Friday, July 29, 2011

Join Us At Our New Address

Smart City Memphis is now at

We hope you'll join us there.

Monday, February 15, 2010

MATA, DHS and MHA: Why their jobs are harder than you thought



On Smart City Memphis, many of us make things sound easy. Let's just build dense, walkable neighborhoods. Let's just remove bus fares and make the routes go here or there. Let's tear down the rest of the public housing and humanly integrate "those people" into "normal neighborhoods". We know why things are messed up, how to make things right and are mad as hell that things aren't changing faster.


Well, sometimes real life creeps up on you. Today I was reading A Coordinated Human Services

Transportation Plan for the Memphis Area of 2007 (don't ask why). Several facts slapped me in the face and screamed, "SEE, THIS IS REALLY HARD TO FIX AND MAY TAKE A REALLY LONG TIME!"


There are people in the Memphis Metro Area that desperately need transit options. Depending on which populations are included, this number is somewhere between 70,000 and 430,000 people. Few of them live close to each other or close to where they need to go. Few destinations are clustered in a logical way to make any transit option viable other than the personal automobile. The challenge to serving our residents is far more wide-spread than people realize. And, we are making decisions about public housing, new neighborhood development and the location of services that may be exacerbating the problem.


What is transit?

Transit covers a lot of bases. The trolley, city buses, taxicabs, private vans and school buses are some modes most people would recognize.


Who currently uses transit in Memphis?

  1. The elderly and disabled who cannot drive
  2. Low-income residents who cannot afford to own or operate cars
  3. Tourists


Where are the most in-need target populations?

Surprising to me, the regional population of people over 60 years old are the most centrally located. The greatest concentration is within the 240-Loop but pretty evenly dispersed throughout it. People with incomes below the poverty level reside largely inside the city limits of Memphis but outside of the 240-Loop. The population with disabilities is much more spread out across the six-county region.


Where do most transit trips originate?

Trip origins are spread out all over the region. Origins based on Families First, the Food Stamp program and Medicaid caseloads are concentrated in three locations.

  1. Mainly in the Memphis city limits but outside the 240-Loop
  2. West Memphis
  3. Northern Tipton County


Origins based on elderly and disabled caseloads are concentrated in South Memphis, Fayette County, West Memphis and Desoto County.


The top 60 overall origin points are listed in the table below.






(17 Locations)

Agnes Place -Grove Street, Memphis

Airways Villa - 2305 Pendleton Street, Memphis

Alexmire Apartments - 347 E. McLemore Avenue, Memphis

Alpha Renaissance Apartments - 1471 Genesis, Memphis

Apartments at LaPaloma - 1394 LaPaloma Circle, Memphis

Cane Creek Crossing - 100-114 S, Main Street, Memphis

Cleaborn Homes & Foote Homes - S. Lauderdale, Memphis

College Park - 838 Walker Avenue, Memphis

Frisco Court - 1756 LaPaloma, Memphis

Gastalia Heights - 1999 Carver & 1768 Keltner, Memphis

Knob Hill Apartments -1059 Florida St. Memphis

Parkway Commons - 1524 S. Parkway East, Memphis

Salem Manor - 2220 S. Parkway East, Memphis

The Commons at Brentwood - 640 Aspire Lane, Memphis

Thompson Courts - LaPaloma, Carver, Keltner, Memphis

Turrell Meadows, 67 2nd St. West Memphis

Wellington Place - 1005 S. Wellington, Memphis



(13 Locations)

Chelsea Corridor, Memphis

Elvis Presley Corridor, Memphis

Frayser, Memphis

Hickory Hill, Memphis

Lamar Corridor, Memphis

Midtown, Memphis

Poplar Corridor, Memphis

Raleigh, Memphis

South Memphis within I-240 Loop

Summer Corridor, Memphis

Third Street Corridor, Memphis

U.S. Hwy 51/Thomas Street Corridor, Memphis

Winchester Corridor, Memphis




(30 Locations)

Barry Homes, 255 Lauderdale St. Memphis

Barry Towers - 255 Lauderdale Street, Memphis

Belmont Village of Memphis - 6605 Quail Hollow Road, Memphis

Borda Towers - 21 Neely St. Memphis

Camilla Towers - 256 S. Camilla, Memphis

Carestone at Bartlett - 3345 Kirby Whitten Road, Memphis

Cleaborn Homes - 430 S. Lauderdale St. Memphis

College Park Senior Building - 838 Walker Avenue, Memphis

Ecumenical Village - 217 W. Jackson Ave., West Memphis

Exxum Towers - 3155 Sharp, Memphis

Franklin Park - 3393 Kirby Road, Memphis

Highland Towers - 400 S. Highland, Memphis

Hollywood Senior Center - 1560 N. Hollywood, Memphis

Independent Apartments - 875 Linden Avenue, Memphis

Jefferson Square, 741 Adams Avenue, Memphis

Latham Terrace Senior Housing - 295 E.H. Crump, Memphis

Luther Terrace - 3907 James Road, Memphis

Lutheran Village Condominiums - 3589 Covington Pike, Memphis

Memphis Tower - 1081 Court Avenue, Memphis

The Parkview - 1914 Poplar Avenue, Memphis

The Villas of West Memphis - W. Jackson Avenue, West Memphis

Venson Center - 439 Beale Street, Memphis

Wesley Graceland Gardens - 1430 Graceland Pines, Memphis

Wesley Highland Manor - 3549 Norriswood, Memphis

Wesley Highland Meadows - 3517 Andy Way, Memphis

Wesley Highland Place - 3550 Watauga, Memphis

Wesley Highland Terrace - 366 S. Highland, Memphis

Wesley Meadows -1325 Mclingvale Road, Hernando

Wesley Millington Towers - 5077 Easley Av., Millington

Wesley Stage Park -2779 Battle Creek Drive, Memphis

























































Where do most transit trips end?

Again, I was surprised by the density maps. While destinations are spread all over the place, an East Memphis corridor going north to south from Bartlett to Hickory Hill stood out. As well, the Collierville area had a similar density.


The top sixty destinations are listed in the table below.






Career Centers





Memphis Messick Adult Center

Tennessee Career Center - Somerville, Fayette County

Tennessee Career Center at Memphis - Covington, Tipton County

Tennessee Career Centers - 5 locations in Shelby County

Tennessee Technology Center at Memphis - Alabama Avenue Location

Tennessee Technology Center at Memphis - Tchulahoma Rd Location

William R. Moore College of Technology, Memphis

Cultural and



Downtown Memphis - Various Locations

Graceland, Memphis

Memphis Zoo/Overton Park

Midsouth Coliseum, Liberty Land Park, Liberty Bowl Stadium



Christian Brothers University

Mid-South Community College - West Memphis

Rhodes College

Southern College of Optometry

Southwest Community College- Millington Center, Memphis

Southwest Community College- Somerville, Fayette County

Southwest Community College- Southeast Center, Memphis

Southwest Community College- Whitehaven Center, Memphis

Southwest Community College-Gill Center, Frayser

Southwest Community College-Macon Cove Campus, Memphis

Southwest Community College-Union Avenue Campus, Memphis

University of Memphis

University of Tennessee




County Health Department - Shelby, Tipton, Fayette, Crittenden, DeSoto

Memphis Housing Authority

TN Dept of Human Services - 3rd St. & Mitchell Avenue, Memphis

TN Dept of Human Services - Jackson & Macon Avenue, Memphis

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Memphis Office

Various Non-profit Human Services Advocacy and Supporting Groups

Various Faith-based Human Services Organizations



Baptist Memorial Hospital-Collierville

Baptist Memorial Hospital-DeSoto

Baptist Memorial Hospital-Tipton

Baptist Rehabilitation-Germantown

Crittenden Regional Hospital, West Memphis

Memphis Children's Clinic - 6 locations

Memphis Health Center-E.H.Crump

Memphis Kidney & Dialysis Service

Methodist Fayette Hospital - Somerville

Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown Hospital-Germantown

Methodist North Hospital-Covington pike

Methodist South Hospital -South Memphis

Methodist University Hospital-Union Avenue

Regional Medical Center at Memphis (THE MED)/MEDPLEX

Shelby County Health Loop Clinics - 10 locations

St. Francis Hospital - Kate Bond Rd, Memphis

St. Francis Hospital - Park Avenue, Memphis

St. Francis Hospital - White Station Rd, Memphis

Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Memphis



ALDI - various locations

Kroger Stores - various locations

Pharmacy Stores - various locations

Shopping Malls - various locations

Wal-Mart Stores - various locations



Greyhound Bus Line - Downtown Memphis

MATA American Way Transit Center

Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) North End Terminal

Memphis International Airport
























































Are we adequately serving people with transit needs?

Despite an extraordinarily wide range of public and private services, the simple answer is, no.


Latent Demand = 222,148

Average Daily Demand = 74,049

Average Daily Served = 25,860


At best we are leaving somewhere between 65% and 85% of the most in-need population unserved. This is before we talk about including people who might make public transportation a mode of choice. Not because MATA is dumb. Not because MHA is bad. Not because people don't want transportation options or because options are universally doomed.


This is a hard, long term project because for fifty years we have intentionally built a community that has made it that way.


Today, I simply want to applaud the few people who woke up this morning knowing that they were heading out to try fixing it.











Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Join Us At Our New Home

We’ve moved.

Our new address is

We hope you’ll join us there.

The new, improved blog will feature postings by about three dozen friends who share our passion about Memphis and will be regular guest bloggers.

To top it off, the site will feature Amie Vanderford’s photographic artistry.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Urge To Merge Leads To Urge To Surge

Overlooking and listening to the rhythmic surf of the Atlantic Ocean from a third floor condominium, it’s hard to be objective about Jacksonville.

But we’ll try.

Our professional reason to be in Northern Florida is interesting in its own right, but combined with the nine-month timetable for the newly appointed commission to write a charter for a totally new government for Memphis and Shelby County, it’s been fascinating to check in on a city that merged its city and county governments in 1968, a few years after Nashville did.

Back then, Memphis, Nashville and Jacksonville found themselves in much the same economic position. But in momentum and potential, Memphis clearly had the edge.

Changing Times

Nashville and Jacksonville were mired in government scandal. Confidence in public leadership had bottomed out and dysfunction gripped their governments. Meanwhile, in the years leading up to the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis was doing well.

There were early signs that the times were changing. Population was beginning tentatively to move eastward, retail stores were flirting with the suburbs and plans to widen two-lane highways out of Memphis (like Poplar Avenue) were being made.

Dr. King’s assassination punctured the general sense of progress and sent Memphis into a free fall whose results we’re still dealing with. Faced with the abandonment of downtown, the white stampede out of Memphis and economic upheaval, Memphis leaders dug in their heels, assuming that things would return to normal.

But by the time the smoke cleared, there was a new normal. The Memphis in which they had so much confidence was fundamentally changed, setting in motion troubling trends that continue even now.

Changing History

In Jacksonville and Nashville, confronted with their own crises, they chose to think differently and to shake up things, particularly the government structure that was seen as central to their problems.

It was hard in those days to conceive of Nashville or Jacksonville being competitors to Memphis. After all, Memphis thought its major rival was Atlanta. It all seems so naïve now, but it was a comparison that hung on even as the Georgia capital grew by leaps and bounds, becoming not only a major Southern city but a major national city on its way to becoming an international city.

Those Memphis delusions of grandeur are long gone, swept away by the reality that we are not even keeping pace with Nashville and Jacksonville. But, there remains the persistent attitude that we don’t need (or can’t) do anything: What will be will be.

It’s inarguable that for over 30 years, we’ve used the lack of a consolidated government as a crutch to keep from making the tough decisions or acting courageously. Nashville and Jacksonville took a “no excuses” attitude by changing their governments and it shows.

Changing Things

They had a different image of themselves – one defined by self-confidence and self-worth – that was the antithesis of the one here. Obviously, the positive changes didn’t come overnight. But they did come, and it’s hard to find anyone in either Nashville of Jacksonville – in public or private sector leadership – who does not credit the consolidated government as the spark that burned away the corrupt government, brought in innovative new leaders, flattened out increases in the tax rate (Jacksonville’s is the lowest of the major cities in Florida), turbo-charged their economies and repositioned their city’s images.

Some people in Shelby County opposed to merger of city and county governments say that Nashville and Jacksonville would have prospered regardless of their governments. But there doesn’t seem to be anyone in leadership who agrees.

Jacksonville is beginning a review of its charter to update it, and in a July 30 presentation to the commission, City of Jacksonville General Counsel Richard Mullaney said: “We in Jacksonville enjoy a competitive structural advantage in the creation of public policy that other counties in the state of Florida do not…There’s no question that 40 years ago, for those of us who were here and were observers and participants that we were in a very different place.

“At that time, not just structurally, Jacksonville at that time was viewed by many as a slow-moving, backwards Southern town with an inferiority complex…we are in a very different place. They (rest of the state) marvel at how the smallest market in the nation got an NFL team and…I think that happened because of this structure.

Changing Trajectory

“They marvel at a preservation project that acquired 53,000 acres to take them out of development. They marvel at River City Renaissance, they marvel that we brought a Super Bowl here, and they marvel quite frankly at this consolidated for of government.”

Jacksonville was racked with scandal in 1934, but Mr. Mullaney said the governments were not merged at the ballot box until 1967 because “those who fear change and those with vested interests in the current system won out” 43 years earlier.

As the charter commission in Shelby County does it work in the next nine months, we’ll probably hear a lot of statistics and data, but what finally moved us to the pro-consolidation side of the ledger weren’t the tangibles. It was the intangibles.

All the numbers aside, what we find palpable in Nashville and Jacksonville is a “can do” attitude and a sense that they can dream big and act boldly. Both cities send the unspoken message that they are places that care about themselves and are proud of themselves. Neither has the character or the culture of Memphis, but they are creating more jobs, attracting more business investment and creating the kind of quality of life that is a key competitive advantage in the new economy.

Changing The Rhetoric

Here’s the thing: we’re tired – actually, exhausted - of being told that Memphis has potential, Memphis is at a crossroads and that great things are about to happen in Memphis. We’ve heard it in every election since 1978, and it’s simply getting old.

While we’ve been talking about our potential, other cities like Nashville and Jacksonville have been reaching theirs. In the end, this is why we think that creating a new government for Memphis and Shelby County is our last, best shot at moving past the rhetoric about our potential to actually realizing it.

Simply put, we have to change Memphis’ trajectory, and it will take something profound and earth-shaking. It seems clear from the history of Nashville and Jacksonville that the earth-shaking event can be blowing up the existing government and starting over.

After our visit to Jacksonville, we volunteer to buy the dynamite.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Sucking The Life Out Of Cities

Regionalism is all the rage. The Obama Administration is betting big on regional planning as a way to make smarter decisions on transportation, climate, the economy—all those things that don’t respect political boundaries. The Administration plans to reward communities that work together across jurisdictions toward common goals and, by implication, punish those that do not.

Who can argue with that? I certainly can’t.

But as I sit here in a brand name suburban motel room situated on a highway that could be anywhere, all my doubts about the wisdom of regionalism resurface. I can walk to the Shell station for some Fig Newtons, and I see a Checkers across the street, but there’s too much pavement between here and there to make the trip.

I happen to be in this motel in City A because I landed today in City B for a meeting tomorrow morning in City C. Got that?

All three cities, plus two others, happen to share a single region. On their own, all of these cities have distinct charm. But string them together with the highway sprawl so familiar all over the country, and it sucks all the charm out of the idea of regionalism—fast. In this case, the sum is decidedly less than its parts.

These are the opening paragraphs from today's blog post by our colleague, Carol Coletta, at To read more of her post, click here.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thawing Out The Logic About Tax Freezes

At the risk of being burned at the stake for heresy, we just have to say it: we don’t care if warehouses are moving from Memphis to Mississippi.

And while we’re at it, let’s be honest about one more thing: tax freezes are more about land development than economic development.

But as long as our economic development officials measure success by giving tax waivers rather than limiting them, we’ll continue to chase distribution jobs and pretend that they somehow are positioning Memphis to succeed in a knowledge economy.

As long as we talk the talk about the power of a regional economy and but can’t walk the walk, our obsession with North Mississippi will continue to erode a healthy, balanced economic development strategy.

It’s An Entitlement

Maybe, just maybe, North Mississippi is luring the kinds of companies we shouldn’t really worry about, because the vast majority of employers who are still here are the value-added kinds – those that pay good salaries for good jobs.

And maybe, just maybe, we should be focused on keeping people, and it starts by doing a better job of explaining that taxes in North Mississippi are higher than taxes in many parts of Shelby County. Perhaps, we should let Mississippi pay for the infrastructure that distribution facilities want and we should do our best to keep the people who work there.

But that’s not what we do and because of it, to this day, no one has adequately explained why over a 10-year period, Memphis and Shelby County approved more than half of the state’s tax freezes – 809 of them – while Nashville approved only five. Or put another way, Memphis approved more tax freezes than Nashville, Chattanooga, Jackson and Knoxville combined.

A former director of the Nashville mayor’s office of economic and community development put it best: “Incentives should incentivize. Once it becomes an entitlement, it’s no longer an incentive.” It’s easy enough to know which noun applies to tax incentives here.

Why Do We Fight For Them?

For 15 years, it’s been real estate development interests that have driven the lobbying that turned tax freezes into entitlements, and they took them to the point that warehouses may never again pay taxes in this city. It is sobering to drive down Shelby Drive and Holmes Road in Southeast Shelby County and realize that a handful of the hundreds of warehouses covering the landscape are paying property taxes.

It almost defies logic. If a company doesn’t understand the added competitive power that comes from being in the world headquarters of FedEx, perhaps they’re simply too stupid to care about in the first place.

But if we don’t give taxes away, we’re told we’ll lose the “logistics business” to Fayette County or DeSoto County. The key question regarding warehouses is this: why should Memphis taxpayers care where they locate? If they locate in Shelby County and get tax freezes, it just perpetuates the disproportionate share of local property taxes being paid by homeowners and small businesses.

Years ago, city and county governments hired a firm to analyze land use and taxes. After inputting the data, he called officials to say that he could not deliver the final report on time because his computer malfunctioned. He was given extra time.

Error Message

A few weeks later, he called again. He reported that the computer hadn’t malfunctioned after all. Because so many large swaths of property were off the tax rolls – particularly mile after mile of warehouses in South Shelby County – the computer “thought” that the data must be faulty and sent an error message. Shelby County was not similar to what was normally found in other metros like ours.

As syndicated columnist on urban affairs Neal Peirce has written: “Call it, if you will, the crack cocaine of state and local governments’ economic development practices -- their endless flow of tax breaks and outright gifts to private corporations they either want to land, or figure they have to pay off to stay put.”

Today the practice runs so deep, pervading such a huge number of corporate location moves, that officials -- even those who privately admit it’s an insane, zero-sum system -- keep on forking out the cash, no matter how incredibly costly the addiction. For years Greg LeRoy has been America’s chief whistle blower on the subsidies, which he estimates add up nationally to $50 billion a year.

So what should be done? First, says Mr. LeRoy, “disclosure-disclosure-disclosure.” When the public is informed, the jobs blackmail diminishes. As we have frequently said, this begins by posting every tax freeze on the city and county websites. Then set up serious “clawback” recapture provisions when a subsidized firm doesn’t fulfill its job-producing promises. And stop all subsidies for retail deals, except in truly-depressed inner-city neighborhoods.

Reinvestment Needed

And, let governments, Mr. LeRoy proposes, start registering and regulating the site location consultants who make often negotiate the public subsidies. This would stop them from double-dealing (and driving up subsidy costs) by requiring that they take payment from just one party to any transaction.

But the really fresh ground LeRoy plows is a big reminder to us that the scramble for jobs that ignited the subsidy wars will soon be pointless -- and simply unaffordable. With baby-boomers headed toward retirement, we’re likely to face an enormous shortage of skilled workers. From 1980 to 2000, the pool of prime-age (25-to-54-year old) workers increased by 35 million. But from 2000 to 2020, the expansion will be just 3 million. Teachers, nurses, expert workers of all sorts will be in desperately short supply. Huge new efforts (and spending) for workforce development will be critical to stop a slide in the United States’ standard of living.

At the same time, America’s physical plant is suffering from serious disinvestment and deterioration. Traffic congestion is costing our economy $67.5 billion a year; thousands of bridges need replacement; wastewater systems are in bad shape; almost 2,600 dams are now deemed unsafe; transit spending is far below what’s needed to maintain even the inadequate systems we now have. The American Society of Civil Engineers totals the repair bill at $1.6 trillion. Discount that 50 percent and the pending bills are still staggering.

The bottom line, says Mr. LeRoy: “We need reinvestment, not disinvestment.” It’s time, he asserts, to take a “fine-tooth comb” to the $50 billion states and cities are now spending for corporate promises of jobs. Any subsidy that doesn’t serve compelling public need by creating more skilled labor, or doesn’t provide a “carrot” for companies to invest in new skills development, should go on a list for likely elimination.

It’s time, Mr. LeRoy concludes (as if speaking for Memphis taxpayers), for sweeping reform of the subsidy policies and to recognize them for what they are: “wasteful handouts we can no longer afford.”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

This Week On Smart City: Places That Define Cities

This week's Smart City features Katherine Gustafson, award-winning landscape architect and designer of Chicago's Lurie Garden. We'll talk to Katherine about creating places of serenity, in a bustling city.

Dr. Nancy Zimpher
is the Chancellor of the State University of New York. With 64 campuses and almost a half million students, Dr. Zimpher believes she has the assets that will make the difference in New York's future.

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, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, 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.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Getting The Cobwebs Out Of The City Website

There’s not much that can be done to the city and county websites that would do any damage.

They are the digital equivalents of a three car pile-up on the interstate. Well, in the county’s case, it’s more like a five car pile-up.

If a public website is the on-line representation of a government’s persona, our governments’ personalities are defined by secrecy, misdirection and obfuscation. Even when you know information is on the website, it doesn’t mean you’ll ever find it. It’s been buried so expertly, it regularly requires a search party to find it.

It’s hard to fathom the fact that city and county government spend about $31 million a year on information technology, and that these websites are the best we can get.

Monkeys And Hamlet

That’s why the Wharton Administration is on the right track with its intention to overhaul the city’s website as part of its new transparency policies. While local government has a dismal record of imbedding new technologies in ways to open up the public sector and to create effective e-government, there’s no reason that the fundamentals of on-line transparency shouldn’t be done forthwith.

The Wharton Administration is currently circulating a survey asking for the public’s advice on improving the city website. It’s good that a usable, user-friendly city website is a priority of Mayor Wharton, and seven years of frustration with the county website fuel his determination to do something different in City Hall.

As the theory goes, if you lock a group of monkeys in a room with typewriters, they will eventually type Hamlet. In the meantime, they could be accused of typing out the Shelby County website, perhaps the most impenetrable government site anywhere.

Our Suggestions

As for the city website, it would be an improvement if it just got the basics right.

First, get rid of all the extraneous information. Who really is going to the city website for tourist information? Make it simple and make it about city government.

Second, don’t make us have to know the city organizational chart to find information. It’s a curious feature of local government websites that before a visitor can find the information that he needs, he needs to know what division or department it would be found in. Hell, we don’t even care what the org chart looks like, much less that it’s used to organize information on the websites. We just want to find what we need without having to click four times to get to it or rummage around to find out what department it’s in.

Third, it’s not just about an understandable website. More to the point, it’s about understanding writing. For example, it’s just hard to understand why there’s not someone among the 6,000 employees of city government who can be asked to write a easy-to-read summary of the 409-city operating budget. After all, the new transparency policy will be toothless if the information posted online is in the kind of bureaucratese that defies comprehension.

Fourth, post everything. A quick survey of studies and major reports prepared in the past 5-7 years tallies more than 165 of them. About five of them are on-line. Here’s a rule of thumb: everything goes on-line – tax freezes, contracts, special project reports and data that gives the public the ability to hold departments accountable. Some cities are doing some remarkable things by using GIS to measure city services and keep citizens informed, and there’s just no excuse why Memphis isn’t among them.

Be The Best

Fifth, don’t appoint a committee to build the new website. Group think is the enemy of a cohesive vision and execution of a quality website. That’s why we suggest that city government do something really revolutionary – forego one of those $1 million contracts with some corporate giant hired to build a new website. Rather, create a R & D war room by hiring 3-5 young web designers for $15,000 apiece and turn them loose to design the model 21st century government website.

Six, build a website with the user in mind rather than being driven by political egos and political agendas. Don’t talk to us like voters; talk to us like the people we are – the ones who pay your salaries. Tell us what we want to know, rather than what you think is in your political self-interest.

Seven, get serious about e-government. Every form or application in city government should be on-line – every one. Meanwhile, we ought to be able to do more than pay government money for tickets and taxes. Rather, we ought to be able to do anything on-line that we can do standing at a counter in a city department.
Meanwhile, dozens of governments are developing broadband networks for their communities, but Memphis isn’t one of them. Here, not even downtown Memphis is wireless. In Atlanta, Mayor Shirley Franklin introduced the "Atlanta Dashboard" that keeps city government managers focused on goals and indicators of success. Most of all, it opens a window for citizens to judge how city operations are performing.

Keeping Pace

In Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino is equipping all city vehicles to double as "digital street assessment tools" to measure vibrations created by rough roads and potholes, then send the data to a computer that maps locations using GPS. Shanghai, China, is doing much the same thing, but its constantly updated map is also used by private companies who want to know which routes are best on a given day.

At its most basic, there needs to be a plan to apply technology to improve administrative functions and to share more information within and without government. More to the point, this level of transparency can in fact transform the relationship between the government and the people it serves.

It's about creating government that's open for business when we need it, 24/7/365. It's about citizen-centric government and flattening the bureaucracy, and it's about increasing government efficiency and productivity, promoting transparency and accountability, and inviting the public into discussions and decisions.

That seems to be where the Wharton Administration is headed. It’s past time for Memphis to get into the first tier of cities using technology to modernize and economize its operations and to engage and involve its citizens.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Inside Baseball Strikes Out In County Government

Here’s the real problem with the appointment of the new Shelby County Mayor.

It’s not the alliance between a couple of Republican commissioners to usher in the era of the Joe Ford Administration.

It’s not the parody of leadership that two days of serial voting produced.

It’s not even the laughable criticisms about the Wharton Administration’s financial stewardship by a leading candidate.

Hope Springs Eternal

The real problem is that from the beginning, the appointment of the interim county mayor was an insiders’ game. It was driven by an impulse that one of the commissioners should get the political plum. It was also about the devaluing of the county mayor’s job by suggesting that almost any commissioner could do the job.

The sad part is that there wasn’t anyone on the county legislative body unwilling to game the process in one way or another – either as a potential candidate or in return for political support. It was probably too much to hope that instead of turning to look at each other first, the commissioners would look beyond the county building to consider who in Memphis would be the qualified person to provide the sound management that the $1 billion enterprise needs over the next nine months.

We suspect that FedEx founder and guru Fred Smith may have even been willing to bivouac one of his top managers at Shelby County Government to keep it on sound footing, particularly to continue the debt reduction plan by the Wharton Administration. With little notice, the amount of debt service payments by county government actually went down last year for the first time in about 25 years.

Getting The Message Right

Or, if the Shelby County Board of Commissioners wanted to send a strong message about the future, its members could have chosen one of the talented, young people who are more than capable of setting the right agenda and sticking to it. It was a move that could have sent a dramatic message about the changing of the generational leadership in Memphis.

Instead, the commissioners sent a different message, the unmistakable one that it was politics as usual in county government. At a time when the hopeful attitude unleashed by the election of a new Memphis mayor could have spread to county government, the commissioners elected one of the hoariest names in local politics.

To put it bluntly, at the precise moment with the commissioners should have been sending a message about a new day and new hope, it chose to elect someone with political baggage that immediately makes half of all Shelby Countians instinctively abandon confidence in him and their county government.

Dashed Hope

This is not to say that Mayor-to-be Joe Ford is not a fine person. But that does not change the fact that his family name is anathema to so much of the public. In the end, a majority of the commissioners essentially said they just didn’t care and did it any way.

It was a valuable opportunity squandered, and because of it, the momentum that could have been born from new hope and enthusiasm has been muted, if not derailed completely.

To further complicate things, Commissioner Ford’s stinging and unfounded criticisms of CAO Jim Huntzicker, whose name was submitted at the 11th hour as a compromise candidate, will now require serious fence mending by the interim mayor. In fact, it’s hard to imagine Commissioner Ford succeeding without Mr. Huntzicker’s institutional knowledge and financial advice. We can only hope that the new mayor does not plan to make any changes to the major appointed officials who operate Shelby County Government day to day.

The Fallout

During deliberations about the mayoral appointment, Commissioner Ford exhibited a regrettable tendency to shoot from the hip wide of the mark. That continued after his election with his half-baked idea to eliminate the board of The Med. Hopefully, this behavior is an aberration and the real Ford style has not yet been previewed.

Already, there is speculation that Commissioner Ford – despite protestations to the contrary - is a possible candidate in the May primary for county mayor, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he could be elected. There are just too many barriers.

Fallout from the appointment came quickly. The two Republican commissioners who voted for Commissioner Ford – Wyatt Bunker and Mike Ritz – already have targets painted on their backs by some irate members of their party. It could be problematic for Commissioner Ritz, who already had created some discomfort for some party members with his iconoclastic brand of representation, and Commissioner Bunker’s critics suggest that he has simply taken his conservative constituents for granted with this vote.

Ups And Downs

It remains to be seen what will develop from the current political rumblings, but the political winner at first blush seems to be Commissioner Deidre Malone’s mayoral campaign. Her vote against Commissioner Ford strengthens her credentials with voters outside Memphis, a place where she needs to gain a stronger foothold and be identified as someone who’s not willing to go along to get along.

Speaking of county commissioners, Steve Mulroy continued his quixotic quest to save the rotting Zippin Pippin at the Fairgrounds. All that’s left are the wood and metal from the track and structure of the old roller coaster, because the cars, motors, and everything else were taken away years ago by a company who bought the ride.

It didn’t want to spend the money to move the track, and as Commissioner Mulroy acknowledged, the wood is in such bad shape that it would have to be replaced anyway. In other words, at this point, the controversy is essentially over whether to save the metal track.


It’s reached a point where it’s just Kafkaesque – spending close to half a million dollars to disassemble rotting wood and rusty tracks and to store them until there is some unimaginable time when they are needed again.

It’s enough to make the commissioners’ deliberations about the next county mayor look reasonable.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

No DeTox For Addiction To Tax Freezes

Here we go again.

It seems that Memphis economic development officials have an addiction to tax freezes that the Betty Ford Clinic couldn’t cure.

Meanwhile, they have an obsession with North Mississippi that Sigmund Freud couldn’t have shaken.

As a result, real reform of our community’s Payment-in-lieu-of-tax (PILOT) program always seems just out of reach, and even when loosely grasped, it’s only a matter of time before the hoary justifications for giving away taxes are trotted out once again.

This time around, it's about giving tax breaks to businesses already in Memphis who are threatening to leave Shelby County. They have to have been here 10 years, to be investing $10 million and retaining 100 jobs. Someone should lock the key to the city and county vaults, because we predict a run on the bank by companies who say they are now thinking about leaving.

Unchecked And Unbalanced

Most troubling of all this is the fact that there are no meaningful checks and balances in deliberations like the one today before Memphis City Council to loosen up tax freeze policy again. Advocates for the change in policy are the same economic development officials who benefit from the change itself, and once again, in the absence of a comprehensive plan to shift our incentives from cheapness to quality, City Council members are susceptible to the self-serving analyses and recommendations.

Curiously, the only outside assessment of the city and county policies on tax freezes – which recommended common sense and reasonable reform – was forgotten almost before it was officially submitted for consideration. And although some of its recommendations were approved, the full impact of the well thought out report was never realized, and campaigns to water down the changes began almost before the ink had dried on the government resolutions.

The tax freeze program was so out of control that it was criticized by everyone from pro-business Forbes magazine to researchers, and most of all by city and county governments’ own consultants, URS Corporation and NexGen Advisors, who called for major overhaul of the program in its 97-page report issued December 1, 2005. Even then, it took more than a year for local government to get around to reforming the PILOT program, which has always been more about real estate than economic development.

But, most importantly, the tax freeze program lost public support and credibility because of the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board’s pro forma approval of any application whose paperwork was filled out correctly. But most damning of all, in a 10-year period, for every tax freeze approved in Nashville, Memphis approved 83 totaling about $60 million, a total that was more than the other major cities combined.

Quality Counts

These days, economic development officials act as if we all have amnesia and that our opinions about the overuse of this incentive have changed. While we’ve tried to give away the store, decades ago, Nashville decided to send a message about quality government, quality of life, and quality of public investments.

It set out to execute “quality strategies” that make it today a magnet for young college-educated workers and skilled jobs. It identified key public investments to make this happen. It rejected the notion that it should sell itself at a discount to get jobs and people to move there.

Memphis took another road. It was rooted in “old school” economic development programs that sold our city on the basis of cheap land, cheap labor and cheap taxes. Ultimately, what we’ve learned is that throwing money at companies to convince them to love us is not only poor public policy, it is also counterproductive, stimulating higher tax rates that choke off the small businesses and the entrepreneurs who create most of the new jobs in the first place.

Forbes magazine held up our PILOT program as the poster child for tax incentives run amok: “Targeted tax cuts aimed at attracting particular employers are bad policy. For decades now targeted tax incentives have been a favorite elixir of state and local politicians in depressed communities. But targeted tax incentives don’t spur real growth. Quite the contrary…tax incentives are inevitably financed at the expense of established businesses. Today’s winner of a targeted tax break is tomorrow’s victim of a broad increase in business taxes.”

No But’s

The third strike for the program was the thoughtful report by the city-county consultants. One of those recommendations – the so-called “but for” test - was for companies asking for tax freezes to prove that they need the public investment (and that’s what it is) to make their projects work.

It seems a good time to remember what the consultants wrote: “The current matrix approach (the score sheet now being used to award tax freezes and set their terms) for awarding PILOTs should be abandoned and replaced by a ‘but for’ test or the true economic need of the project.”

This was what was always missing from the PILOT process. Instead of an emphasis on facts, there was an emphasis on rhetoric that is being resurrected once again: “The company will move to Mississippi if it doesn’t get the PILOT” or “This company is looking at locations in Indianapolis right now,” or “This company wants a sign from government that Memphis values its presence.”

In truth, this strict “but for” test was straightforward and encouraged good stewardship of scarcer and scarcer tax dollars. The consultants define “but for” as a business investment that isn’t reasonably expected without the public tax freezes, and it can be proven by a “gap analysis, a competitive cost analysis for competing sites, or a combination of the two,” the report states.

Getting It Right

“The establishment of a ‘but for’ test is the whole premise of any public investment or the need for it from a logical, moral and legislative standpoint,” the report said. “Most, if not all, business incentive programs across the country imply a ‘but for’ test in their intent and enabling legislation.”

Previously, we’ve expressed our concern about the pervasive feeling of unworthiness that is found in Memphis, and which is mirrored in public policy like the PILOT program. It embodies the attitude that we aren’t worthy to have new business and business expansions without bribing them. Is it at all possible that unlike the other cities who sell their cities on their quality, we come off looking desperate and unsophisticated, and a result, we give more than necessary?

We think David Birch, former Harvard and MIT academician and now president of a company that advises companies on where to locate, said it best: "The cities growing fastest right now have the highest taxes, most expensive workers, most expensive land...To say you want the cheapest worker is an old way of thinking. What you really want is a talented labor force, not the least expensive labor force."

Or as Professor John Eger puts it: "The effort to create a 21st century city is not so much about technology as it is about jobs, dollars and quality of life. In short, it is about organizing one's community to reinvent itself for the new, knowledge-based economy and society; preparing its citizens to take ownership of their community; and educating the next generation of leaders and workers to meet these global challenges...At the heart of this effort is ultimately defining a 'creative community.'"

Corporate Tax Dodging

In the end, it seems logical that the overriding question about tax freeze policies is whether they are encouraging the reinvention of Memphis into a creative community, a city of choice, known for its quality and innovation. The answer seems obvious, and so then is the rationale for expanding the basis for issuing yet more PILOTs.

As government officials consider what they’re going to do, we recommend that they listen to the Smart City interview with Greg LeRoy, author of The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation. He said: “There’s a popular myth that’s promulgated by companies and their consultants and their public relations machines suggesting that tax breaks are responsible for companies locating or relocating or expanding. I think that’s just not true because all state and local taxes combined has a cost of doing business for the average company in this country of less than one percent of their cost structure.

“Tax breaks, therefore, comprising some fraction of less than one percent of a company’s costs can’t create markets, can’t drive innovation, can’t drive skilled labor. It’s really become a way for elected officials to take credit for things that are already going to happen in the market. And by letting these programs become so loose and allowing them to become pro-sprawl, we’ve also allowed these incentive programs to turn into things that are really harming our land use, undermining our public schools, forcing people away from transit…”

Mr. LeRoy suggests that programs like ours are in truth real estate development masquerading as economic development. “We hope elected officials look at the broader policy issues about how policies affect everybody paying taxes to the city, to the county, to the state, and what’s really going on is a burden shift in which companies that are foot loose, or threaten to be foot loose, are getting lots of other people to pay for their public services, because when a company doesn’t pay its fair share of the cost of public services it uses, everybody else either has to pay higher taxes or get lousier public services.”

Amen. And we pray that no one thinks now is the time to return to policies that were key to creating the low-wage, low-skill economy on which we are too dependent.