Sunday, July 12, 2009

Local Government As Performance Art





Caught in a brutal vise of too many kids, too little density and a broken tax structure, the next people to head up local government here may not need to be mayors, but alchemists.

There are so many troubling trends taking place in Memphis, and they converge by necessity in the budget hearings of our governments. Because of it, the acrimony and conflict of this year’s budget hearings are destined to become an annual event if nothing is done to dramatically change the key forces shaping our city’s future.

There’s the 20% bulge in children in Shelby County when compared to Nashville/Davidson County and its peer communities. It’s a regional anomaly, and when converted into public costs, it amounts to roughly $180 million a year. In other words, if we had the same percentage of student population as Nashville, we’d spend $180 million a year less in education alone (not including the cost of services to poor, at-risk kids).

Not Dense Enough

Meanwhile, the costs of delivering public services are going up because of the decreasing density of Memphis neighborhoods. Density fell 21% percent from 2000-2005, accelerating a trend that began four decades ago. When compared to 35 other peer cities, Memphis is #5 in the greatest decline in density.

Today, there are 28% fewer people inside the city limits of Memphis as there were in 1970, and density is half what it was. While density is a key indicator of neighborhoods that work, it matters to taxpayers most of all. Public services are less expensive when they are serving high-density areas, and capital costs are almost 50 percent cheaper than low-density sprawl.

That’s why the strongest champions for high-density should be our local elected officials. They need to use their bully pulpits to correct public misperceptions that higher density means lower property values; to persuade financial institutions not yet comfortable with funding urban-oriented construction; and to reinvent the local development standards that often discourage higher densities.

Upside Down Tax Policy


Finally, as a result of too many kids and too little density, we are paying the highest combined city-county tax rate in Tennessee. In the words of the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations: "Memphis has the highest combined county and city nominal tax rate in the state…Total local taxes are regressive, since each of the three taxes (property tax, sales tax and wheel tax) is separately regressive. Regressivity refers to lower income persons paying a higher percent of their income for taxes than do higher income persons."

Put another way, not only are our taxes too high but the poorer you are, the greater percentage of your income is spent on them.

Because of these facts, contrary to conventional wisdom and despite relatively effective financial management, our tax rate is destined to remain high and the trends combine to push it higher. For example, if we had the same percentage of student-age population as most major metros, our tax rate here would essentially be the same as the tax rate in Nashville, a city we regularly reject and covet simultaneously.

Getting Real About Change

The fact that a contrary public opinion is widely held is testament to the purposeful way that local government obscures information from the public. For example, we may well have entered a world of Web 2.0, but local government seems incapable of creating a digital environment that would have measured up to Web 1.0. It’s understandable that many people have concluded that the government websites here aren’t accidentally cumbersome and unhelpful, but they are a direct reflection of the prevailing government attitude.

While the money spent by a city director on his city-assigned car and travel expenses may get the headlines, they are mere distractions from the kinds of fundamental changes that the next mayor of Memphis will have to make, starting with technology.

Every transaction, application and request that the public can make standing on the other side of a government counter should also be available online. Every report, every tax freeze given by government and every study paid for by taxpayers should be posted on the Web.

Transparency Is Not Just Campaign Rhetoric

If there’s a model for is kind of transparency, it’s the Missouri Accountability Portal on the state government’s website. It posts detailed information on expenditures by agency, category, contract or vendor and salaries for state employees.

But there’s so much more that can be done here. For example, there are mechanic shops working on publicly-owned vehicles for various agencies all over Shelby County. Even within city government, most divisions have someone assigned to handle information technology rather. The opportunities for merging functions that are replicated over and over again – from purchasing to maintenance to human resources – can yield more than marginal savings. It contributes to the sense of teamwork and collaboration that are sorely lacking in local government today.

In a nutshell, the challenge for the next mayor of Memphis is to create a high-performing government based on and focused on performance – from budgets to salaries. Today, there’s just no real connection between a department’s performance and its budget and there’s no connection between an employee’s performance and salary.

Performance Matters


We’re not saying this is about overlaying private sector models onto the public sector. As a Harvard study concluded years ago, government is too different for these simplistic notions – not to mention campaign sloganeering – about bringing business to government. (And the truth is that everyone is in favor of the government acting more businesslike until it affects them.) Despite this, the notion that performance can’t be applied to the public sector is outdated and flawed.

First and foremost, it requires for a set of outcomes to be defined and to link them seriously to budgeting, evaluation and salaries. To its credit, City of Memphis yearly conducts the Memphis Poll to understand the public’s priorities and opinions, but we’re hard-pressed to see any meaningful way that the polling results are applied to budgets or service delivery.

In the end, it’s about the kind of focus and accountability that can transform the culture of local government, because that’s really the overall objective. It’s also been called the equivalent of changing a tire on a car traveling 60 miles per hour.

No Waiting Room


To compound the challenge, a significant part of the public workforce are Civil Service employees who know that they can ordinarily wait out a person that sets out to change things, whether it is Kriner Cash or A C Wharton.

We can’t afford to wait anymore, and while getting the basics of government right, it’s even more about changing the trends that exacerbate all of this in the first place. That’s the toughest challenge of all, because it requires the repopulating of Memphis, and this won’t ever take place until the public feels that its tax dollars are creating the kind of city in which they want to live.

19 comments:

Zippy the giver said...

Bingo again.
This is the post that should have been.

Anonymous said...

What do you expect with all the "Baby Mammas" in Memphis in the public cheeze ?

A LARGE percentage of my tax dollars fund this.

The return on my tax "Investment" is poor, to say the least.

Anonymous said...

Higher density development?
to the average thug memphian, thats defined as a target rich environment....

Anonymous said...

Anon1: The reason your tax contribution to public schools is so large is because so much of it goes to build and operate new schools way, way out in the burbs. If the kids had stayed in the city, the cost to educate them would be lower and the return on your investment would be higher. The same is true with any service delivery, like utilities and road maintenance. But those dollars are stretched too thin now. I think that's the basic premise of every Smartcity blog post.
Also, can we call a moratorium on throwing around the words "thug" and "baby mamma" in Memphis blog posts? The veiled racism and elitism is really tiring and the "it's all their fault" attitude is not solving any problems.

Zippy the giver said...

Higher density environments are not thug havens, they have a difficult time operating in them, traffic is congested they can't escape and when fear hits their face people come out with sticks and guns to stop them. Utilities matrix and infrastructure are payed for in non-sprawl areas, energy efficiency is better in high-rise bldgs, no lawn to mow, not as many stray animals, pitbulls are easier to remove, tons of advantages.

Anonymous said...

"Also, can we call a moratorium on throwing around the words "thug" and "baby mamma" in Memphis blog posts? "

When that behavior STOPS being common, THEN the moratorium will be in effect.

I do NOT mince words, nor do I pretend to be "Politically Correct" and pussy foot around these issues.

Memphis is in a SERIOUS downhill spiral, and its because we tend to condone such behavior.

b said...

'I do NOT mince words, nor do I pretend to be "Politically Correct" and pussy foot around these issues.'

Nobody's asking you to pretend to be politically correct.

We're asking you to pretend to be human.

Smart City Consulting said...

Thank you, b.

Anonymous said...

Hope and Change, eh?

We need a Charette!, that's it!
A planning session to convince the
fleeing taxpayers that it will be awright if we just allow apartment/shop zoning again!
ya can give away free cheese, cold 40's and diapers on the bottom flo, and sling outa the top flo!

true genius, that.

Anonymous said...

so what's your plan, anon 1:37? please enlighten us. seriously, what can we do to improve things?

Zippy the giver said...

Trying to convince taxpayers of anything that is not true is business as usual here.
We could stop doing that.
Really asking anon that is rhetorical. When city officials are presented with "what we should be doing", what happens?
Stonewalling by the "live (or wallow in self pity) in the past crew". And it isn't funny that their policies end up being the joke Anon posted.
As I posted before, Memphis will do the right thing or it will cease to exist.
I wonder if the tax structure is regressive enough to fall into the self funding category, where the poorest pay higher tax rates on their government doled money than others.
Density is decreasing because the inner city, South and North Memphis, is pretty full of belligerent people who hate people they've never met because of their skin color, people who dress like they are going to a gang meeting, aspire to prison, have at least one parent in jail, and out of 120 (approx) public schools you only want to use 5 if you give a hoot about your own kids.
Cities that somehow end up filling their inner cities with criminals are not "kid friendly" and thus, not attractive to outsiders. Since most of them congregate in close areas, you end up knowing where not to go, when that ends up being almost everywhere due to population expansion, people who aren't criminals move out.
Cities that do not keep up with the problems turning into insurmountable obstacles to progress are not "success friendly" and successful entrepreneurs tend to stay away from places like that.
You might be wondering if it's all a mistake, or, if it's all some sort of master plan by some entity that has a vested interest, whether monetary or psychological, to destroy Memphis. I think if you add the actions of certain politicians up, you can see that it is clearly a plan (like Anon's preposterous plan) with devastating results.
A dollar figure could be put on it and a suit brought against heir personal ill gotten money.
Getting rid of them would be a good idea.
How to curtail explosion of criminal population OUTSIDE prison is a big mystery to our crop of misanthropic politicians.

Anonymous said...

preposterus plan?
hast thou not seen the Unified Development Code what is to Save us from the Heathen?

We must learn-or be forced-to live cheek by jowl with the lower life forms in order to support lite rail, Walkable NeighborHoods, and live the Green lifestyle while parking our Smart cars inside at all times to prevent someone carrying them off.
Hope and Change for everone, Brah!

Zippy the giver said...

Every stupid plan here seems to omit dealing with criminals first.
Talk about half baked.
You have to deal with the crime, criminal population not incarcerated, lax or nonexistent sentencing, nonexistent prosecution.
The police have started writing reports in North Memphis, but, where they moved the watch commander that was botching it, south memphis, they are chanting her mantra already "why don't you move?", and no reports are being written, stats become better than reality, and crime flourishes in hickory hood again. Should have fired her.
That's another problem, not being able to fire criminals because of fear of litigation. Tough luck, take it to court, crooks lose.
Deal with it, deal with it, deal with it, or everyone will move, in fact, they've already started.


Mark my words, in ten years, if this isn't dealt with, Memphis will be a maximum security prison city with no bridges in, and walls towers and wire all around or BULLDOZED.

Smart City Consulting said...

Zip:

What we discuss here is about reducing crime. That's why we talk more about roots of problems rather than just symptoms. And if we've proven anything, it's sure that lock them up, throw away the key, mandatory sentencing, etc., isn't working.

Zippy the giver said...

I know, that's why I love this blog.
We wouldn't actually know first hand about mandatory sentencing because we have never done it, not that I advocate it as a first response, because I don't, but, we do nothing in it's stead either.

We suck.

As if you forgot that MY mantra is EFFECTIVE REHABILITATION, but, expecting ANY movement in that direction from our leadership and I mean ALL of it, is obviously as preposterous as anonymous's plan and position. Which is sad, because without that, all the talk or conversation or discourse about ANYTHING ELSE improving will amount to failure.
This is what we have to do, this is what' called for, this is what trips up ALL the big plans, this is what the core issue is, this is why we're going down the drain, this is the 800lb gorilla in the room, this is the albatross, the white elephant, this is what never receives a proper discourse or attention, this is what's so in your face that you can't get past it, this is the majority of citizens of Memphis and this is what Memphis has been desperately trying to avoid/dismiss to it's own demise every single time.
What do you have to do?
You have to make our worst our best and not by doing nothing but condoning no effective rehabilitation, you have to admit defeat and failure and seek knowledge outside your city and camp from EXPERTS in the field, not in academia, but, in the real world where results are demanded and success and failure is measured by them.
In that arena, attitudes, emotions, baggage, lies, whitewashes, spin, and politics mean very little if not nothing.

Zippy the giver said...

Here's a clue for searching:
look for a company that does not want to be in the business they are in but are because there is a calling for it and they aren't there to "satisfy" a need, but, to eliminate it.

victor said...

Its really intresting things ,
thanks


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victor
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