land Use Control Board. In the space of a few years, the entire tenor of the board changed. The percentage of times that staff recommendations on planned developments were reversed more than tripled. In fact, in 2000, the year when their grip was tightened, the staff’s calls for rejections of planned developments were overridden 70 percent of the time. In that year, of all the planned development applications – 45 in all - filed with the board, a remarkable 42 were approved.

But the vision of a great Shelby Farms Park should eliminate business as usual. As the president of Friends of Shelby Farms Park so aptly puts it, the undeveloped land north of the park is “our beachfront property,” and it should reflect the highest principles of New Urbanism.

Density is of course the cornerstone of smart growth and New Urbanism (see photo on top), but it’s density that emphasizes connectivity, architectural integrity and open spaces. Fortunately, the consultants working on the new Unified Development Code for Memphis and Shelby County are embracing these concepts in their proposed regulations, and it can’t come too soon.

The proposed code has four kinds of subdivisions, and the higher density the more incentives and bonuses to developers. The way this works in other cities is that a developer who sets aside a prescribed percent of the units as “affordable” or sets aside a percentage for green space can receive a density bonus that allows more homes per acre. Also, in exchange for higher density, the governments reduce fees, expedite the review process, refund all county review fees and consider paying for landscaping. It’s unlikely that the code here will include these incentives, but thankfully, it is moving in the right direction.

With the help of the consultants, we’ll finally move beyond the knee-jerk reaction that equates density with traffic congestion, crime, lower property values and other problems. These misperceptions seem a direct link to negative feelings about traditional housing projects, such as Lamar Terrace, (which has been torn down and is being reborn as a mixed-use, mixed-income development that will be a model of this community).

If this isn’t enough to turn around negative views about density, the state of Shelby County’s budget surely is. Study after study reveals strong public support for limiting the sprawl that duplicates infrastructure and drives up crippling debt. What makes the new development code so important is that it will codify an emphasis on density, so that it does not become a passing fancy or a priority that fades with the changing of political leadership.

And speaking of perception, those of us who support New Urbanism and smart growth should adopt more expressive ways of describing our goals – walkable communities, sustainable growth and compact development, terms which have more positive impressions than talking about high density.

A few years ago, the Urban Land Institute convened a meeting to consider the benefits of high-density development, and this is what it concluded:

· Density reduces automobile trips, encourages exercise through biking and walking, and supports public transit.

· Density adds support for local retail and reduces the need for car-driven errands.

· Density fosters a sense of community the old-fashioned, it-takes-a-village way, because residents are more likely to get to know their neighbors and shop in the area.

· Density fosters greater safety, because it creates walking and biking that are a deterrent to crime.

· Density leaves more open space for parks, trails and other pedestrian-friendly options.

· Density provides greater opportunity for mixed-income housing affordable to households at more income levels.

So, what does all of this mean for Memphis and Shelby County? It means that we should draw a line in the sand now, and send the developers of the tract north of Shelby Farms Park back to the drawing board. This is irreplaceable park frontage, and it needs to be treated that way.

Done right, it can become the model New Urbanism project for this community.

Done wrong, it will be an eyesore that will be with us for a century.