Thursday, September 29, 2005
There’s three inviolate rules in county government. When someone says it’s not about sex, it always is. When someone says it’s not about money, it always is. And when the county school board says it’s about the kids, it’s always about the developers.
Another tell-tale sign in politics is when the opposition to your position is not content to argue the facts. Instead, they set out to decimate anyone who challenges their position or stands in the way of their pet projects.
That’s the posture that the county school board routinely takes. Finally, after standing with the county school system to his own political detriment at times, Mayor Wharton finally drew a line in the sand last week.
His request sounds imminently logical – do demographic trends in the southeastern county justify the new schools demanded by the Shelby County Board of Education? This seemingly innocent question touched off a firestorm of withering criticisms and personal attacks from county school board members and the mayors of the small towns against anyone who supports Wharton’s study.
Their reaction just seems strange on its face. If the county school board is right in claiming that county planners are wrong in their analysis of demographic trends and its analyses, why doesn’t the county board welcome the chance to air the issue publicly to show once and for all that it is right in calling for a high school, a middle school and an elementary school in the area? Why does it not seek the forum in which to make its case and remove the cloud that hangs over its school location decisions?
As we have written previously, the county school system makes its decisions on school sites in a vacuum, and it did again with its recent high school site recommendation. It failed to consult with the city school board although it expects the city school system to jointly build it, and it failed once again to confer with OPD which is required by ordinance to review the purchase of all property for public projects of Shelby County.
The number of questions has only increased as a result of Shelby County Board of Education’s howls of protest about the mere suggestion of an OPD study, but surely the board knew that the wiser course was to consult and review the sites and justifications for the schools with the city school district and county government.
It would have been such an easy thing to do, and all of this confusion and political contentiousness could have been avoided.
In fact, it hardly makes sense for the county board to build the schools in the first place. The southeastern portion of the county is slated to be annexed by City of Memphis within the next five years. Why shouldn’t the city school board build the high school to its specifications and lease it to the county?
As history shows, the road that’s being taken will result in the county board building a high school, then it will be annexed by Memphis and the city school board will spend millions and millions of dollars retrofitting it to its standards. And despite what you hear to the contrary from the county board, it is arguable that county schools are superior to city schools. In fact, a persuasive argument could be made that the county builds schools with no sense of place, with no common areas, with no community presence and little influence on community development, and with cut-rate operating systems that have to be replaced within years.
In addition, contrary to the county’s policy of warehousing students in high schools with 2,000 students, the city system is more in touch with national trends moving toward smaller high schools (a concept already embraced in many urban school districts and fueled by the bottomless bank accounts of the Gates Foundation). If the county school board is allowed to continue business as usual, it may well build a high school that the school board will reject in light of its different policy toward high schools.
A city-led project could be much cheaper for county government because of the Average Daily Attendance requirements. Every one with ears has by now heard that a $20 million county school actually costs more like $65 million because of state laws requiring that capital dollars be apportioned according to each system’s percentage of students.
So, if the city schools built the $20 million school, the ADA requirements are turned on their head, and the total amount would be about $28 million, not $65 million. There is every indication that the city schools system would agree to such an arrangement, but strangely, Shelby County officials say that the county system would oppose any such agreement.
Its determination to deliver a site near Hacks Cross and Shelby Drive, rather than a nearby site that is $2 million cheaper, has raised eyebrows throughout local government. At the same time, another school site decision is percolating just below the surface, this one a former Schnuck’s grocery owned by a developer with the last name of Hyneman. It is but more fuel on the fire for those concerned about developer influence on school site selection, not to mention the prevalent suspicions that racial motivations are driving the decisions on southeastern school proposals.
While the unholy alliance between the Shelby County school district and developers has been one of the unshakeable realities in local politics for 20 years, for the first time, county government has wisely broken from the parade that has offered up new county schools to drive sprawl and millions of dollars into the pockets of developers.
As expected, the mayors of the small towns are vociferously supporting the county board of education, taking the position that the school district should receive the blind support of Shelby County Government. Of course, these are mayors who faithfully argue for county government’s support for schools, but which never fund schools themselves, unlike Memphis taxpayers.
Mayor Wharton deserves the gratitude of every taxpayer who’s concerned about the massive county debt and the sprawl that’s caused it. This could be a historic time for this community if rationality and transparency were injected into the county school board’s decisions on school sites. It would be historic in lifting the veil on the influence that developers play in these decisions. In the end, if the mayor stands firm, this may be his administration’s finest hour.
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
• Collierville recently enjoyed sticking the Memphis library system with a bill for $32,000, because the town said it didn’t get some books it ordered last year. It’s just the latest pettiness shown by the town in the wake of its decision to quit the Memphis library system last year. It owed Memphis $112,207 in a final payment for library services, but decided to subtract the $32,000 from that check. Since the town is so keen on getting the ledger straight, how about it paying the library the $750,000 that Memphians paid for books in the Collierville library when it opened? That was their share of the county funding for the library. Unfortunately, it was a debt that county government decided to ignore when Collierville opted out of the library system.
• With the tide building for changes in the tax freeze procedures that make it an entitlement for everything from warehouses to corporate headquarters, expect a last-ditch campaign to preserve the program as it is now. Developers and the Memphis Regional Chamber say the tax freezes are absolute necessities in Memphis’ ability to compete for new jobs and businesses. They are less clear when it comes to explaining how Chamber officials in Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Jackson aren’t addicted to them, but are still successful in their economic development strategies.
• We should have prophecized that some of the “Rapture Index” preachers would be unable to resist the temptation to cast Hurricanes Katrina and Rita as the meteorological manifestations of God’s anger over America’s drift from Christianity. It just begs the question of what message God was sending when He sent a hurricane a few years ago to strike Virginia Beach, home of Pat Robertson’s media empire. Despite the hurricanes, the Rapture Index is at 160, down from its record high of 182 in 2001 right after 9/11. It’s a curious phenomenon, made even more so by the fact that the word, rapture, doesn’t appear in the Bible.
• Why is it that new school locations by the Shelby County Board of Education and bond issuances in Shelby County Government are always 11th-hour, don’t ask any questions, rush jobs? Kudos to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners for slowing down one runaway train last week when it insisted on answers to questions about the FedEx Forum that they’ve been asking for three years. Now, is there anyone who’ll stand in front of the runway freight train called the Southeast Shelby County High School?
• The 400 richest people in the U.S. have cumulative incomes of $1.1 trillion, more than dozens of countries around the globe. The average net worth of the people on the Forbes 400 list has risen from $600 million in 1985 to $2.8 billion this year. Meanwhile, median household income in the U.S. remains stuck for the fifth straight year and the rate of poverty is up for the second year in a row. The U.S. now has the greatest disparity between the richest and poorest in the history of the world.
• Remember the days when “Made in China” was a subject for comedians’ jokes. These days, no one’s laughing. With President Bush’s evangelistic fervor for tax cuts showing no sign of abating and with his pledge to spend $200 billion on hurricane relief, $200 million for war, and $30 billion in pork projects in the budget, the U.S. will again be looking to borrow the money for these projects from the People’s Republic of China. We have yet to comprehend the ramifications of this turn of global events.
• Pickwick Lake boaters, beware. Piperton, the hamlet just east of Collierville on Highway 57, has lowered its speed limit to 40 miles an hour as a way to fund the town budget. The company training the Piperton police is now handing out $125 tickets by the bushel basket. It gets a cut of the total fines.
• It seems a good time to remember the words of Bishop Kenneth Cragg: “The first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off your shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we will find ourselves treading on people’s dreams. Worse we may forget that God was there before our arrival.”
Monday, September 26, 2005
Another unfortunate feature of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is that they have overshadowed the growing storm about the pattern of behavior by Majority Leader Tom DeLay.
While it seems that Rep. DeLay will be the ultimate destination in several parallel investigations, those who know the intricacies of Washington politics are unsurprised. He’s always been a man who demonstrated a keen sense of family values.
Those along the I-69 Corridor learned it firsthand. In lobbying for support for the so-called NAFTA Highway that stretches from Canada to Mexico, with Memphis as its linchpin, the I-69 Coalition annually traveled to Washington, D.C., to seek funding for their favorite public works project.
In 1995, in one of those meetings, the delegation - including members from Memphis - was elated to get a meeting with Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, who was becoming more and more powerful as the Gingrich Revolution unfolded. No state had more I-69 mileage than Texas, and his help was considered crucial, if not a deal-killer, for the approximately $15 billion project.
The I-69 Coalition was excited to have the opportunity to sell him on its project, because he had been coy in his position on the new interstate highway. His support was integral to the success of the lobbying plan drawn up by the I-69 Coalition’s powerful government relations firm, Patton & Boggs.
In the conversation with Rep. DeLay, the subject quickly turned to the finely-tuned lobbying efforts that would be needed to get the massive federal funding needed to move the highway project forward. They were pleased by DeLay’s level of interest and his advice on the importance of a well-coordinated, highly-effective lobbying effort, and he offered thoughtful advice born of his concern as a Texan who recognized the value of this economic artery through the American heartland.
His advice: hire his brother. As he explained it, because so much of the highway would run through Texas, the Coalition needed to hire someone with unique experience to handle just the Texas Congressional delegation, because its members’ approvals would be critical. One name came to his mind – Randy DeLay - because he understood Texas politics and knew Texas politicians, the group was told.
No one from the I-69 Coalition was slow on the up-take, and within weeks, the lobbying efforts of Patton & Boggs were supplemented with the talents of Randy DeLay. In the first year, he was paid about $120,000, and between 1995 and 2000, he was paid $400,000, with part of it from money (including public money) raised in Memphis by the Tennessee contingent of the I-69 Coalition. There was grumbling about the payments, because no one in the coalition could point to anything substantive that he did, except for setting up meetings with and arranging speeches by the majority leader, who became the leading champion in Congress for I-69. But in the end, there was little that the Coalition could do, if it wanted its interstate highway project.
In a case of déjà vu, Rep. DeLay encouraged a coalition of Texas border towns along the I-69 route to do the same thing, and they paid Randy DeLay $156,000 in his first year as their lobbyist. Like the I-69 Coalition, leaders of the towns grumbled, but they felt that they had little choice if the project was to move through Congress.
In the end, the I-69 Coalition probably got off cheap. As Tom DeLay rose through the ranks of his party to become majority leader, so did his brother’s lobbying fees. In the course of little more than one year, Randy DeLay went from being a bankrupt Houston lawyer and restaurateur to a Washington insider making $550,000.
In the ensuing years, when his brother was hired to represent a Mexican cement company, Rep. DeLay called for the Clinton Administration to reverse an anti-dumping order so the companies could sell their cement in the U.S. without paying a duty.
When Randy DeLay was hired to block the move of the Houston Oilers to Nashville, his brother actually sponsored an unsuccessful Congressional bill calling for the federal government to block the move of a football team. When Randy DeLay was hired by Union Pacific railroad in support of its merger with Southern Pacific, his older brother spoke out and worked in favor of it.
In scenarios strikingly similar to the experience of the I-69 Coalition, Randy DeLay was hired specifically to give special attention to the Texas Congressional delegation, a delegation controlled by his brother.
After ethics complaints were filed against what came to be viewed as DeLay & DeLay, LLC, Randy DeLay seemed to go underground for awhile, but recent revelations indicate that the behavior of his brother didn't stop. It just involved loyal friends like Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon and Ralph Reed in their shameless rip-off of Indian tribes with high-dollar lobbying contracts.
Sadly, all of this was the worst-kept secret in the Capital, and few eyebrows were raised about the Abramoff headlines, media reports about $500,000 in payments over four years to his wife and daughter from his campaign fund for undefined work and the indictments of his aides in Texas for campaign fund abuses.
And yet, Randy DeLay is back, working more quietly in Texas selling himself as his brother once sold him to the I-69 Coalition – as someone who is uniquely qualified to get things done with the Texas delegation. Once again, local officials are paying one brother to lobby the one they also pay to represent them in
Congress. Most public officials who hire Randy DeLay continue to treat his contract as an insurance policy to make sure they get their best chance at expensive pork projects from channel dredging, bridges, and prisons.
Those who’ve been given advice to hire a Washington lobbyist who knows how to get things with the Texas delegation know first hand that Rep. DeLay deserves his nickname, Hammer. It’s just looking increasingly likely that this time he’s the one about to be nailed.
Friday, September 23, 2005
A drive through the Cooper-Young neighborhood during last weekend's festival revealed a surprising amount of new construction and renovations -- exactly the kind of activity the City of Memphis wants to encourage.
Former Parks Director Wayne Boyer had a vision of starting over at the Fairgrounds by removing existing buildings (except the Liberty Bowl) and building a new collection of modern sports facilities for the community. He imagined a dynamic center of sports that would pull people, especially families with children, into Midtown.
What he didn't imagine was the opportunity to re-use at least a portion of the Fairgrounds for private development.
When you consider the growing strength of Cooper-Young, it is not hard to imagine a completely new set of uses for the Fairgrounds property that could bridge Cooper-Young and the neighborhoods just to the east of the Fairgrounds all the way to the University of Memphis where Dr. Shirley Raines also has the neighborhood development bug. New sports facilities could be the centerpiece of the new Fairgrounds neighborhood.
(New York urban planner Alex Garvin imagined using the "minor sports" facilities planned for the NY Olympics to revitalize neighborhoods throughout the city's boroughs.)
Maybe it's time for a first-class charrette with nationally prominent designers unencumbered with what is and has been to consider the possibilities.
Now here’s a novel idea.
In a few weeks, just up river in St. Louis, they will actually demolish Busch Stadium, whose 39-year history has given thousands of us Memphians some of our favorite sports memories. For some, it’s Mark McGuire's now-tainted assault on Roger Maris’ single season home run record, but for me, it’s the glory years of Bob Gibson, Orlando Cepeda, Curt Flood, Joe Torre, Tim McCarver, and Julian Javier, not to mention my all-time favorite, Lou Brock, not just for how he destroyed Ty Cobb’s sanctified base stealing record, but for how he destroyed the plantation system that was major league baseball until he came along.
But back to the point, St. Louis will tear down a public building that has so much civic equity in its past, much as Atlanta blew up Fulton County Stadium although it was home to Hank Aaron’s breaking of Babe Ruth’s career home run record.
Somehow, these cities are managing to cope with the disquietude that is associated with even a hint of tearing down the Mid-South Coliseum, much less The Pyramid.
Here, the Mid-South Coliseum serves as the poster child for the tired, sad-looking cluster of buildings that dot the Fairgrounds property. It’s like a sad dowager who's only a pale reflection of her former self. Its ceiling tiles are perilous identified flying objects at times, all of the bathrooms never work at the same time and its once state-of-the art amenities are time-worn and frayed.
Even without the Grizzlies non-compete clause, the building’s future is in the past, as Yogi Berra would say.
Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the city-county study that said the Coliseum should be sold or shut down. Without the investment of $5 - $12 million, the building could never be competitively appealing to the public, the study said.
At that time, local government was confused about what to do with the aging building in light of its practice of undercutting The Pyramid rental rates. Pitting The Pyramid and the Coliseum against each other as promoters did was never good for the public pocketbook, but the older building was able to offer lower rates because it was long since paid for.
The Coliseum was able to stave off its destruction by grabbing onto a minor league hockey team, but when the RiverKings departed for DeSoto County, there was no way the building’s finances could ever make any sense at all. City and county governments essentially would have been subsidizing one of the country’s most expensive ice skating rinks.
Despite all this, there the Coliseum still sits.
And the building that made it obsolete, The Pyramid, has now been forced into obsolescence by an even better arena, The FedEx Forum.
At the time of the city-county study of the Coliseum, the consulting firm could find only one city that had two arenas (one roughly in the 10,000-seat range and another roughly 20,000 seats) still operating – Philadelphia. But of course, its metro population happens to be four times larger than ours.
So, our community pondered what to do with the Coliseum and The Pyramid. And with no answer in sight, we built a third.
That’s at least one, and probably two, too many. The 41-year-old Coliseum is essentially dead. The 14-year-old Pyramid is on life support. It no longer is the Tomb of Doom. It is now merely a tomb. The inside of the building looks like it has been pillaged by grave robbers, and the air hangs heavy as it does in buildings whose doors are never opened.
Perhaps, the committee studying the best uses of The Pyramid can come up with something really spectacular and that can be a long-term success. It’s just hard sometimes not to see the simple logic of tearing it down. To do so isn’t admitting failure; it’s just acknowledging the real and understood cost of bringing a professional basketball franchise to Memphis, one of the two smallest markets for the N.B.A.
In his presentation to Memphis City Council this week, Mayor Herenton said City Hall’s continuing poor budgetary management causes local government to consider cutting any financial lifelines to both the Coliseum and The Pyramid. While it’s years late for the former and about time for the latter, the financial crisis of city and county governments can finally give political leaders the courage to make the decisions that mere leadership could not.
Thursday, September 22, 2005
God bless every member of the Memphis Police Department, because they see things we can’t imagine and face risks that we’d never accept.
But there are times that they do things that just defy plain common sense. And for once, we’re not talking about their inability to stop the apparent right to beg for a living that exists in downtown Memphis.
No, this time, we’re just talking about a few other things that just don’t make sense.
First, now that we’ve paid for yet another iteration of Court Square, and it’s pristine and inviting, would it be possible for police cars to be banned from the driving in it? Yes, believe it or not, rather than get out of their cars and walk through the park to make sure nothing’s going on, police officers actually drive their cars up the sidewalk to the front of the pavilion and then depart by driving out another sidewalk.
It’s reminiscent of the days when the pristine condition of the trolley route was the stuff of bragging rights for downtowners. But within weeks, every inlaid square of stone put there for aesthetic purposes bore the multiple cracks caused by police cars driven up and down the trolley track route. And they are still there, a constant message that we are a city that doesn’t sweat the small stuff, like the attention to detail and design that make a city most livable.
Second, if police officers on horseback need to engage in some memorial ritual each day by meeting at the “young Elvis” statue on Beale Street, that’s fine. But is it too much to ask for them to clean up the horse manure that absolutely reeks in the 90 degree heat? Perhaps, in a display of their entrepreneurial spirit, they can create an offshoot of the “Zoo Doo” franchise, perhaps, "Blue Doo," but whatever they do, it would be thoughtful if they would remove the piles of manure that greet visitors to our city’s most important tourism destination – Beale Street.
Third, if police officers are providing security and directing cars after Orpheum Theater plays, that’s a good thing. But it would be even better public relations if the officers weren’t lounging across cars as the crowds depart the theater.
But even more importantly, when you walk out after paying $75 for a ticket to see a play, it has a tendency to spoil the entire evening when policemen on horseback are on the sidewalk outside the theater. Rushing to cars last week, patrons ran headlong into the south end of a downtown precinct horse. Worse yet, it was the south end of a downtown precinct horse actively engaged in defecating on the sidewalk in front of the Orpheum as the play ended.
There’s the old joke that if you can get to the head of any downtown traffic jam, you’ll always find a Memphis policeman. While the routing of traffic and traffic control after events frequently defy explanation, there’s really no excuse for just plain thoughtlessness.
Wednesday, September 21, 2005
Like father, like son.
That’s why it shouldn’t be any surprise that childhood obesity is a growing health crisis in Memphis.
After all, we already knew about the parents. Three years ago, Men’s Health and Self ranked Memphis as the nation’s unhealthiest city. In its most recent rankings, Men’s Health ranked Memphis as the fifth unhealthiest city for men in its ranking of 101 cities and only five points from the bottom. Memphis received a grade of D in fitness, F in environment and F in health.
But there’s more. Men’s Fitness, in its 2005 rankings, said Memphis is the fourth fattest city in the U.S. and gave the region a grade of D for parks and recreation, and Medical News Today wrote that Memphis is in the bottom 10 cities for utilitarian walking or biking.
Meanwhile, the rate of obesity in the eight-county metro area is higher than both state and national rates – 27.5 percent compared to 24.5 for Tennessee and 22.2 for the U.S.
In such a context, the real marvel would be if Memphis’ children weren’t obese.
It’s been reported that childhood obesity in our city is at an all-time high and climbing. If current trends continue, today’s youth will be the first generation in the country’s history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. And all for the lack of a little exercise.
But exercise can bring more than physical health. Inactive people are twice as likely to experience symptoms of depression as active people. That’s why the statistics in the Youth Risk Behavior Survey of Memphis City Schools seem more than coincidence: 27.4 percent of students reported feelings of sadness or hopelessness, 41 percent reported insufficient levels of exercise and 66 percent said they watch more than three hours of television on an average school day.
It is an indication of the “nature-deficit disorder” cited as a growing problem for today’s urban youth. In a world of fast food and video games, exercise and outdoor play are becoming quaint activities of an Ozzie and Harriet era. In his book, “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv points to the subliminal message we send with ads like the one that shows an SUV driving through incredibly beautiful mountain scenery, while two children in the back watch a movie on a flip-down screen.
So, where does Memphis start to fight childhood obesity? At the most logical place – parkland.
The public wants better parks and a “green strategy” for the city could become a competitive advantage in attracting new jobs and economic growth. Not to mention that it’s a great strategy for healthier residents.
Now, Memphis occupies the lower rungs of major cities in the average acres of parkland per 1,000 people – 16.1 acres per 1,000. Compare that to the rates of Austin – 35.4 acres per 1,000; Phoenix – 26.9 acres per 1,000; and Louisville – 20.4 acres per 1,000.
Couple that fact with Memphis’ underfunding of park services, and obesity seems the natural outcome. A recent review of 53 cities reported that Memphis spends only $25 on parks per resident of the city. If it weren’t for Toledo’s $23 per resident, we would have hit bottom. (Seattle is tops with $145.)
Memphis’ lack of investment in parks is being played out in growing complaints about the maintenance and condition of neighborhood parks. In last year’s Memphis Poll, only 69 percent of Memphians had positive perceptions about their neighborhood parks, compared to 86 percent only three years earlier. The poll noted that the division of Park Services blamed the problems to the lower priority of the parks in city budgets.
Few things prove as clearly that cities are ecosystems, where every factor affects all others. Here, a direct line runs between too few parks and too little money spent on them to unhealthiness that in turn drives up health care costs and taxes.
It seems a simple equation – spend now for parks or spend more later for medical care.
So, next time, there is a national town hall meeting on childhood obesity in Memphis, let’s talk about the cause – the need for more and better parks – and not just the symptom – more overweight children.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Watching the news unfold in New Orleans, we’ve learned painfully that the belief that someone is in charge when disaster strikes can be misplaced. Unfortunately, we also learned that too often, no one learns until it’s too late.
That’s why the National Weather Service created its StormReady communities program. It’s designed to encourage public agencies to prepare for severe weather, and to assure the public that there is a plan that make sure communications doesn’t break down and that first responders have the skills to save lives and property.
It sounds pretty basic. And it is. And yet, neither Memphis nor Shelby County are on the list of about 950 communities – including Nashville/Davidson Metro Government and Hamilton (Chattanooga) County - which have received the designation from the National Weather Service.
The heart of the program is coordinated communications. As the National Weather Service says: “The key to disaster management is effective communication…To be recognized as StormReady, an agency must have a 24-hour warning point to receive NWS (National Weather Service) information and provide local reports and advice. This office might be a law enforcement or fire department dispatching point.”
The Weather Service added that the U.S. is the most severe weather-prone country in the world. Americans face an average of 10,000 thunderstorms; 2,500 floods’ 1,000 tornadoes and six deadly hurricanes a year. Considering that 90 percent of all presidential disaster declarations are weather-related, the StormReady test is one every city and county should want to pass.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it seems a good time for Memphis and Shelby County Governments to review and critique their disaster preparedness programs. That is another benefit of the StormReady program.
Of course, there is much more than severe weather looming in Memphis’ future. There is the “big one,” the day when the New Madrid Fault Zone rumbles once again with a magnitude 7.0 or 8.0 earthquake. As FEMA officials point out, the devastating flood of New Orleans was one of the top rated natural disasters predicted for the U.S. Ranked above it, however, is the major earthquake predicted for the New Madrid earthquake fault zone and its potentially devastating impact on Memphis.
With both the Shelby County Homeland Security Office and the Memphis and Shelby County Emergency Management Agency in place here, it would be natural to believe that we have someone in charge and a plan in place.
To give the public confidence about the future, city and county governments should cooperatively launch a complete top-to-bottom review of all disaster plans. As we learned from the Gulf Coast, four years after 9/11, the lack of a dependable system of communications system is disastrous. Perhaps that is how StormReady could provide the greatest security of all, because of its emphasis on communications.
Memphis and Shelby County have shown that we can cope with ice storms and straight line winds (AKA Hurricane Elvis), but cope is the operative word. In the devastation that will accompany a major earthquake along the New Madrid fault, our previous bouts with ice and wind will have done nothing to prepare us for when the downtown bluffs liquefy and so much of our river frontage begins its trip toward New Orleans.
There is a certain sense of denial in Memphis about the “big one,” although scientists now predict that pressure is building on the same fault that produced the 8.1, 8.0 and 7.8 earthquakes in 1811-1812. In fact, of the four largest earthquakes recorded in the continental United States, these are three of them.
In a new study reported in the June 23 issue of Nature, the probability of a magnitude 6 earthquake in the next five decades was put at 90 percent. Chances for a magnitude 8 event are 7 to 10 percent. The new findings contradict a study in the 1990’s that suggested that strain on the fault zone is minimal.
If you want your confidence shaken, just visit the website for Memphis and Shelby County EMA at www.memphisema.com. It’s billed as the unofficial site for the agency, but the City of Memphis and Shelby County websites link to it. It’s a troubling indication of the priority that emergency services receives, if that sense of priority isn’t shown enough by the fact that EMA offices are located in the basement of Memphis City Hall. When the major earthquake hits, if the EMA leaders can climb out of the rubble, they can always try to get to the command center.
For years, many scientists have predicted that the most devastating earthquake might be along the New Madrid Zone rather than the much more publicized San Andreas Zone in California. For an equal number of years, California officials have been reworking and redefining its earthquake plans to send the message to its citizens that they are prepared for the inevitable.
It would be good for local officials to send the same message. We begin by becoming a StormReady community. Oakland shows us that it can be done -- not Oakland, California, but Oakland, Tennessee, the small town east of Eads across the Fayette County line on Highway 64. It is already a StormReady community.
Amazingly, emergency officials said recently that they are working on an evacuation plan for our community. Perhaps when disaster strikes, all of us just need to head to Oakland.
Monday, September 19, 2005
Nashville and Chattanooga both lie in counties that are "StormReady." Here's a complete list of Tennessee cities and counties with the designation: Bradley, Davidson, Dyer, Fentress, Franklin, Hamilton, Lincoln, Montgomery, Moore, Putnam, Sumner, Wilson, Fayetteville, and Oakland.
Find out more about StormReady at http://www.stormready.noaa.gov/. Then ask yourself (as you contemplate that New Madrid fault you're sitting on), why aren't Memphis and Shelby County on this list?
Friday, September 16, 2005
Memphis is unique in its place as one of only a few metropolitan areas – underline metropolitan – that has such a complex web of economic, social, and physical conditions associated with concentrations of poverty and its attendant problems. Addressing these and other issues is complicated by the lack of a coherent philosophy of public funding. What is needed is a fiscal equity study that becomes the blueprint for a taxing philosophy that is sound, equitable, and logical.
In Shelby County, population movement has resulted in shifting revenue and expenditure patterns, and because of this, the questions that need definitive answers are:
1) Who pays?
2) Who benefits?
3) What is the most equitable philosophy of funding public services?
The overwhelming majority of citizens in Shelby County pays taxes to a municipality, and every one pays taxes to county government. It is the disparity between county services paid for and county services received that create inequities for Memphis taxpayers.
At the heart of the problem is the lack of coherency in county tax policies. Shelby County’s rationale for service delivery is – and has been for 15 years – schizophrenic and confusing to the people who pay its costs. For example, county government delivers some services countywide, such as public health and criminal justice. For some cities, it provides fire protection and law enforcement. In others, it provides ambulance service. Outside of Memphis, Shelby County Government pays the total cost of education, and the towns pay nothing. Outside of Memphis, it enters into partnerships with cities to help fund major road projects.
In other words, the current system lacks consistency and congruity. As a result, what is at issue is the fiscal equity achieved by the type, the quantity, and the location of county services. To determine what is fiscally equitable, an analysis is needed to answer two questions:
1) Are municipal and non-municipal taxpayers receiving their fair shares of existing county and municipal services?
2) What levels of service delivery to incorporated and unincorporated areas should Shelby County assume in order to best serve its citizens?
To get at these answers, a fiscal equity study should determine the fiscal power of the county and its cities, determine the fiscal capacity of the county and its cities, determine the fiscal demands of the county and its cities, determine the relationship between capacity and demands, determine the precise source of revenues and expenditures, determine the organization and content of ongoing policy analyses which find the most equitable and cost effective way to control funding of public projects and services, prepare case studies of comparable urban/suburban areas, and examine the relationships between county and municipal governments.
At the end of this process, for the first time in history, there could be a rational framework for what is municipal and what is regional (county). In turn, what is considered regional should be moved to the county tax base. Everything else should be left for individual cities to fund.
A fiscal equity program would likely shift many services that are now considered Memphis services to the regional tax base (Shelby County’s), and in this way, a major goal for this community would be accomplished -- to lower the city’s tax rate to be more commensurate with the other municipalities of Shelby County. That is only fair, because at this time, Memphians pay a premium to live in their city.
This is especially graphic when it comes to joint city-county agencies and construction projects. On the many projects in which Memphis and Shelby County split the costs, Memphians do much more than pay its half. After all, Memphis taxpayers pay all of the city portion, and then turn around and pay 65 percent of the county’s portion. This means that overall, on these joint projects, Memphians pay 83 percent of the total costs.
Put another way, older sections of Memphis are now being asked to subsidize their own decline. The quality of the public infrastructure influences personal decisions on where to live, how far to commute and where to shop. Residents are now tempted by their own government to abandon older neighborhoods in favor of new ones, producing a decline in the quality of the infrastructure for older areas and incalculable social costs -- the decline in a sense of community, the inequality caused by the flight of wealth, the inefficient use of land, and the redundancy in public investments.
In 2001, the so-called “tiny town” controversy gave our community its best chance for addressing the tax inequities implicit in the current tax system. Being negotiated at that time was a proposal to move libraries, museums, economic development agencies, most joint agencies and more to the county’s tax base. Regrettably, the political pressure eased up, and the agreement was never consummated.
Conceptually, it was designed to lower the tax rate of Memphis to a level in the same ballpark as Germantown and Collierville. But it was not to be, and the unfair tax burden for Memphians remains. In the end, ideas from consolidation to single source funding for schools may or may not be a good choices for Memphis’ future, but the real top priority is to inject some common sense into a tax structure that is, in a word, nonsensical.
Thursday, September 15, 2005
In a blog last week, we mentioned that Mayor Herenton’s consolidation presentation was ignored by the news media and that the committee he appointed to study consolidation was hijacked by the town mayors and is now yet one more review of school funding.
We wrote: “Although the city mayor has now taken himself out of the picture, the committee he convened has turned its attention to school funding. If it really wants to accomplish something, it shouldn’t look at school funding in isolation. It should start at the same point Mayor Herenton did – with the emphasis on equalizing the unfair tax burden that Memphians pay for public services.”
In response to this blog, we were asked what the committee should do if it wants to address this tax issue. Our answer is that we would conduct a study on the cost of sprawl that includes the following:
-- the proportion of the county tax base, for the past 15 years to the present, that is within Memphis city limts and within the city’s annexation reserve area
-- the proportion of the county tax base that is paid by Memphis taxpayers from all residential, commercial and industrial sources
-- the amount of county tax dollars that was spent over the past 15 years on capital projects supporting suburban development in the area outside of Memphis, including money spent on roads, drainage, paving, traffic signals, parks, landfills, etc.
-- the proportion of the operating budget and capital budget of Shelby County spent in the past 15 years on expansion of the sheriff’s department to serve the suburbs, ambulance service to some towns and unincorporated Shelby County, fire services, etc., over the past 15 years
-- the proportion of the operating budget and special services such as elections, Agricultural Extension, Soil Conservation Service, Shelby County police, office buildings, information technology, etc., that is paid by Memphis taxpayers
-- the total of 50-50 city-county funded projects for the past 15 years such as The Pyramid, AutoZone Park, FedEx Forum, Memphis Cook Convention Center, Memphis/Shelby County Health Department, etc., and determine the actual overall percentage paid by Memphis taxpayers
-- examine revenues and expenditures of joint city-county agencies administered by Shelby County, such as Construction Codes Enforcement, to determine how much of the revenues are generated within Memphis and how much of the revenue is actually spent on city issues, how much was spent on general government expenses of Shelby County, and how much was spent on inspection/enforcement outside the city limits.
In setting this broader context, the committee should come to realize the disparity of Memphians’ tax burden and why smart growth will never succeed as long as city taxpayers are expected to subsidize their own neighborhoods’ abandonment.
In the end, the overriding fiscal policy goal in our community is not school funding, but equalizing the tax burden between Memphians and non-Memphians. Achieving that goal not only produces fair funding for schools, but true tax equity in Memphis and Shelby County for the first time.
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
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.
Tuesday, September 13, 2005
The Bush Administration proved again last week that it has a tin ear when it comes to poor Americans.
Beset by troubling and unrelenting questioning about whether the federal government’s bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina reflected racial insensitivity, the White House compounded its image problem last week when the president waived Davis-Bacon Act requirements for the massive rebuilding that will take place on the Gulf Coast.
Put more simply, President Bush issued a proclamation that suspended the law that would require employers to pay the local prevailing wage to workers on federally financed projects in the hurricane-affected areas of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
In a nation where 67 percent of all African-Americans say that governments’ response to Katrina was the result of racial bias, it’s almost hard to believe that the Administration could so cavalierly send yet another signal to them that their opinions are well-placed. Not only did the poor of New Orleans take a disproportionate burden of the devastation, but now, when they return to work on construction projects, they will be paid sub-par wages.
Since 1996, repeal of the prevailing wage law has been part of the Republican Party platform, injected into it by the special interests which believe in “capitalism at all costs.” Just for the record, the prevailing wage in New Orleans is $9 an hour for a truck driver and $14 an hour for an electrician.
There are time when members of the Bush Administration, notably Karl Rove, are so cynically doctrinaire in their politics that it seems that no tragedy is too profound or any suffering too deep to prevent it from sending a Valentine to its political base. As Rove has said, his first law of politics is to keep the Bush political base happy at all costs. Time and time again, they have done just that. But in the midst of all the human misery on the Gulf Coast, this paean to the Right Wing and its opposition to minimum wage laws is appallingly obtuse.
Interestingly, the White House requires construction workers to take lower wages, but there are no constraints or conditions placed on contractors who will rake in the billions of federal funds spent on rebuilding the coast.
It’s worth remembering that George the First also suspended the same act after Hurricane Andrew, but it only lasted two weeks, since he was defeated by Bill Clinton, who ran for president on the grounds that “average Americans who play by the rules” were being punished by economic realities. After being sworn in, Clinton reversed Bush’s policies, the prevailing wage was paid, and somehow, the democracy survived.
At a time when the poor, especially African-Americans, feel isolated and marginalized by the economic policies of their own nation, feel that their families are being destroyed by federal social policies, and feel that special interests benefit from a permanent under class, the country deserved better than Bush delivered last week.
If the hurricane was not enough justification for a broader view by the White House, consider that last week statistics were released that showed that poverty in the U.S. is getting worse. The supply sider mantra that a rising tide lifts all boat is anything but true for the 37 million Americans living below the poverty line ($14,680 for a family of three). Meanwhile, the average income for Americans reduced…again.
Those who still argue that even more tax cuts are needed to stimulate the economy are clearly in the depths of denial. In the third year of the economic recovery, for the first time in 50 years, our country recorded an increase in the poverty rate.
Forty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared the war on poverty, and apparently, we lost. The poverty rate now is about the same as in 1968, although American has never been wealthier. In 1965, CEOs made 24 times as much as the average worker; that now stands at 185 times as much. The U.S. has the highest poverty rate if any developed country.
While no one was watching, poverty was removed as a national priority and put on the back burner, where it is now boiling over. The most positive thing that can happen as a result of Hurricane Katrina would be a renewed focus by the American people on addressing the entrenched poverty in our midst.
As Senator Barrack Obama said: “I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren’t just abandoned during the hurricane. They were abandoned long ago – to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to diplapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness.”
In the past two weeks, the memories of the U.S. media have been jogged, and they have flashed signs of returning to the zeal that is the hallmark of an effective media. Perhaps, with their continued passion for covering substantive issues, the public emphasis on solving poverty will send an unmistakeable message to the White House that politics as usual is no longer an option.
Friday, September 09, 2005
Mayor Herenton finally met his match last week when he bowed out of his latest campaign for school consolidation. In acknowledging that his presence is a lightning rode for controversy, he threw in the towel. But his defeat was as much a surrender to the media as to the anti-consolidation forces arrayed against him.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where the media tend to make every one one-dimensional. That way, they create a shorthand for each leader and celebrity. They end up suggesting that a single characteristic is the essence of a person. Of course, it never works that way in real life, where each of is a mass of complicated contradictions.
But in such a world, Mayor Herenton is easy pickings. He’s the irascible mayor, the bomb-thrower, the contentious former Golden Gloves fighter. Everything he does gets defined by conflict, and most things that don’t convey this image are ignored. It’s sort of like the bigot who only sees things that reenforce the stereotypes that he already holds.
The perfect example of this tendency took place in March when Mayor Herenton convened a group of leading citizens to evaluate the benefits of school consolidation. In that meeting, Mayor Herenton laid out the most thorough analysis of city and county schools that has ever been presented in a public meeting.
None of it was reported.
Instead, news reports concentrated on the fact that Shelby County School Board Chair David Pickler and City School Board Chair Wanda Halbert boycotted the meeting, because they felt that Herenton hadn’t show them enough deference.
The complaints from the elected school board members immediately became the story. What did they say about Herenton? What did he say about them? Who really cared?
Lost in the extensive coverage about conflict was substance – the information that Herenton had presented on schools. As a result, Shelby County citizens – most of whom live in Memphis -- never learned that so much of their conventional wisdom about schools is simply wrong.
At the top of the list of surprising facts revealed that day was that county school enrollment has declined and city school enrollment has grown. Data showed that the county enrollment has dropped 1.23 percent when 2005 is compared to 1996 -- 45,383 students compared to 44,847 students. Meanwhile, the city system increased almost 10 percent from 108,894 in 1996 to 119,661 this year.
In fact, the report showed that county enrollment had actually peaked in 1999 with 48,770 students. As for the city school district, it peaked this year.
Another interesting statistic spotlighted our community’s vast investment in public schools. Over the 10-year period, operating expenditures for Shelby County Schools were $2.2 billion, and for Memphis City Schools, it was $6.8 billion. In other words, the total amount spent on public education in this decade was an astounding $9 billion.
In fact, from 1995 to 2004, expenditures by each school district essentially doubled, raising questions that deserved to be discussed about the basis of yearly calls for more money for education.
Projecting Memphis’ annexations over the next 15 years, city enrollment is expected to grow to 132,000 students while county schools will continue to shrink, to 33,000 students.
Another interesting tidbit dealt with the county’s huge debt, which is so often characterized as being school construction debt. Actually, $913 million of the debt comes from schools; the rest of the $1.7 billion comes from projects ranging from arenas to hospital expansions, from new roads to new technology.
While Mayor Herenton’s proposal that day was branded as a consolidation push by critics, actually, he proposed five districts with approximately 41 schools in each with 32,000 students. It was hardly the proposal of a maniacal power grab, and essentially, it is a proposal whose roots run back almost 20 years to when former Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris proposed almost the same structure for city and county schools.
All in all, it was a stimulating, challenging and thought-provoking presentation. Unfortunately, it was ignored by the media, and that’s too bad, because it deserved serious thought, discussion and debate.
With no one watching, the group convened by Mayor Herenton was subsequently hijacked by the town mayors who seemed intent on making sure any proposal to change county schools was D.O.A. While the town mayors give schools lip service, their actions never match their rhetoric. Unlike Memphians, who have funded city schools for decades, none of the towns has ever appropriated a penny to the county schools of which they are so boastful.
Although the city mayor has now taken himself out of the picture, the committee he convened has turned its attention to school funding. If it really wants to accomplish something, it shouldn’t look at school funding in isolation. It should start at the same point Mayor Herenton did – with the emphasis on equalizing the unfair tax burden that Memphians pay for public services.
As Mayor Herenton pointed out in his March presentation, Memphis taxpayers paid cumulative city-county property taxes of $7.27. Meanwhile, taxpayers in Germantown paid $5.79; Collierville $5.54; Bartlett $5.47; Millington $5.32; Arlington $5.09 and Lakeland still pretends to be a city, but has no city property taxes and pays only county taxes. (With the recent property tax increases, the onerous burden on Memphians has only grown.)
Equalizing the tax burden between citizens of the various sections of Shelby County would be the stuff of real progress. Until the property tax rates become more equal throughout Shelby County, Memphians are paying a disincentive to live in the city limits, while paying for infrastructure in sprawling areas of the county that they will probably never even visit.
Mayor Herenton’s proposal modestly called itself “a new beginning in reform, academic excellence and financial accountability for the public education of all children in Shelby County.” Hyperbole aside, it was a proposal that deserved better treatment than it received. But such is the case when the media operate in a one-dimensional world where personality conflicts always seem to trump serious discussion of real issu
Thursday, September 08, 2005
Leaving television reports filled with today’s images of Hurricane Katrina, I drove to the Justice Center to go to traffic court. It’s not an experience that builds confidence in government’s ability to organize or plan anything.
This time it’s Shelby County Government, and as I join the throngs of people snaking down the sidewalk, I already feel a sense of frustration building in me. Clearly, I’m never going to get to court in the 15 minutes before it opens.
As citizens, we are promised swift and certain justice. I’d just settle for swift and certain in the handling of the lines out front of the Justice Center. Slowly, we inch our way up the street and into the doors of the Justice Center, where the cause of the bottleneck becomes immediately obvious. There is only one lone security guard standing sentry over the checkpoint, armed with a metal detector and one small basket for us to place our keys and change in.
It is a prescription for lost motion, lost time, and lost patience. It is a maddening example of what seems to be a basic principle of government, whether played out in a door at the Justice Center or in the water in New Orleans: it is up to us as citizens to adjust to the “one size fits all” attitude of government, which seems unable or unwilling to respond to the basic needs of the people who foot the bill for all that it does.
Whether there is a driving rainstorm or wilting heat, nothing about the process to enter the Justice Center changes. It does not factor in age or infirmity, the presence of children or elderly people on walkers. Quite simple, it is the way it is done. Period. End of sentence.
As we stand there, the African-American man behind me, reading a book by C.S. Lewis, mutters: “You just wonder what they’ll do if we have an earthquake. They can’t even figure out how to get us inside this building in a reasonable time.”
Standing in line at the Justice Center, it is simple to see two or three changes that could be made that would speed up the process, without causing any risk to the security of judges and others in the building. It just feels like there is the unspoken feeling in the halls of justice that the people who go there are undeserving of simple courtesies or efficient systems. You can’t help but wonder standing there if the lack of attention to us at the Justice Center is just a characteristic of a similar attitude in all of local government.
Affixed to the wall near the entrance of the building is the obligatory plaque covered with the names of the county officials who were in office when the building was opened. It bears a Daniel Webster quotation on the bottom: “Justice is the great interest of man on earth.” Right about now, the greatest interest of this man on earth is simply to find a government somewhere that treats us in the way we deserve -- as their employers.
Wednesday, September 07, 2005
It’s been a historic week for the news media covering Hurricane Katrina. They have discovered poor, black people.
There is widespread outrage about the deaths directly caused by the failure of our federal government to mobilize its massive resources to save those whose lives hung in the balance in the murky floodwaters of New Orleans. Questions are being asked about whether the federal government’s slowness in responding was racially-motivated or colored by a systemic lack of concern about poor people.
For now, all of America is infuriated by the treatment of the least among us, but where were the media when questions should have been raised about policies that keep millions of Americans living in the shadows of the greatest wealth-producing country in the history of the world?
Surely Edward R. Murrow is turning over in his grave. Where were the media when it came time to spotlight the most troubling problems of our democracy – the entrenched poverty that is a birthright for millions of our citizens, the kind of poverty that played out before the world on television screens all of last week?
Katrina has forced the ugliest realities of our cities out in the open. Our anguish is now focused on whether the poor in New Orleans will survive the intolerable conditions there. But where is the anguish about why these conditions exist in the first place? Where is the reporting about the economic poles that exist in the United States, with the greatest discrepancy between the richest and the poorest in history? Where are the investigative articles about the rising rate of poverty and the falling median income in America? Where are the questions about tax policies that create a permanent underclass in our midst?
It is an underclass that stays largely invisible to most of us. We don’t drive or shop in their neighborhoods, so we can conveniently forget that they are even there. There is a resignation that the problems that now float before us on the flood waters of Katrina are an accepted part of American culture. That acceptance played out in the faltering response to the crisis in New Orleans last week.
New Orleans should force us to look at ourselves in the clear, unforgiving mirror of Hurricane Katrina. How we respond to the victims of New Orleans will not show who we are as a people. It is how we respond to the entrenched poverty that lies at the root of so many problems in New Orleans and our cities that will ultimately tell us all we need to know about ourselves as a nation.
We spend hours every night for weeks tracking the tragic murder of a beautiful Alabama teenager in Aruba, we spend days upon days examining every moment of Scott Peterson’s life and we spend months and months tracking every movement that Martha Stewart makes. But the evening newscasts and daily newspaper coverage do little to shine a light on the caste system that is all but institutionalized in our country.
Yes, we are outraged today. But where was our rage yesterday and where will it be tomorrow?
For now, reporters ask a pressing, appropriate question: was the federal government’s lack of urgency driven by race and economic status? It is a question that has to be answered, but there is an equally important one that we should consider thoughtfully as a people: why is it that every African-American in the country is convinced that it was?
Saturday, September 03, 2005
The following blog from early August is worth revisiting now that the Memphis Regional Chamber has taken a "more of the same" approach to its future with the selection of its next president. The new head of the Chamber will need to be a quick study to undertake the overhaul of economic development strategies that the knowledge-based economy demands, not to mention the beleagued taxpayers who are footing the bill for Chamber 's overreliance on strategies that start and stop with tax freezes. These tax freezes now amount to more than $60 million a year, more than half of all property taxes waived in the entire state of Tennessee.
Intending no criticism of the final choice, it is clear that Memphis must be the world champion in "national searches" that just happen to pick someone who's already on the inside of the organization. Meanwhile, the Charlotte, NC, chamber conducts its search for a new president. It is a process that is attracting applications from the leading chamber executives in the U.S. Someday, we need to figure out why we don't attract this kind of talent, or why we don't aspire to it.
But until then, we offer up again this blog on the challenges for the new Chamber president.
With the search for the next president of the Memphis Regional Chamber now down to five candidates, the decision looms as one of the most important that will be made in setting the course for the city’s future.
It has not always been this way. Traditionally, there are few ripples in the community when a new head of the Chamber is named, because he normally has spent most of his time focused on membership campaigns and fundraising. In recent years, cracks have appeared in the Chamber’s partnership with local governments, and the weaker relationship led to cuts in public funding.
In the end, restoring and strengthening the relationships with city and county governments is a priority for the search committee that is charged with finding an impact player as the new president. And for this reason, few committee members are interested in settling for someone to continue the status quo, and they are instead looking for a nontraditional leader for the Chamber or a Chamber executive with nontraditional skills.It wouldn’t come at a better time.
As we said on August 1: “Memphis’ economic development programs are caught in the commodity trap. It stems from our background as an agricultural center and continues with our pride in being a distribution center. We sell products that tend to be seen as commodities, to a consumer making a decision based on the lowest price. ‘Commodity economic development’ is forever in a race to the bottom to offer the cheapest prices (which of course puts pressure on employee wages to go lower)…Cities with commodity mentalities think they can grow their economies with low wages, low land costs, low utilities, low taxes.
In a commodities world, these are seen as the factors that must be controlled to keep prices down. But when we are competing with workers in Southeast Asia, Mexico and Bangladesh, it is an approach doomed to inevitable failure.” That is why ultimately, the search committee has more than just the chance to fill a job. It has a chance to touch the future of Memphis. Because at no time in history has Memphis been more in need of new and entrepreneurial thinking than now, as it stakes out its claim to the global economy and to the knowledge workers who fuel it. In the past, the city could afford for the Chamber president to stay below the radar, to concentrate on internal management of the organization and to spend his time on finding more members to join.
But now, the city’s economic future is at stake. A continuation of old economic development policies will eventually pit Memphis workers against those in third world nations. It is not a fair fight, and that’s why it’s a fight Memphians can’t win. That’s also why the new Chamber president needs to be someone who can define a different future for Memphis, who can articulate an alternate vision and inspire public and private leaders to pursue it.With this in mind, the Chamber search committee needs to hire someone who can create model programs like those in Portland, Oregon – the Portland Development Commission and the Mayor’s Business Roundtable.
The committee needs to hire someone who can build a culture of creativity and innovation that pervades business and civic life in Memphis; someone who can create a 21st century workforce for Shelby County; someone who can retain and attract people and income to produce a net gain in population and total wealth; and someone who believes that Memphis' future is not based on getting cheaper, but getting better. The committee needs to hire someone who is not esconced in the traditional Chamber way of doing business, because in the global economy, the traditional Chamber way doesn’t work. What is needed now in Chamber presidents are practitioners of new approaches to economic growth – approaches like economic gardening which focuses on existing entrepreneurs rather than corporate relocations, on biological models of business and entrepreneurial policy and new economic theories and philosophies.
The words of a specialist in economic gardening seem especially prescient to Memphis: “There was another, darker side of recruiting that bothered us. It seemed to be a certain type of business activity – the branch plant of industries that competed primarily on low price and thus needed low cost factors of production…cheap land, free buildings, tax abatements and especially low wage labor. Our experience indicated that these types of expansions stayed around as long as costs stayed low. If the standard of living started to rise, the company pulled up stakes and headed for locations where the costs were even lower. This was the world when we proposed another approach to economic develompent: building the economy from inside out, relying primarily on entrepreneurs.”
Memphis pioneered similar breakthrough policies in the Memphis Talent Magnet Project, Memphis 2005 and the Governors’ Alliance on Regional Excellence. In the end, all of these were taken under the wing of the Memphis Regional Chamber, and critics say the Chamber adopted the language of the reports, but never internalized their real meaning. Chamber leaders reply that fragmented local leadership, conflicts about priorities and declining funding were the roots of the problem. Whatever the cause, Memphis lost its position as a leader on the issues of the creative class, regionalism and strategic economic development, and as a result, it lost its chance to claim the competitive advantages that went with each.
These should be the thoughts on the minds of some members of the search committee as interviews are scheduled for the president’s job, forming questions such as: How does Memphis make better use of this key economic development position, and how does the Chamber president assume a much-needed role as an innovator and thinker on the economic challenges facing Memphis?
Friday, September 02, 2005
When conversation turns to developers’ stranglehold over local government, inevitably, people talk about some members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners and Memphis City Council.
Almost never mentioned are the public officials who are so close to development interests that when they roll over in bed, they bump into them – the Shelby County Board of Education.
The overriding factor for school site decisions seems to be how they enrich developers, and in the past 15 years, the majority of new school sites have been associated with a single politically-connected developer. Last week, the board of education did it again. Not only did they pick a school site in southeast Shelby County that cost $2 million more than an alternate site, they consulted no one who should have a voice in their decision, especially Memphis City Schools and Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development.
For years, Shelby County Schools has plopped down schools across the landscape with no consideration of what will be needed by Memphis City Schools when the area is annexed. And yet, county schools expect the city schools district to buy the schools when Memphis extends its borders. Perhaps, with this new southeast Shelby County school, it’s time for Memphis City Schools officials to “just say no.”
If they did, Memphis City Schools would no longer accept whatever location it inherits from county schools. Instead, they would serve notice that they demand to be consulted on the front end. This stance would also force Shelby County Government officials to treat these decisions with the seriousness they deserve.
If Memphis City Schools said no, Shelby County Government would be forced to face the prospects of paying for a school with no real future. There’s the chance that after decades of turning a blind eye, county government would finally pay attention to the consequences of the school board’s decisions. Of course, developers might still have enough influence in the halls of county government to get whatever they want, but it would at least shine light on the most expensive decisions being made in this community.
Secondly, and even more stunning is the fact that Shelby County Schools thumbs its nose at the county regulation that requires that the siting of schools is reviewed by the Office of Planning and Development. This hasn’t been done in 16 years, during a period that will come to be known as Shelby County’s sprawl years.
No public entity has played a larger role in this sprawl than Shelby County Schools, and its unholy alliance with the development industry has made it incapable of any perspectives that might lead to different outcomes. If county government forced its school district to consult with OPD, schools officials would be confronted with statistics, demographic trends and building permit numbers that have shown over the years that it has routinely put its schools in the wrong places. In fact, they were put in the very places that fueled sprawl the most.
Most of all, the county school district’s unilateral process means that decisions are never placed in a broader perspective. They are not dovetailed with public service demands, which means that county government cannot prepare financially and programmatically for the future, but, instead, has to react to forces set in motion by its own board of education.
The inevitability built into the system is startling, especially considering that decisions made by the Shelby County Board of Education are responsible for at least half of the county’s suffocating debt. The spectacle of the county school system making its decisions in isolation is especially incredulous now, as the Wharton Administration tries to pay down the county’s $2.2 billion debt.
Despite the much ballyhooed announcements about better coordination, cooperation and communications about schools – whether in the needs assessment process set up by Mayor Wharton or the school consolidation (now the school funding) committee set up by Mayor Herenton – the consultation that is at the root of real collaboration is missing as long as collaboration by Shelby County Schools is only with developers. In rejecting the site and paying $2 million more for a site, the school board said the cheaper site was too close to the edge of its service district (or in layman’s terms, too close to the Mississippi state line). Of course, a couple of years ago, it didn’t concern school officials at all when it snuggled the Arlington School site awfully close to the Fayette County border, but then again, that was a site that developers insisted on having.
A first and simple step toward putting order in this process would be for the county administration and board of commissioners to instruct the school board to confer with Memphis City Schools and OPD to see what it considers the optimum location for new schools and to discuss them openly. Perhaps, then, decisions on county schools’ sites could pass the smell test, which now have the distinct aroma of cigar smoke in a back room.
Thursday, September 01, 2005
By Lance Hosey
This spring the Washington Post, ABC News and Time magazine jointly conducted a study of commuter traffic in major U.S. cities. The results were surprising. And not.
Polls show that in major metropolitan areas, traffic has gotten significantly worse over the past five years; yet, as congestion on the freeways increases, commuters become more wedded to their cars. Sixty percent of people interviewed in the Washington area say they "dislike" commuting, but 83 percent drive to work, almost always alone.
Most see carpooling as an effective way to alleviate traffic, as long as they aren't the ones doing it. Similarly, a large majority praises but ignores public transportation, claiming that while transit systems such as the Washington-area Metro are reliable, comfortable and practical, they "never" ride it.
That people cling to their cars might be expected, since 70 percent say driving makes them feel "independent." But half also say traffic "frustrates" them, and many feel "nervous" and "angry" on the road. Most respondents complain about other commuters, who drive too fast and too aggressively. In Washington, many residents talk of leaving the area if things don't get better.
Can things get better? The population continues to rise, people insist on driving, and the freeways probably will not -- and maybe should not -- expand significantly. The costs of installing and maintaining infrastructure and the money spent on gas and other services continue to grow.
Costs aside, in many areas, commuter routes are hemmed in by their surroundings, and even if communities were willing to displace other uses, there is a limit to this strategy. How fat can freeways get?
The environmental consequences of expanding highways include fossil-fuel depletion, carbon emissions (from both cars and concrete production, because cement is a significant contributor to greenhouse gases), heat island effects, storm-water management problems and the impact on habitat and ecosystems. Extending public transit service could help, but only if more people choose this option, which seems doubtful from the survey results.
The problem we face is not just with cars and traffic. The problem is with commuting -- not the form of it, but the fact of it. Instead of addressing the difficulty of getting from point A to point B, we should reconsider the distance between them.
In the survey, one obvious form of transportation never came up: walking. Ninety-six percent of respondents drive or take public transportation, the remaining 4 percent use "other" means not named, and in the entire report there was no mention of walking (or biking) as possibilities. Apparently, using our feet for locomotion has become unthinkable.
Yet, as the historian Kenneth Jackson points out, prior to the last century or two, every major city in the world was what he calls a "walking city," with three important traits: Density, mixture of functions and a short distance between places dedicated to living and working.
The benefits of the walking city are still clear. A recent study shows that suburban sprawl can be detrimental to health because it limits casual exercise -- time not spent in the car can be spent in recreation. Potential social benefits of the walking city include a more tangible sense of community.
Forty years ago, Jane Jacobs' landmark book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" stressed the importance of sidewalk life for establishing safety and encouraging neighborly interaction. Last year, in a widely publicized report on the most "livable" cities in America, the top-ranked communities were mostly smaller, diverse, pedestrian-friendly places such as Charlottesville, Va., and Sante Fe, N.M. (numbers 1 and 2).
A wide spectrum of possibilities exists between high-density urban core and low-density periphery, but most cities are limited to these two options only. Low-rise, medium density places are rare, even though they are perennially ranked as the most "livable."
That rarity may explain why many people are flocking to them now. Long term, if we are to solve the problems of commuting, we need to rethink the entire character and fabric of cities to offer more diversity and more choice. In an effort to do this, the Environmental Protection Agency has joined with several nonprofit organizations and community groups to form the Smart Growth Network. The EPA offers guidelines that center on a variety of transportation types, mixed uses, demographics, affordability, compact building, green space and -- most importantly -- walkable neighborhoods.
These ideas are not new or radical. They stem from the close study of places that have thrived for centuries. But their implementation requires radical change to alter the habits of conventional developers and policymakers. Success will depend on broad community support and market demand. Without it, we will continue to battle gridlock and sprawl.
Lance Hosey is a principal at Envision, a Washington-based architecture and design firm whose core mission is environmental innovation. e-mail: LHosey@envisionsite.com