Thursday, November 30, 2006

Tolerance Is A Competitive Advantage

Clearly, what Memphis needs is more gays and lesbians.

At least that’s what we concluded from a recent report that put Memphis near the bottom of the nation’s largest 50 cities in a ranking of single sex couples and gay, lesbian and bisexual population.

With only 3.5 percent of its MSA population fitting into this category, Memphis ranked #46, with only Buffalo, Detroit, Richmond and Riverside ranking lower.

Meanwhile, heading up the list were San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Portland, Tampa, Austin, Denver and Minneapolis. Unsurprisingly, the Windy City topped the list -- 15.4 percent of its city population and 8.2 percent of its metro population are gay.

Top Cities

Interestingly, the cities at the top of this list also happen to be the cities that are proving the most successful in the new economy and that are the leaders in attracting 25-34 year-old college-educated workers.

Comparing the cities with large gay populations with the cities that are most successfully competing in today’s economy, it suggests that when Memphis rolls out its economic development plans for the future, chief on the list should be attracting more gays to our city.

Of course, that’s simplistic. There is no cause and effect, at least not directly, between the presence of gays and success in the global economy. (This is not to deny that considerable research proves the ability of gays and lesbians to resurrect dying neighborhoods.)

More to the point, gays are the canary in the coal mine, as one gay Memphian said in the wake of the release of the Memphis Talent Magnet Report several years ago. In other words, if a city is welcoming and accepting of gays, it is prima facie inclusive, diverse and tolerant. In today’s competitive environment, these are more than just noble virtues. They are also what young workers are seeking, because research shows that they are gravitating to cities that are open, where they can be themselves and where they can define their own lives.

Selling Tolerance

Tolerance as a selling point is vastly underrated and misunderstood in Memphis. But more and more, it is becoming a priority for cities that understand how it helps to attract and retain knowledge economy workers.

In our work in developing talent strategies for a half dozen large cities, it’s a common and compelling theme. It’s not simply something that comes up as a footnote in interviews, focus groups and research. To the contrary, it is uppermost in the minds of this critical part of the workforce as they make decisions on where they will work and live. It’s not that they are asking if cities have a vibrant gay culture. Rather, they ask about ways in which the city welcomes their opinions and accepts their choices, and there is no more telling indicator that the presence and acceptance of gays and lesbians.

It is in this way that the gay population is an indicator of the fundamental character of a city and serves as a foreshadowing to other indicators of economic success. To prove the point, Memphis’ rank at the bottom of the list of cities with gay populations is also where it is ranked on variety of other economic measurements.

These latest statistics about same-sex couples and the gay, lesbian and bisexual population is contained in recent report of the Williams Institute. It is reminiscent of the widely misunderstood “Gay Index” made famous by Richard Florida in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class.

Gay Index

In his book, Mr. Florida pointed out that Memphis ranked #43 on the 1990 Gay Index and #41 on the 2000 Gay Index. At the same time, Memphis ranked #48 on the High-Tech Index. While those taking shots at his premise mischaracterized it to say that he was suggesting a direct correlation between gays and high-tech jobs, Mr. Florida actually made the point that gays concentrate in open, tolerant cities, and it is these kinds of cities that have a competitive advantage for creative workers.

It’s our suspicion that the percentage of gays in Memphis is underreported. After all, the statistics are based on same sex couples, gays and lesbians identifying themselves. In a city with a historic problem with intolerance, it’s not surprising that they might be reluctant to respond openly.

Despite this, 2,757 identified themselves as same sex couples – 1,295 male couples and 1,462 female couples. Over all, the gay and lesbian population of Memphis was listed at 30,531.

From 2000 to 2005, according to the report, the number of same-sex couples in the U.S. grew by more than 30 percent to 777,000, five times the rate of growth of the overall population. “Most likely as stigma associated with same sex partnering and homosexuality in general decreases, more same-sex couples are willing to identify themselves as such on government surveys,” said the report.

More Than Decency

In other words, if Memphis recorded a sudden uptick in the number of same sex couples and gays and lesbians, it’s a positive sign that things are getting better. That’s why as Memphis follows key indicators and trends to chart its progress, chief among them should be a trend line for gays and lesbians.

Tolerance is more than simple decency. Today, it’s a competitive necessity, the reflection of a community that is open and inclusive at a time when these qualities are vital if it is to compete for the kinds of jobs that matter most in a knowledge-based economy.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Young Workers Determine Which Cities Win In Race For Economic Growth

It’s always a good day when our work leads to an article on page one of the New York Times, as it did Saturday, when it was reported that Atlanta was launching a new campaign to attract the “Young and Restless.”

Basing its program on a report issued by our firm in conjunction with Portland economist Joe Cortright, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce drew a line in the demographic sand, laying out the argument that the wave of 25 to 34 year-old college-educated workers moving to the Georgia capital is proof positive of its strong quality of life, its thick job market, its civic vibrancy and the importance of its 45 colleges and universities.

It should also serve to be a wake-up call for Memphis. As heated as the competition is now for these highly-coveted young workers, these may soon be the “good old days,” because by 2012, for every new worker added to the U.S. labor force, two will leave.

Talent Magnet Report

Early on, Memphis saw the beginnings of this wave, and Shelby County, City of Memphis, and the Memphis Regional Chamber commissioned the “Memphis Talent Report” by this firm to recommend what our city should do to attract and retain these workers. Although Memphis got there early, and some of the recommendations were followed up on, much remains to be done.

Following that report, we conceived the Memphis Manifesto Summit, sponsored by Memphis Tomorrow and co-hosted by our firm’s founder Carol Coletta and the ubiquitous author/economist Richard Florida. It was the first national meeting of the so-called creative class where 125 people developed what cities had to do to be attractive to them. It received widespread national coverage and is included in the paperback edition of Mr. Florida’s highly influential book on the “Rise of the Creative Class.”

From all of this, we have learned one inarguable fact. An economic development plan without a talent strategy is not an economic development plan at all.

That’s because more and more, it is these young workers who are defining which cities are winners and which are losers. They are the best-educated, adaptable, mobile, and relatively inexpensive resources for cities.


Most of all, talented young workers are not simply any workers. They are also more likely to be entrepreneurs, forming the next generation of companies driving economic growth.

The seismic shift in Memphis’ future is more than just the one we know about - New Madrid fault. There’s also the seismic shift that will occur in labor markets, because rapidly disappearing are the days when economic growth was powered by a ready supply of more and more workers.

All of the major forces that drove the economy in the past four decades will change. The tide of baby boomers will be retiring, the participation of women in the workforce won’t increase, and the college graduation rate will plateau. All of these trends are exacerbated by the fact that there are eight percent fewer 25 to 34 year-olds in the U.S.

In other words, at a time when Memphis must come to grips with the fact that it is competing with cities on a global scale, it also must compete for the young workers that will make it possible. In the end, it’s about how we make our city more appealing to these young adults, who have options unimaginable to previous generations.

Memphis’ Standings

The New York Times wrote about Atlanta’s impressive success in attracting these young workers. In case you were wondering how Memphis stands in this competition, here’s our city’s comparisons to the other 49 largest metro areas:

• Memphis is below in college attainment, ranking 38th.
• Memphis ranks behind all of its competitors in the percentage of its adult population that have four-year college degrees.
• Memphis has 167,251 of these young workers, 13,000 fewer than in 1990.
• Memphis ranks 49th in percentage of young 25 to 34 year-old whites and 1st in African-Americans.
• For every six 25 to 34 year-olds who move to Memphis, five leave.

The top five cities for young people who move to Memphis are Nashville, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Knoxville. The top five cities who attract people from Memphis are Nashville, Atlanta, Dallas, Washington, and Little Rock.

In addition to the “Young and Restless” report for Atlanta, we have worked with Mr. Cortright on reports for Providence, Portland, Tampa, Richmond, and Philadelphia. So what does all of the research, focus groups, and evaluation tell us that’s important for Memphis?

What They Want

It tells us this about these young workers:

They want a place with a green ethos, a place with outdoor recreational choices that are unique and first-class.

They want a place where they can be themselves, a place known for its tolerance, its diversity, and its welcoming attitude toward new people and new ideas.

They want a place that is vibrant, a place with vibrant neighborhoods, a vibrant downtown, and lively “scenes.”

They want substance over hype, they are Internet-savvy, and they will check the facts and assess cities with their peers.

They want a place that shows them they are valued, a place where they are invited into public discussions, where they are the subject of news coverage, and where their voices and interests are heard.

They want a place that is the best in something, a place that is world-class in some way and that offers something that is first, best, and only.

They want a place where government works and takes care of the basics, especially public transit and parks.

They want a place that is authentic, a place that isn’t homogenized and a place with a strong brand rooted in reality, not based on slogans and bumper stickers.

Fuel For Success

The ability to capture these young people is already fueling the successes of cities like Austin, Atlanta, Portland, and Charlotte, where their numbers are increasing five times faster than the nation as a whole.

In the coming years, Memphis is faced with some hard choices, most notably what it will take to compete in the global economy and what it will take to wean its economic development strategies from cheap labor and cheap land mantra. If nothing is changed, one thing is certain: Memphis will be relegated to the also-rans of American cities, the cities that could never seem to get their acts together in the face of transformative changes.

In this new world, the focus of economic development must be on talent – how to attract it, how to educate it, and how to retain it. The stakes have never been higher, and Memphis takes its first steps by building on the economic importance of being different and by executing strategies already in reports aimed at making it a magnet for talent.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Putting Parks Back Into Plans For Progress

Memphis was a star of the Progressive Era a century ago, building a national reputation for parks, parkways and city beautiful programs that ushered in an era of economic growth.

History does indeed repeat itself, but normally, it needs people to make it happen. Today, the first signs of a similarly historic parks agenda are coming into focus, but before it becomes reality, Memphis will have to shift its traditional love for building projects to a newfound love of place-making.

A committee is overseeing development of a plan by an internationally known designer for the 4,500 acres of Shelby Farms Park – twice as large as New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park combined - that will maximize its fortuitous location near the center of the county.

Grand Plans

The Wolf River Conservancy is making progress with its 38-mile greenway connecting the eastern edge of Shelby County to downtown Memphis, and it’s already given birth to the magnificent Wolf River Wildlife Park, a 2,167-acre park in Collierville.

The Greater Memphis Greenline is envisioned for an abandoned 13-mile CSX rail line, creating a “Rails to Trails” project to include light rail and connect Cordova and Shelby Farms Park with Midtown and Orange Mound. (First, the railroad must quit looking to gouge local government and get reasonable about negotiating the price for the acreage.)

The Riverfront Development Corporation has already upgraded the appearance and maintenance of riverfront and has plans for improvements that would elevate the city’s waterfront (and hopefully bring a water fountain to Tom Lee Park).

Alone, each of these projects is a valuable and distinctive asset for Shelby County, but together, they could become an embarrassment of riches, a network of green resources that unite the new county with the old. While the Progressive Era proved how parks can transform a city, more to the point, a number of our regional rivals are today showing how investments in parkland pay dividends, including quality of place, recruitment of talent, urban neighborhood redevelopment, and economic growth.

Parks As Priorities

That’s why a renaissance of city parks is already under way. Since 1995, more than $25 billion in new funding for parkland has been approved at the polls, where more than 80 percent of all park referenda are passed.

Meanwhile, according to the Trust for Public Land, the minimum threshold for city spending on parks is $64 per resident, and Memphis doesn’t even come close. Also, the average percentage of a city’s land area dedicated to parkland is about 10 percent, and again, Memphis falls short by half. it’s no coincidence that Memphis ranks low on the list of cities investing in parks and high on the list of unhealthiest cities in Self and Men’s Health.

In the heated competition between cities for the 25-34 year-old, highly-educated workers who are the gold standard for the New Economy, outdoor recreation is proving to be an irresistible competitive advantage. That’s why Louisville is creating thousands of acres in new parks, Nashville has announced a $151 million park program; Atlanta is beginning a $2 billion, 22-mile linear park; the Research Triangle is adding 158,000 of green space over the next two decades; and Chicago built the incomparable Millennium Park which has already generated more than $3 billion in economic spinoffs.

Here, we have a chance to compete at that level. All of the projects under way can be completed and become part of an interconnected outdoor recreation system for a cost that is less than half of the FedExForum. The patron saint of the environmental movement, John Muir, said: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else.” That could be especially true in Memphis, but it won’t come without an unprecedented level of cooperation between government, green groups, and business.

Greening Memphis

Preliminary indications are promising, as some major environmental groups and Leadership Memphis have begun talks about the best way to create and stimulate a countywide “greening” movement.

Those involved in these talks can look to the research laboratories of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital if they ever question the importance of their discussions. Every year, about 250 of the smartest post-doctoral graduates in the world are recruited to the hospital, where its positive reputation for its working conditions and support for its researchers make it a highly desirable assignment.

Unfortunately, at the end of their research period, about the same number of researchers leave. When a representative of the graduates was asked recently what could convince them to stay in Memphis, the answer was quick and direct: “More outdoor recreation.”

That’s why in the end, we need to build more than projects. More to the point, we need to invest in the quality of place that ultimately is the difference between a good city and a great one.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Libertyland and Coliseum Futures Must Hit Civic Targets

Revisiting a post from earlier this spring:

Everybody’s all for government acting more businesslike until it affects their special cause. This comes to mind when we listen to some of the arguments from grassroots leaders who insist that Libertyland and the Mid-South Coliseum must remain open.

We applaud their willingness and their determination to have a voice in the public decision-making process. It’s just hard to see how they end up on the “winning” end of this debate.

First of all, there is the deliberate, inexorable movement by city government to cut expenses. The current budget woes demand it, but in addition, that’s what we voters kept telling city officials like Chief Financial Officer Robert Lipscomb that we wanted.

The city owns 60 percent of the Coliseum and apparently most of Libertyland, and it leans toward closing both and using the land for development that would be an anchor for rebirth of the area.

With the neighborhood redevelopment plans of the University of Memphis on the east and the Fairgrounds redevelopment on the west, this critical section of Memphis could then get the economic shot in the arm that it deserves. 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 U of M.

Fairgrounds Redevelopment

Redevelopment of the Fairgrounds creates a 365-day-a-year force for improvement, rather than the intermittent bursts of activity at the Coliseum and Libertyland, the deteriorating buildings whose highest and best use seems to be as sites for flea markets, and the expansive (and empty) asphalt parking lots that stretch for blocks.

In the end, discussions about future uses of the Fairground property, including Libertyland and Coliseum, need to centered on identifying the uses that can strengthen the adjacent neighborhoods, spark new investments in the area, spur economic growth and stabilize and increase property taxes.

The current uses just don’t hit the mark on any of these.

If the current uses are to remain, it seems to mean that government must throw good money after bad at the Coliseum, where the deficit now is about $400,000, and it must adopt Libertyland from the Mid-South Fair, which has been paying the thumbnail theme park’s deficits for years.

City of Memphis officials have been driving these key decisions, but a sense of urgency has developed around the Coliseum when county government announced that it wouldn’t pay its 40 percent of the deficit, causing the city to announce that the building would be closed. However, since that announcement, Mayor A C Wharton, after a meeting with renters of the building yesterday, now seems to be reconsidering. It has all the appearances of the classic political dilemma in these joint city-county projects. In truth, none of the staff on either side of Main Street thinks that it makes any sense to keep the Coliseum open, but neither side wants to be the ones that take responsibility for locking its doors.

Bring A Check

And yet, the problem seems simple. If all these tenants, who are imploring Mayor Wharton to keep the building open, want to make it happen, they need only come up with a plan for the rents to be raised to cover the $400,000. That of course isn’t practical, but then again, there are no practical options for the building’s future in the first place.

Consultants told the city and county six years ago that the building should be shuttered, unless there is someone who wants to buy it, operate it and pay all expenses. Nothing has changed, and if that recommendation had been followed, city and county governments would already have saved several millions of dollars.

Keep in mind that the city and county governments don’t pay the operating deficit at FedEx Forum, and it seems to be a prevailing trend in city governments around the country to get out of the building management business. It’s just not something government is good at.

If proponents for keeping the Coliseum open are to gain any traction in their arguments, they need to develop a more persuasive case. The justifications that the city needs the Coliseum because some renters need fewer seats or can’t afford more rent doesn’t really move opinion on this issue. After all, government – more precisely, we taxpayers - doesn’t have the obligation to operate venues of various sizes solely to satisfy the particular needs of a specific tenant, whether it is the jury commissioner or the Liberty Bowl’s pregame buffet.

In the end, like most things, it comes down to money. The public has been telling government for years that it should act more like a business. The balance sheet is bleeding red ink, and unless someone can submit a funding plan along with their petitions, this discussion is actually over.

We’re just going through the motions until the inevitable (and logical) choice is made by city government – to redevelop the property in a way that creates more stability and economic growth for this key section of the city.

This Week on Smart City: Teach For America Update

Teach For America is a national corps of outstanding recent college graduates who commit to teach in our nation's public schools for two years. Earlier this year we talked with two Teach for America corps members, Donique Nobles and Shelby Rohrer, just as they were beginning their first week in a real classroom in Memphis City Schools. This week we visit them again to get a firsthand report on how tough the challenge being a first year teacher really is.

Also we'll find out about a remarkable emergency medical transport system that is saving lives and preparing for disaster in Birmingham, Alabama. Joe Acker is executive director of the Birmingham Regional Emergency Medical Services System and he's here to tell us more about this innovative program.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website. For a listing of times in other cities and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, please click here.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Taking Stock Before Taking Land

There are times when Tennessee’s annexation laws seem as much a curse as a blessing.

And because it’s hard to decide which category the proposed annexation of Southeast Shelby County falls into, it’s time to put it on hold for now.

On balance, there’s no question that Tennessee’s progressive attitude toward annexation is sound public policy, largely because there is a direct connection between these kinds of annexation laws and the financial solvency of cities.

The pitfall is that often, the prospects of annexation inspire a false sense of security in Memphis city government.

Propping Up The Population

That’s because city officials are able to prop up Memphis’ population and its tax revenues by taking in more territory. Without this ability to annex, Memphis population would likely be about half of what it is today, and the serious problems in the city’s midst could not be masked by new taxes and new citizens.

While we are supporters of the state law on annexation, Memphis needs to set aside its quest for new land for now and prove that it has strategies to address the cancerous problems of the urban core – the hollowing out of the middle class, the bipolar economic divisions, and the neighborhoods that seem almost to be collapsing while we are looking at them.

But our concern for the proposed annexation is about more than misplaced priorities. More to the point, it’s about a process that has been tainted by the undue influence of developers in local government.

The annexation boundaries for the Southeast Shelby County annexation would warm the heart of a long-time Congressional gerrymanderer. It’s telling that the annexation boundaries wrap around property owned by favored developers and zig zags like a frat boy on Saturday night. All in all, it’s a sad indictment of the lack of objectivity that should lie at the heart of any annexation proposal.

Reprieves For The Few

Put another way, the annexation proposal is a testament to the powerful and well-connected. If you have enough money to live in Southwind, you have already successfully put off annexation until the next decade. If you are politically-connected developers, you are about to do the same.

But the rank and file have no such privilege. And to make matters worse, some City Council members treat the future Memphians in Southeast Shelby County as if they are parasites who deserve little more than contempt.

It’s a shameless situation that Memphis finds itself in. And its citizens (and even its future citizens) deserve better.

Sadly, some City Council members seem oblivious to the water dripping on stone syndrome that actions like this have on the public. Over time, even a bedrock of support slowly is eroded away, disillusioned by the political impact of insiders, the rhetoric over substance responses, and a lack of impartial analysis on key city issues.

Failure Of Growth Management

When City Council weighs its decision by measuring whether the annexation is a tax windfall or a tax drain, it engages in a shallow evaluation, ignoring whether it is capable of dealing with the critical problems facing the larger city it will govern.

What is most clear in annexation debates is the abject failure of the process set in motion by state law Chapter 1101 to set urban growth boundaries. The purpose of that law was to encourage and require counties and the cities within them to sit down and cooperatively develop a blueprint for the future land use of their areas.

Here, that founding intent was ignored, because state law also said Shelby County, Memphis, and the smaller municipalities would satisfy the law by ratifying their existing annexation agreements. As a result, there was never a serious discussion about growth management, protection of green space, and the community’s response to sprawl.

In the end, all but 48.74 square miles (small corners in Northeast and Northwest Shelby County) were identified as urban growth areas, meaning that Memphis, at 317 square miles at the time of Chapter 1101, would eventually swell to 489 square miles.

Choosing Memphis’ Future

But, because so many people continue to vote with their feet, despite this dramatic increase in land area, the population will remain essentially flat. Surely that fact alone should be enough to get the attention of Memphis City Council, because unless they are willing to accept a city characterized by miles and miles of abandoned housing and boarded up buildings, they should turn their attention to increasing the public’s confidence in their plans to reverse the urban decline and the crime rise.

Metropolitan growth is shaped by market forces and public policies, and sadly the latter has always fallen victim to the former in Memphis and Shelby County. Brookings Institution research concludes that key public policies are land use regulations on local and regional levels; patterns of infrastructure investment, such as roads and sewers; and patterns of open space protection and acquisition programs.

Here, our obsession with DeSoto County creates an “anything goes” philosophy of suburban development. We convince ourselves (once again) that somehow our challenges are so different from anyone else’s that we have no alternative but to allow developers to do whatever they like. After all, we say, no other city has to deal with competition across state lines like Memphis and Shelby County.

However, the truth is that one in three large metro areas in the U.S. straddles state lines, and most of them have managed to develop growth plans that are balanced and rational.

If They Can Do It…

Meanwhile, some rapidly urbanizing areas like Orlando and Seattle have managed to inject some growth management strategies into the process. In Seattle, local elected officials showed genuine leadership in adopting a different growth model for the region in the midst of rapid growth, a model that called for containing urban sprawl through the use of regional boundaries and a regional open space system; organizing urban development into compact communities; protecting rural areas by promoting the use of rural lands for farming, forestry, recreation, and other uses; providing a greater variety of housing choices in all parts of the region; and creating a regional transportation strategy that frequents on high-speed bus and rail transit.

In taking this action, Seattle altered the future of its region in a shorter period of time than any other metro in the U.S.

Meanwhile, here, annexation is pursued with little regard for a long-term vision for the county, and as a result, Memphis runs the risk of strangling its future to death with the lure of new land and new taxpayers. That’s because without the counter-balance of growth management strategies, it’s hard to see a future that’s not more of the same – deteriorating neighborhoods, vast swaths of abandoned neighborhoods between downtown and East Memphis, and public services stretched thinner and thinner.

Of course, the same people whose policies have caused some of the problems can also change things for the better. At any time, Memphis City Council can set the standard for local leadership by stepping back, gaining some perspective, and convening a process to consider a different future for Memphis and Shelby County.

Responsible Leadership

Maybe, with this kind of leadership, it’s possible to even imagine the kind of phenomenon taking place in Portland, Oregon, where Tacoma has asked to be annexed into the larger city because of its reputation for responsible, visionary government.

We hasten to add that we are not saying annexation is not the appropriate policy for City of Memphis to pursue. During the 1990s, of the about 400 cities that could annex additional land, 250 did so, increasing their land area by increase of 11 percent.

It may be Pollyannish, but we’re still hopeful enough to think that Memphis City Council can become leaders for the region, not just prisoners of narrow political interests that drive sprawl and urban decay.

The first sign of this would be the delay of the proposed Southeast Shelby County annexation.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

This Week on Smart City: Transportation Is Fundamental

Many communities owe their existence to the routing first, of the railroad, later, of the highway, and then of the interstate. Transportation is fundamental to land values and the way communities grow.

This week's guests are deeply involved in challenging old notions about transportation. Jeffrey Lubell is executive director of the Center for Housing Policy who argues that transportation costs should be considered in junction with housing costs to calculate the real cost of housing choices.

Diane Legge Kemp is designing transit facilities in and around Chicago to link them more intimately with the neighborhoods that surround them to encourage more people to take public transportation. Diane is principal and founder of DLK Design in Chicago.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website. Listen live on the Web Saturdays at 8 a.m central and Sundays at 9 a.m. and noon central. For a listing of times in other cities and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, please click here.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wanted: A Long View Of Juvenile Court, Rather Than Short-term Political Gain

The blowup about a second Juvenile Court Judge seems destined to become a defining moment for the Democratic-controlled Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Finally, after 15 years as the minority party, they achieved the majority on the county legislative body, a benchmark of the shifting demographics that will eventually overhaul all of county politics.

With such a historic moment to make a statement about the vision of the Democratic Party, to usher in a new day in Shelby County Government and to articulate a bold agenda, it becomes more and more unbelievable that the commissioners are squandering their good will to create a second Juvenile Court Judge.

The Law Of Unintended Consequences

We’ve previously stated why we think there is no compelling justification for another judge. More to the point, adding another judge does exactly the opposite of what the Democratic commissioners – supported by Republican Commissioner Mike Carpenter – envision. Rather than reducing the backlog of cases and producing more efficiency at Juvenile Court, the second judge creates an operational nightmare.

If the commissioners succeed, Juvenile Court will be reminiscent of county government when three commissioners (then in charge of various services within the administrative branch) were constantly butting heads over their responsibilities. That was largely why the voters approved in 1974 the creation of the county mayor – a single administrative leader to replace the confusing, disruptive commission structure.

We know that some commissioners’ concerns about the bottlenecks in the juvenile justice system are sincere, but to us, adding a second judge is akin to injecting the same kind of confusion that existed in the days of the County Commission into Juvenile Court operations.

How About Another Sheriff, Too

As we’ve said before, it’s the equivalent of adding a second sheriff because of jail overcrowding, and to follow the suggestion of some commissioners, the two sheriffs would then alternate authority over the jail year to year. There is no one who foresees this kind of administrative structure as anything as a prescription for disaster

As we’ve said before, the Juvenile Court Judge is an administrative position. The judicial function of hearing cases is handled a team of referees, not unlike the team of assistant divorce referees who hear cases in Circuit and Chancery Courts.

There are some who claim that the Juvenile Court Judge is required to hear cases by the state constitution, but we don’t think the Constitution is that definitive, and Tennessee Code Annotated, in setting out the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court Judge, never says the person in that position has to hear cases. Instead, state law says that the Juvenile Court Judge will “provide” a judicial procedure that guarantees a fair hearing. In fact, the law points out the many other responsibilities of the judge that have nothing to do at all with the courtroom.

Referees Are The Judges

As we have said, if the intent of the commissioners is to address the backlog of cases in Juvenile Court, they need to fund more referees. Here’s what Tennessee law says about Juvenile Court referees: “A referee has the same authority as the judge to issue any and all process…(and) the powers of a trial judge.”

As in the case of assistant divorce referees, where motions can be filed for a Circuit or Chancery judge to review their decisions, lawyers in Juvenile Court can file a similar motion with the Juvenile Court Judge.

In other words, suggestions that only a second elected, fulltime juvenile court judge could reduce the backlog of cases is specious at best. At worst, it comes across as Democrats taking something in the political backroom that they couldn’t get at the ballot box. Also, it promises litigation since there is a similar case where a second Juvenile Court judge was ruled illegal.

More Firepower Aimed At The Problem

Rather than throw another politician at the problem, we suggest that the Board of Commissioners fund four emergency referees and mandate Juvenile Court Judge Curtis Person to deliver weekly reports to the commissioners and the public about the results from this additional judicial help. That way, the public can measure the impact of the additional manpower, and if it fails to solve the problem, then, there’s more credence given to creation of a second judgeship.

In the meantime, we suggest that Shelby County Government – preferably the Wharton Administration in conjunction with the committee being chaired by Commissioner Carpenter to look into this issue and with Judge Person – hire an independent expert to evaluate the entire Juvenile Court operation.

There was a time when Juvenile Court was held up as a national model for other communities, and when former Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner literally wrote the book on juvenile court operations. But we haven’t heard those kinds of accolades lately, and with a disproportionate percentage of youth in this city (when compared to most cities), there’s no place that has more at stake in having the nation’s best Juvenile Court system than Memphis.

Taking A Fresh Look

We believe it’s time for someone to take a fresh look at the entire operations of Juvenile Court. If the Democratic commissioners are right about a second judge, the process will prove them right, and the public can be assured that the new judge is justified by the facts and not just politics.

We suspect that in the end, such a comprehensive review would recommend a much more streamlined structure, perhaps with divided responsibilities between the judicial and correctional. There’s no argument that the Juvenile Court has developed over the years into a bureaucracy that at times seems unwieldy and inefficient, not to mention, in need of a more effective way of changing the lives of the thousands of at-risk youth who flow through it each year.

No one admires Veronica Coleman – clearly heir apparent for the second judgeship - more than we do, but for the commissioners to appoint her to a tainted judgeship does a disservice to her and to the integrity of the court itself.

The Bigger Picture

Let’s hope that every one will now take a step back, take a deep breath and take a different approach to all of this, an approach that could actually produce solutions to the real problems at Juvenile Court.

In the end, the goal should be to once again have a Juvenile Court system that is the standard for the rest of the country. Within that context, appointing a second judge becomes even more irrelevant.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Planetizen Joins Smart City

Los Angeles -- Planetizen, the leading news and information website for the urban planning, design and development community, has partnered with Smart City Radio to produce a monthly segment airing on public radio stations around the country.

The new audio segments, which provide a summary and analysis of the most interesting and intriguing planning-related stories featured on Planetizen are also available online as a Planetizen podcast.

"This new partnership allows Planetizen to reach a broader audience that cares about planning issues," said Abhijeet Chavan, co-editor of Planetizen. "We're very pleased to be collaborating with Smart City Radio."

Hosted by Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, Smart City Radio is a weekly, hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life.

"The built environment and place making are such an integral part of any city's DNA, and Planetizen is the premier source for the latest news on planning, design and development," said Coletta.

You can listen to Smart City at

The latest Planetizen news podcast is available at

Monday, November 13, 2006

Tennessee Department of Education Is Generous When The Report Card Grades Itself

The release each year by the Tennessee Department of Education of its State Report Card is accompanied by celebration and rhetoric about improving schools, but it’s the educational equivalent of the Detroit Tigers popping the champagne corks after this year’s World Series.

There’s really not much they should be cheering about.

In recent years, DOE has gotten really adept at churning out press releases about the improving school scores in Tennessee, but they’re more about hype than hope. All in all, the students of Tennessee aren’t performing much better than 14 years ago, and in a word, the Report Card is a farce.

It’s one thing to spin the facts. But this is something else altogether.

Government Spin

All of us expect a little spin from government, and to be truthful, all of us like to interpret situations in our own best light, but in this case, the state deliberately misleads the public. After all, surely no one believes – particularly the administrators in Nashville - that almost 90 percent of Tennessee students in the fourth and eighth grades are proficient in math and reading as shown on the TCAP (Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program).

A report written earlier this year by Kevin Carey of Education Sector dramatically showed how much our Department of Education is playing loose with the facts. When compared to the other 50 states, Tennessee Department of Education claims that we are among the top 5 in the U.S. in eighth grade math and reading, fourth grade reading and math, and high school reading.

It’s an incredible claim, especially when a more objective national test of student proficiency paints just the opposite picture for Tennessee. In that test – the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – Tennessee ranks #40 and its percentage of proficient students is more in the average range of about 25 per cent. In case your math proficiency has been certified by DOE, we point out that this is a difference of about 65 percent

So, how does Tennessee fare so well in its own tests?

It’s Simple In Its Execution

It’s simple, our state lowers its standards to jack up the results. For example, as The Commercial Appeal reported in an outstanding series earlier this year, eighth grade students who answer 40% right in the state’s math test are considered proficient. Just three years ago, they had to answer 51% of the questions right to clear that bar.

At least, it now makes sense why nobody in a fast food restaurant in the state can make correct change these days. They’re getting high marks if they’re only getting 40% right.

But in the interest of fairness, it’s probably unrealistic to expect anything else from DOE. After all, if you were given the power to evaluate your own performance every year, wouldn’t you do whatever it takes to give yourself high marks? Essentially, that’s what happens here, because the much-vaunted No Child Left Behind allows each state to develop their own tests and to define their own levels of proficiency. Faced with loss of federal funding if they don’t make progress under No Child Left Behind, they have strong incentive to massage the results.

To be fair, Tennessee isn’t alone in playing games with the numbers. At least 40 other states are doing the same, which means that No Child Left Behind in the end is the poster child for unintended consequences. Passed by Congress as the way to let the public know if its schools are improving, it does just the opposite by presenting statistics every year that are virtually meaningless if you’re trying to determine if schools are better.

Putting On A Pretty Face

In his report, Mr. Carey puts states on a “Pangloss Index,” named for the character in Candide who, despite all evidence to the contrary, always argued that all was well. On that index, Tennessee’s results rank it as the 11th best state in student achievement when compared to the other 49 states.

Meanwhile, NAEP ranks Tennessee as #40 in student achievement, and more disturbing, since 1992, test scores have been relatively been flat except for fourth grade math.

Since 1994, fourth grade reading scores have moved all the way from 212 to 214; fourth grade math scores have climbed from 211 to 232; eighth grade reading scores have moved a grand total of one point, from 258 to 259; and eighth grade math has gone from 259 to 271.

Curiously, the state Department of Education doesn’t schedule any press conferences to announce these scores, which come from the only national student test that allows us to actually compare students’ performance across state lines.

The Time For National Standards

All of this begs the question of why we don’t have a national standard that allows us to have comparables as part of No Child Left Behind, but in the interest of states’ rights, when the federal law was passed, each state was given the power to interpret their own standards and progress.

As Memphis City Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson said in The Commercial Appeal series: “If every state is going to create its own assessments and tools of what is proficient and advanced, then what’s the point? We’ve got to figure out what is proficient as a nation.”

She’s right, because what’s happening now is perpetuating the cruelest kind of hoax on states like ours. At a time when the economy depends on our ability to produce knowledge workers for the new economy, we’re deluded into thinking we’re making progress. By the time that it becomes clear that we’re not, it will be too late, and we don’t know about the rest of Tennessee, but here in Memphis, we simply don’t have time to waste.

As long as Tennessee is able – and most of all, willing – to set the bar low so proficiency is high, the public is given a false sense of security that the people in the Tennessee Department of Education are taking care of business.

Asking The Tough Questions For A Change

Hopefully, now that Governor Phil Bredesen has breezed to victory and says that education will be his top priority in his second term, he’ll ask the tough questions and demand more out of DOE. He prides himself on his experience as a businessman but what businessman, much less governor, could make wise decision about investment or success if someone is cooking the books.

Tennessee had its own standards in place before No Child Left Behind was even passed in Washington, D.C., and its stated intent back then was to make sure our schools produced students who could compete with students from Singapore and Hong Kong. Over time, this attitude has eroded, with political spin trumping public accountability.

Some things are so important that they should rise above the normal day-to-day politics in Nashville. Surely this is one of them.

Meanwhile, it may have only been curious to us, but after the fine series written by Ruma Banerji Kumar and Halimah Abdullah in March in The Commercial Appeal, the newspaper’s coverage of the release of the Tennessee Report Card last week could have been used to build momentum on those earlier articles. Surely, the paper’s attention span is longer than eight months. They owned this story earlier this year, and it’s a really important one. Let’s hope they stay on it and continue to point out the need for change. Tennessee sure needs it.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Turning The Corner Is Turning Into Big Announcements for Chamber

The Memphis Regional Chamber is back from the brink. With a vengence.

Just slightly more than a year ago, the city’s lead economic development agency was looking for a new president, and it was uncertain which would come first - the end of the Chamber or the beginning of a new president/CEO. Relations with local government were nonexistent on their best days and openly hostile on their worst, membership had floundered, and a discernible lack of focus characterized the organization.

It all seemed so familiar. After all, 30 years earlier, the Memphis Chamber of Commerce was shut down, bereft of money and ideas about what to do to lead Memphis into the realities of a new economy. The organization was so rooted in old thinking and unresponsive to the new realities of the city that it seemed paralyzed to shift direction. There were more than a few people a year ago that saw the same things in the Chamber and predicted a similar fate for it.

But that was then.

New Leader, New Momentum

Now, the Chamber is winding down a year that is as impressive as anything in its recent history. And giving credit where credit’s due, it’s no coincidence that it is also the first full calendar year under the leadership of its new leader, John Moore, former Northwest Airlines executive.

In a determined, methodical way, the Chamber has spent 14 months righting itself, making some hard and often painful decisions that led to staff changes that saved money, but more importantly, infused the organization with a sense of purpose that had been lacking for some time.

Of course, fighting for survival is a proven way to focus your energies. The Democratic Party proved that convincingly last night. But it seems increasingly clear that the Chamber has done more than just survive.

The most telling sign of improvement came a few months ago when Memphis and Shelby County Governments restored funding to the Chamber after turning off the spigot of public money that had flowed for about a decade. To city and county legislators, the Chamber had become that great-looking girl in your senior class who only managed to speak to you when there were cheerleader elections, and she wanted something.

Winning Back Good Will

The Chamber mainly talked to elected officials when they wanted something – money – and to make that relationship even rawer, Chamber leadership saw no conflict between accepting public money and attacking City Council for suggesting ways to raise more tax revenues. According to City Council members, largely to give Mr. Moore a fresh start and to give the Chamber another chance, the public money was approved again this year. As one person in City Hall put it, “at the very least, we’re not getting those letters from the Chamber that laid in your mail box smoldering because it was yet another rebuke to something we had proposed.”

Meanwhile, the Chamber has strengthened relationships with other local nonprofits who can contribute to its mission of creating a better, more prosperous Memphis. These too had grown strained over the years, as the Chamber had developed a reputation for grabbing the glory – and more importantly, the money – after a team effort had produced a major win.

That, too, is changing, as the Chamber appears to be purposefully reaching out to other organizations and establishing relationships with some untraditional partners. Most of all, Chamber leaders appear to be less fixed in their opinions and more determined to explore the leading edge issues in modern economic development. The most dramatic symbol of this shift was the Chamber’s sponsorship and support for the My Memphis DVD aimed at young creatives directed and filmed by Christopher Reyes.

A year ago, we offered the Chamber search committee some unsolicited advice. We called for it to hire a president who would pursue new and innovative approaches to economic growth, approaches rooted in talent strategies and entrepreneurial incentives.

Six Suggestions From A Year Ago

Our six suggestions were:

#1 – Quit selling Memphis on the cheap.

#2 – Exhibit loyalty to Memphis citizens, not just blind loyalty to new businesses.

#3 – Define success by people, not buildings and real estate.

#4 – Abandon “commodity economic development.”

#5 – Set national standards in economic development.

#6 – Don’t wait for the game to come to us.

Based on what we are hearing and seeing, the Chamber is close to being six for six. It of course has a way to go with each, but at least it appears to have begun the journey, something that was unimaginable only two years ago.

Diplomacy Equals Dollars

For example, in the debate about reining in the over-use of tax freezes, its officials took a modulated view, proposing that the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes remain but in a more targeted way. There was no shots taken at City Council in the newspaper and the sky-is-falling hysteria of the past was noticeably gone.

As for the tax freezes, we understand that the Chamber is part of a process to determine what a full set of business incentives should look like to relieve the over reliance on tax giveaways. That too is progress.

Mixed Bag

We recognize the balancing act that economic development officials have these days. Unemployment here has increased, jobs growth is generally flat, our Milken Index rating is #159, our median household income has fallen, our tax structure is one of the three most regressive in the U.S., one-third of Memphians earn less than $25,000 a year, and population growth fails to keep pace with our regional rivals.

On the other hand, we remain the economic anchor for the region, home to the vast majority of jobs and wages of $92 billion (growing six percent in a recent reporting period), St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is spending $1 million a day for research, the BioWorks Foundation is staking out a unique niche for us in that industry, NIH research is up by almost 50 percent, and Memphis City Schools has increased attendance and graduation rates.

In other words, it’s a mixed bag, but it’s one that demands honesty and innovation, and that’s something that seems to come through loud and clear in all that the Chamber is doing these days. The global economy requires new strategies if we are to compete for knowledge-based jobs, and exercising the same old Chamber-type economic development strategies just don’t work in the global context.

No one knows this more than Mr. Moore. As an executive of an international air carrier, he saw the ways that the global economy transformed his industry. Most of all, he saw firsthand that the ultimate competitive advantage is found in quality, and that in the end, to compete, Memphis must have a quality workforce, high quality of life, quality higher education, and quality research.

The Firsts

If Memphis has anything engrained deep in its collective consciousness, it is entrepreneurship – first overnight delivery network, first after-market customer-friendly auto parts company, first motel, first drive-in restaurant, first self-service grocery store, first bus line, well, you get the picture.

Our innovations have sprung from the creativity of uniquely innovative entrepreneurs. The challenge today is for Memphis to become part of the interconnected pools of intellectual capital that are linked together by a network of computers that join the smartest minds in the world together. It helps to have the best and the brightest wanting to move and stay here, but it’s also about remembering that the computer revolution is really just now starting in earnest. So, why shouldn’t Memphis be the place that invents how cities like ours can plug and play in such an environment?

In reinventing itself and instill new attitudes, the Chamber shows that we can compete and win in national competitions if we align our resources and our energies and quit selling Memphis at a discount. If the past year is any indication, the Chamber is not content any longer to be a regional player. It’s looking to be an impact player at a national level. The best news of all is that it seems to be working.

Just a few weeks ago, ServiceMaster announced that it’s moving its HQs from Chicago to Memphis, an announcement that came months after International Paper to bring its New York headquarters here to join its operations center. In the middle of that, Nucor Steel announced that it would open a plant here, too. And there were even others, too.

Creating A Ripple

These are the kinds of companies that pay good salaries and create tax-paying citizens. They are exactly the kinds of companies where tax freezes make good sense. Best of all, the recent flurry of announcements in Memphis has created a ripple that’s causing economic development types outside of Memphis to sit up and take notice.

While all of these announcements are exciting news for the Chamber – and for our community – we admit that what really caught our eye was this headline in The Commercial Appeal: Memphis courts Air France. Mr. Moore was instrumental in convincing KLM to put a direct flight to Amsterdam in Memphis 11 years ago, a flight that has produced economic spin-offs that are almost impossible to measure completely.

The opportunity to enter into serious discussions with Air France for a direct flight to Paris would cap an impressive year for the revived Chamber, but even without it, it’s been exciting to see the organization come back to life.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Board of Commissioners' Vote On A New Judge Is, In A Word, Juvenile

If there is a Democratic way of running government, the creation of an unneeded second Juvenile Court judge by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners is about to become its poster child.

It’s too bad, because with less than three whole months under its belt as the new majority on the board of commissioners, the Democrats with this vote set a tone that will cause damage far beyond this single issue.

That’s because this second Juvenile Court judge is one of the lamest ideas to come before the county legislators, much less approved by it. It’s short on justification and long on political payback.

Worst of all, it has the potential of proving that Republicans have been right all these years – Democrats really don’t have a problem raiding the public purse for their own advantage.

Abject Ignorance

Most amazing of all is the fact that the commissioners’ vote appears rooted in an abject ignorance of what the Juvenile Court judge does in the first place. More to the point, the job has long been more administration than judicial, and if the commissioners’ objective is to reduce the number of child support cases pending in Juvenile Court, this was about the worst possible way to go about it.

That’s because the Juvenile Court Judge doesn’t really hear cases. He manages a bureaucracy that among other things includes Juvenile Court referees, lawyers who are appointed to hear the cases in its courts, and a detention facility.

Incredulously, the commissioners voted to create this judgeship without even finding how much it will cost. The salary of the judge - $140,000 – is only the tip of the iceberg, because once the costs of court clerks and support staff are added, the amount could easily spiral to $500,000 a year.

Put The Money Where It Will Do The Most Good

If the Shelby County commissioners have this much money on an unneeded judge, why not simply spend a fraction of that amount to pay the salaries of more referees to hear cases?

Commissioners base their decision on a 1967 private act of the Tennessee Legislature that empowered them (seven years before the county mayor’s office was even created) to appoint a second judge in the event a need was ever proven.

But here’s the thing: the bill was passed in the wake of the creation of the joint city-county court (now only county again), and in the intervening years, former Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner surpassed any conventional thinking of the time to create a system that was viewed as a national model across the U.S. and the subject of a nationally televised documentary.

Stuck In A Time Warp

The system that he developed is light years from the simple notions that inspired the 1967 law – the notion that the judge would only hear cases rather than manage a sprawling operation of which courts is only one part. In other words, the current Juvenile Court bears no resemblance to what was thought to be the case 39 years ago.

Adding a second judge has about as much relevance to today’s operations of Juvenile Court as adding a second sheriff to address jail overcrowding.

While we were admittedly no supporters of Curtis Person’s election to the judgeship, this decision by the commissioners is highly dangerous, because it exposes lame political tendencies that can set public perceptions about the way that the new Democratic majority will rule county government.

After years of being one vote away from a majority, the new seven-member majority gives all the indications of a teenage-like overexcitement at the prospects of doing whatever they like.

Partisanship Over Promise

While it is tempting to say that the Republican push for partisan county elections years ago has finally come home to roost, it’s more to the point to be concerned that Democrats’ years of promising that they would be fairer and more egalitarian have quickly fallen prey to the arrogance of the majority vote.

In brushing aside Republican Commissioner David Lillard’s request for a two-week deferral, the Democrats also sent the message that the environment in county government would be more adversarial and decidedly less civil. Such deferrals have been routine over the years – and no one has profited more from them than Democrats – and it’s a shame that their new adulation with their own power trumps the courtesies and civility that are the grease that makes the wheels of the commission move.

And if the idea wasn’t illogical enough on the surface, Commissioner Steve Mulroy’s suggestion that the administrative duties should bounce back and forth between Person and a second judge sounds like a prescription for chaos and politics in a place that already has too much of them. From someone from whom so much was expected, this vote by Commissioner Mulroy for party purity was particularly demoralizing.

She Deserves Better

It’s widely believed in the county building that the judgeship is being created for Veronica Coleman, former U.S. Attorney and unsuccessful candidate for the post now held by Person, and while we are great admirers of hers, this is the wrong way for her considerable skills to be put to work. She’s an honorable person, and she should take the opportunity now to disassociate herself from the games that are afoot.

To make the political motivations even more transparent, the commissioners seemed intent on waiting to advance this idea so that it couldn’t be put on the ballot where citizens could pick their own judge, rather than allowing seven Democrats – with Republican Commissioner Mike Carpenter’s inexplicable backing – to pick who they want in the job.

All in all, it’s a sad tale of raw, albeit a bit amateurish, political gamesmanship, and hopefully, it’s an aberration and not a sign of things to come for the board of commissioners.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

This Week On Smart City: Livable Communities In Congress

Did you know that in the United States Congress, there is a task force on Livable Communities? Is your Congressman a member?

Earl Blumenauer is. He represents Portland, Oregon and the people of the 3rd district in Congress, and he founded the House Livable Communities Task Force. He travels the nation advocating for the changes he believes are needed to make our communities better places to live. Congressman Blumenauer is the keynote speaker at this week's Rail~Volution national meeting.

Joining him there is Greg LeRoy. He is founder and director of the nonprofit center, Good Jobs First. Greg says that his studies show that too many public subsidies for business are working against the goals established for them and counter to livable communities.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

In Memphis, Smart City is broadcast on WKNO FM, 91.1, at 9 a.m. Sundays. It is also webcast and podcast at the Smart City website. Listen live on the Web Saturdays at 8 a.m central and Sundays at 9 a.m. and noon central. For a listing of times in other cities and to sign up for a weekly newsletter, please click here.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Unlikely Herenton-Willingham Political Alliance

In one of the most unusual shout-outs in local politics lately, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton last week praised former Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham for his proposal to tax the 80,000 commuters coming into this county to work. We're told that Mayor Herenton is well-aware of the elements of the plan that would cut local taxes and enact referendum requirements for tax hikes.

In case you have forgotten, here's what that plan was all about, as explained a year ago on this blog:

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.

Unfair At Its Core

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 worst three cities for its 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 couple of 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 to go for more revenues – the regressive sales tax or the regressive property tax.

Stop Stopgap Answers

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 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.

The Least Pay More

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.

The only program put forth to deal with the urgency of overhauling our tax structure is the Shelby County Fairness Program, the creation of Commissioner John Willingham to enact a payroll tax on every one working in Shelby County, aiming at the about 80,000 people who drive in to work here

Transforming The Tax Structure

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.

Cutting The Tax Burden

Based on the new revenues generated by the tax, the plan called for 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?