Sunday, March 30, 2003

Heavy Lifters

Property taxes are increasingly paying the cost of government.

Posted By on Sun, Mar 30, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Property-tax payers, brace yourself.

Your share of the tax load is increasing, and it will get heavier if present trends continue and some new proposed tax-break policies are put in place to fight the war on blight downtown and the war on empty space in eastern Shelby County.

There are 280,756 residential parcels in Shelby County (and 25,925 commercial and industrial parcels). Their owners pay a combined city and county property tax rate that ranges from $3.79 in Lakeland, which has no city property tax, to $7.02 in Memphis, which has the biggest in the state. The rate in Nashville, for comparison, is $4.58.

In 1996, Shelby County got 50 percent of its revenue from the property tax. Now, the property-tax share is 62 percent. There is no reason to think that number won't keep climbing when the city of Memphis and Shelby County adopt their budgets later this year. As Flyer political columnist Jackson Baker reported last week, Governor Phil Bredesen is dead serious about cutting state revenues to counties. Shelby County currently gets 12 percent of its revenue from the state. The federal government's share, also likely to decrease due to the war in Iraq and the cost of fighting terrorism, is only 3 percent.

Meanwhile, two expanded tax-incentive programs are in the works or have been approved within the past year.

One, via the Memphis and Shelby County Industrial Development Board (IDB), gives tax freezes to existing unoccupied offices and warehouses. Under the old rules, tax credits could only be given to companies that occupied new buildings. But speculation and overbuilding by developers in the 1990s created a surplus of empty space in so-called second-generation buildings.

The other, via the Center City Commission, would create a "tax-increment financing" district, or TIF, in much of downtown and part of Midtown. The theory of a TIF is that public investment sparks growth in the area that wouldn't have happened otherwise. The additional tax revenue that comes from the growth is dedicated to pay for the public improvements specifically within the TIF instead of mixing with general public funds.

So far, so good. But the history of tax incentives in Memphis and Shelby County for the last 20 years or so has shown that incentives tend to become entitlements. In other words, they are taken for granted and handed out generously to the deserving and not-so-deserving as Applicant A scrambles to keep up with Applicant B and so on.

If the second-generation principle catches fire in the suburbs, there could be a parade of lawyers and developers seeking tax breaks from the Industrial Development Board to level the playing field with competitors. The board, it should be noted, has recently shown signs of toughening its standards to punish or deny companies that promise more jobs and benefits than they deliver. But it's too early to say whether or not the liberalized second-generation incentives will work the way they're supposed to.

The Center City Commission, on the other hand, can more accurately forecast the success of the proposed TIF district. The future "growth" in tax revenue is already in the cards. It comes in the form of expiring tax freezes that were granted 15-25 years ago. When the Rivermark, for example, starts paying property taxes, it's not exactly new growth. The building, once a Holiday Inn, is nearly 40 years old. The owner's tax freeze has simply run its course.

Incentives have their limits. The Sterick Building and other abandoned, once-prominent office buildings and much of the Main Street Mall have defied 25 years of downtown revival. And, with the exception of AutoZone, subsidies have not lured a single large corporate employer to downtown.

Instead, the result has been a mixed bag of prizes, ugly ducklings, and oddities in the Center City Commission's real estate inventory. Also, the "center city" boundaries extend farther than you might think. Properties getting tax breaks in the name of downtown redevelopment include Malco's Studio on the Square in Overton Square, the Applebee's restaurant at 2114 Union Avenue, a Church's Fried Chicken at 925 Poplar, and a cluster of 20 apartment buildings in the 2200 block of South Parkway East.

In all, according to Chandler Reports, there are 254 properties to which the Memphis Center City Revenue Finance Corporation holds title. They include The Peabody and Marriott hotels, several apartments on Mud Island, the Morgan Keegan and AutoZone office buildings, various restaurants, and some eyesores. Their total appraised value, according to the Shelby County Assessor's Office, is $538 million. The property taxes on that would be $15 million a year if they were on the tax rolls.

Two big-ticket downtown public projects -- the FedExForum and the expansion of the convention center -- are not being paid for with property taxes. Their financing comes from several sources, including tax surcharges on hotel rooms, rental cars, event sales, downtown entertainment, and state government. With those sources tapped out, the property tax is left to pay for everyday public expenses such as police protection and schools.

Few people would trade the downtown of 20 years ago for the downtown of today, just as no one would deny the explosion of growth and wealth in eastern Shelby County. The question for policymakers is whether the same thing can be said of other parts of the city and county that don't directly benefit from incentives. And when is enough enough?

Body of Evidence

Combat, faith, and transformation define photographer Jonathan Postal's "State of the Union."

Posted By on Sun, Mar 30, 2003 at 4:00 AM

There are 20 black-and-white photographs hanging in Jay Etkin's main gallery on South Main. The artist, Jonathan Postal, calls the collection "State of the Union." That's a pretty bold move considering the uncertain state of this union, when America is torn in half by a controversial war overseas that has cost us our standing among longtime allies; a union battered by economic woes and ongoing battles over religion and culture on the home front. Could it possibly be defined in only 20 pictures? Could it be defined in 20,000? It seems unlikely, at best.

And yet in Postal's case the answer is a qualified "yes." While his shots may seem a bit too exotic to express the mundane concerns of the heartland, and too for lack of a better word isolationist to address global concerns, he has managed to capture a post-9/11 America as reflected in a funhouse mirror. He finds danger in our most seemingly innocent pastimes, potential tragedy in pictures of happy families, and expressions of faith everywhere. It is a magnificent show, put together by an artist working at the top of his game. It is, by turns, upsetting, whimsical, and uplifting.

"I think it's good if you have to look at a photograph more than once to see everything that's there," Postal says, referencing a picture of a young couple sitting on the grass with their newborn child. "You see this picture and you see the parents and the kid, but you might not notice the first time how young the parents are. I'd seen the father the day before riding around on a BMX bike and figured he couldn't be more than 15 or 16. The girl couldn't be over 14. But you might have to look at the picture several times before you really see the baby. Before you see how old the baby looks. It's almost like it's looking right at the camera and saying, 'I'm going to have to raise my parents, you know?' But it's not all bad either, because you can tell there is a lot of love there."

Postal, who studied at the Kansas City Art Institute and the San Francisco Art Institute and has taken pictures for such publications as Vogue and Rolling Stone, subscribes to an almost journalistic school of social landscape photography. It's a way of using the camera to invade a space and capture elements that might seem too mundane for the front page. In Postal's work, formal concerns are as important as the subject matter.

"There are times," Postal says, pointing to a blurry background figure in one shot, "when I look at a picture and I wish I could erase part of it. And it would be so easy for me to do too, now that everything is digital. But I just can't bring myself to do it. I still think of photography in terms of 'evidence.' What you see in a photograph should be exactly what the photographer saw at the time he took the picture."

And what you see in a Postal photograph is exactly what the photographer saw at the moment he was taking the photograph. Postal shaves the negative carrier off his cameras, which leaves a hard black line around the edges of his shots, proving that they have not been cropped. He composes with his eye, in the moment, and gets his shots the first time.

"There was a time when I might look at a picture in a magazine and think, Wow, what a great shot that is. But not anymore. Now if I see a shot of a lion running, and there is a mountain in the background and a big sky with lots of clouds I think, Okay, someone took a pretty good picture of a lion. Then they went through their photo files and digitally added the perfect picture of the perfect mountain, then they dropped in the perfect picture of the perfect sky and maybe they added some orange to it. Nobody actually took that picture. Nobody has ever seen that actual picture in nature, because it didn't exist."

Postal is a veteran of both the East and West Coast punk movement of the 1970s. As the bass player for Penelope Houston and the Avengers and frontman for the Readymades, Postal had access to such seminal music figures as Devo, Blondie, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, the Clash, the Dead Kennedys, and the list goes on.

Even now, some of his best photographs are of musicians in action. There is only one such picture in this collection, but what a shot it is. In Joe Buck, a young hillbilly singer who owns and operates the Bluegrass Inn, a honky-tonk on Lower Broadway in Nashville, holds his bass like a weapon. The look on the singer's face is rather aggressive and mean. His toothy mouth is stretched to its limit in what might only be described as a roar. But these are perhaps the second things you notice about this picture. Joe Buck is a traditionalist. He dresses like a country star from the 1940s, and the first thing you wonder isn't where but when the picture was taken.

It's a quality that runs throughout Postal's work. In fact, gallery owner Etkin claims that at one of Postal's previous shows an elderly woman wandered in off the street and claimed to have dated a man in one of the photographs in 1943. The shot had, of course, been taken in the 1990s.

Other timeless pictures in "State of the Union" include Burlesque Girl, a pair of shots depicting a dancer backstage taking a less-than-smooth shot of Seagram's 7 from the bottle; a weathered street person standing underneath a sign reading, "Jesus Saves"; an elderly clown applying makeup in a mirror; a trio of African-American children diving off a bridge on a summer's day; a woman walking in a hurricane in vintage clothing with an antique umbrella; and a pregnant couple done up rockabilly-style in front of an antique car. Unless you knew that these photographs were all grouped under the title "recent work," there would be no way to identify the year they were taken.

And then there are images that bend time, bringing disparate eras into the same frame of reference. One print catches Elvis Presley in blurry profile, but in the center of the frame we see a shot of an Elvis impersonator checking his hair in a mirror. We know this is a picture of an Elvis impersonator, but we can't help but wonder if this isn't exactly what Elvis saw the last time he looked into the mirror. Shots of Elvis and Elvis impersonators are too easy and too readily available. Elvis' icon status makes any image of the King into instant art, and lazy artists take advantage of that fact all too often. But Postal moves into too-familiar territory and finds imagery that is unique and compelling.

"The two things I wanted to focus on in this show were faith and combat," Postal says, leafing through a pile of photos. There are shots of sweaty boxers and professional wrestlers, shots that didn't make it into the show. "I could have easily done a whole show on combat," he says. He shows a photo of a shirtless boy not more than 10. He is holding a giant pistol. It would have made an interesting addition to the show, but it was too obvious.

Postal's images of combat for "State of the Union" are subtle and powerful. In one, a pair of arcade combatants stand with toy guns outstretched, their eyes as cold and dead as a mafia hit man's. You have the sense they are in training for something that lies ahead.

But the most telling and terrifying image in the show is a simple portrait that combines faith, combat, and entertainment. In it, a couple expresses pure rapture. The man's eyes and mouth are open so wide you'd swear he had to be singing the finale of a Broadway show. The woman stretches one arm to heaven, her eyes closed in ecstasy. You would think this shot, like so many of Postal's other ecstatic images, was taken in a charismatic church, a document of two people high on the Holy Spirit. But it's not. According to Etkin, the picture was taken at a wrestling match.

"Jay wasn't supposed to tell you that," Postal says. "That was supposed to be a secret."

"I know," I tell him, "but sometimes it's good to know these things."

Postal captured an image of joy, verging on religious ecstasy, generated by a violent act disguised as an entertainment. Had Postal chosen to show only this one image and call the show "State of the Union," it would have been a success.

Friday, March 21, 2003

The People's Choice

Mayor Herenton lobs another grenade -- and waits for the fallout.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 21, 2003 at 4:00 AM

As he waited for Mayor Willie Herenton to arrive at the final session of the city council's annual retreat earlier this year, Councilman Jack Sammons likened the mayor's leadership style to lobbing a grenade into the room and closing the door.

Usually, the result is a lot of headlines and hard feelings, but the big idea (consolidation, surrender the city charter, appointed school board, sell MLGW, the Formula for Fairness, raise suburban sewer fees, etc.) goes away.

But Sammons thinks Herenton's push for school-system consolidation could be different. Despite a spotty turnout of other invited public officials at Tuesday's Herenton presentation at City Hall, school reform isn't going away.

"For the first time in my career down here, education has become an issue that people want to talk about at cocktail parties," said Sammons, who has been in and out of public office for nearly 20 years. "I hope Mayor Herenton maintains the level of intensity this time."

Others see the same old Herenton.

"He could pick up some allies if he would practice a little bit of diplomacy," said Memphis Board of Education member Michael Hooks Jr., one of several elected officials who found conflicts or other reasons that kept them from attending what was supposed to be an intergovernmental session.

Herenton was in grenade mode at Monday night's school board meeting, delivering a letter via finance director Joseph Lee that warned of a possible $7.2 million cut in school funding. Board member Hubon Sandridge suggested the mayor "has lost his mind." Colleague Lee Brown was "appalled," while Wanda Halbert said she wasn't going to a meeting "with somebody who calls us names on the TV." Even Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson said it was "devastating" to get the letter without so much as a courtesy call from the mayor, his old boss.

Well, too bad. School board members, politicians, suburban mayors, and superintendents are so yesterday. You could almost hear Herenton chuckling that they had proven his point that they're a bunch of petty turf-protectors. The latest Herenton strategy goes straight to "the people," calling for a referendum on abolishing the city school board and merging the system with the county.

To get there, however, he'll need a favorable opinion from the state attorney general and approval from at least one elected body, preferably the city council in Herenton's mind. If he can get over those hurdles, Herenton thinks he can win a referendum. Only city of Memphis residents would get to vote. Turnout would be higher than a school board election because everyone would get excited over the prospect of a property tax cut at the expense of county residents outside the city. The suburbanites can bawl all they want about how bigger isn't better. In the Herenton plan, they're stuck with it. The all-white county school board goes away, and the new nine-member board is stacked 6-3 in favor of the city.

Audacious? Maybe. But Herenton has come a long, long way from 1991 when he was first elected with exactly two prominent white people -- attorney Richard Fields and liberal minister Harry Moore -- at his side. Now he has solid white support and more black support than the Ford, Hooks, or Bailey clans.

He beat Dick Hackett. He outlasted Jim Rout. And he can rightly and righteously note that city government doesn't have any scandals. He beat various Fords. He beat professional Herenton nag Pete Sisson. He brought Mike Tyson to town and made it work. He rebuffed minority contractors on the arena and made their protest look foolish. He backed Republican Lamar Alexander over Democrat Bob Clement and stood on his victory platform with him. He made an in-your-face presentation on schools to A C Wharton and others at the New Year's prayer breakfast.

Consolidation won't solve the problems of public education. Two systems aren't wasteful or embarrassing. Half-empty city schools are wasteful. Unaudited bus routes and free-lunch programs are wasteful. Overpriced school buildings are wasteful. School-security directors with gun problems and principals who cheat on standardized tests and daily newspapers that create "legends" like Gerry House and Dr. Lirah Sabir are embarrassing. A unified system won't fix any of that.

There will be political casualties, with or without a referendum. Some of them are former Herenton allies and colleagues. Watson is retiring at the end of the year. His financial assistant, Roland McElrath, is already gone. Two of the most controversial school board members, Chairman Carl Johnson and Sara Lewis, go back decades with Herenton.

In his own office, spokeswoman Gale Jones Carson, chair of the Shelby County Democratic Party, faces a likely challenge to her leadership at the April convention from a Ford-backed candidate, probably state Rep. Lois DeBerry or state Rep. Kathryn Bowers.

"If they can put me out, it's a slap at the mayor," said Carson.

Maybe. But it will take more than a slap to knock down this mayor.

Friday, March 14, 2003

Foreign Aid

Want a college scholarship? It helps to be a foreign tennis player.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 14, 2003 at 4:00 AM


Tennis umpire Donna Williams of Memphis was calling a college match last year when she heard a female player from France shout that after losing a point. When Williams threatened to impose a point penalty for cursing, the girl protested that she was merely saying "move your feet" -- loosely translated, of course -- in French.

Williams was unmoved. In her career she has been verbally abused by the best of 'em, including Jimmy Connors in his nasty prime. Suspecting zees ees bullsheet, she ordered the miffed mademoiselle to "lose that word!"

Like other officials, Williams carries a one-page list of forbidden phrases in eight languages, from knulla (Swedish for the f-word) to figlio di putana (Italian for son of a bitch) to couilles (French for balls) to puta (Portuguese for whore). Poofter, poo-jabber, wanker, and fanny (don't ask me) are also off-limits in addition to the familiar favorites.

A working knowledge of polyglot profanity is a handy thing to have in the new era of American college sport. Long before the Memphis Grizzlies and the NBA signed players like Pau Gasol and Yao Ming, the University of Memphis, Christian Brothers University, and other area colleges were heavily recruiting athletes from Australia, Ireland, Austria, and South America. A college tennis or soccer tournament these days is basically a little United Nations Assembly for jocks.

While state lawmakers cut programs to balance the budget and cobble together a lottery to help Tennessee students go to state colleges and universities, those same institutions are awarding full athletic scholarships worth $15,000 a year or more to scores of foreign students. (In contrast, Bicentennial Scholars -- in-state students who make high grades and a 31 or better on the ACT -- get tuition-only scholarships, and the proposed lottery scholarships are in the $3,000-$4,000 range.)

Most of these scholarships are in non-revenue-producing sports like tennis and soccer. U of M men's basketball coach John Calipari has been criticized for recruiting far-flung junior-college players like Chris Massie, who stay a year or two at the expense of the local talent. But on the U of M women's tennis team, which has eight full scholarships, freshman Kristen Noble of Germantown is not only the only Tennessean, she's the only American. Her seven teammates are from England, Spain, Austria, and India.

The U of M is hardly unique, nor is it fielding powerhouse teams. Last year's Lady Tiger tennis team was 5-16, losing to the likes of Troy State and Louisiana-Lafayette -- all stocked with international players. Memphis, in fact, is probably one of the more exemplary programs. Its women's tennis coach, Charlotte Peterson, is a U of M graduate in her 28th season and men's coach Phil Chamberlain, a native Australian, is himself a product of the international system. Tennis players' GPAs tend to be the highest of all the jocks.

Chamberlain came to the U of M in 1973 as one of the top junior players in Australia when it was the reigning world tennis power. Foreign college players were still novelties.

"I didn't know a single thing about Memphis," said Chamberlain. "My intentions were to get my degree and maybe go on the pro tour. But I played enough great players to realize I didn't have it."

He wound up becoming a teaching pro at the Racquet Club, paying back his debt to his adopted country many times over as one of the guiding forces of Memphis junior tennis and the Kroger St. Jude tournament.

But he puts no pressure on his five current international players to follow the same path, and he says the university and athletic department don't either. Some stay, some don't. They play because they're better, not only better tennis players but better all-around athletes, with multisport backgrounds in soccer, rugby, or cricket. Chamberlain makes no apologies to local players. All eight graduates of the Racquet Club's junior program were placed in college tennis programs last year, although few are good enough to play in the Southeastern Conference or Conference USA.

"I could not compete with American kids only," Chamberlain said. "Every American kid I recruit has 25 schools after him."

The United States Tennis Association, which spends about $7 million a year on junior development programs, is well aware of this. "We're encouraging colleges to adopt a maximum number of foreign players," said John Callen, executive director of the Southern Tennis Association in Atlanta. "But it hasn't been met with any success from a coaching standpoint."

A handful of college tennis coaches, including Anne Dielen at Birmingham Southern, only award scholarships to Americans. All eight of her women's players are Americans, and five of them are from Alabama. "I kind of feel like our scholarships (worth $27,000 a year) need to go to American kids because we are American colleges and universities, and as long as there is healthy competition, that is all that we need," said Dielen, whose husband is Dutch. "We certainly don't have the opportunity to export some of our student-athletes to get free educations over there."

Not wishing to sound preachy, Dielen said it ultimately depends on the pressure on the coach to win. Birmingham Southern, an NAIA school, is about to become a full-fledged member of Division 1. I said I would check back with her in five years.

"Well then," she said with a laugh, "I might not be here."

Thursday, March 6, 2003

Barons of the Bluff

Stacking the deck: A new plan would divert still more tax money to downtown.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 6, 2003 at 4:00 AM

If a lottery, as someone said, is a tax on stupidity, then a subsidy is a tax reward for cleverness and initiative.

If the Tennessee General Assembly can work out the details, by the end of this year Memphians, stupid or otherwise, will be able to advance the college educations of children of the middle class by buying lottery tickets at convenience stores all over town. As the director of the Georgia Lottery told Tennessee lawmakers recently, the goal is pretty simple: Get people to play early and play often!

While the lottery makes headlines, another plan to game the tax system is working its way through the Center City Commission (CCC) en route to the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission. Like the lottery, this one keeps public money out of general funds and dedicates it to a specific area or group -- in this case, the CCC and downtown.

In the works for several months, the plan is called a tax increment financing or "TIF" district, encompassing much of downtown from the Wolf River to Crump Boulevard. Some 25 years ago, the CCC started giving subsidies in the form of property tax freezes to -- to date -- approximately 200 downtown projects, from apartment buildings to The Peabody. The idea was that the subsidy would help downtown get back on its feet, at which time developers and property owners would start paying taxes like everyone else.

The older tax freezes are starting to expire. But if the plan goes through, the tax payments won't go into the city or county's general fund. They'll be captured by the TIF district and stay right at home to finance projects on the CCC's $588 million, 30-year wish list, including a land bridge to Mud Island.

What could be controversial about this plan as it makes its way into the public agenda is that downtown has no monopoly on need and blight. Every dollar that goes into the land bridge is a dollar that won't be used to fill a pothole or pay a policeman in Raleigh, Frayser, Whitehaven, or Midtown.

The difference is that downtowners hold all the high cards. The Uptown redevelopment around St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), the Center City Commission, the expanded Memphis Cook Convention Center, and the FedEx Forum already get dedicated public revenue streams or tax subsidies or both. Developer Henry Turley as well as Jeff Sanford, Benny Lendermon, and Kevin Kane -- head honchos of the CCC, RDC, and CVB, respectively -- all live or work on the bluff. City councilman Rickey Peete, chairman of the CCC board, is head of the Beale Street Merchants Association. Fine fellows and independent thinkers one and all, but a stacked deck is a stacked deck.

Where does the shoe-store owner in the Mall of Memphis or Raleigh Springs Mall, which have lost their anchor tenants, go to get a tax subsidy and a TIF to fight blight?

Where in Midtown does Stewart Brothers Hardware, which is getting squeezed by Home Depot and trolley disruption, go for special treatment and dedicated taxes? Or Ken Barton's Car Care, whose insurance premiums are going through the roof because cars are being stolen right off his lot?

Where do the residents of Frayser and Whitehaven go to ensure that the Ed Rice Community Center and the Roark-Whitehaven Tennis Center are as well maintained as the riverfront and the South Bluffs for the next 30 years?

To which special agency, professionally staffed and with a board stacked with politicians and business leaders, do neighborhoods go to attract a fraction of the thousands of new expensive houses and market-rate apartments that have been built downtown in the last decade?

They go to City Hall. They don't have special agencies. They have elected representatives who are stretched thin and associations staffed by volunteers, and they compete for scarce tax dollars in the messy public process.

A big tax storm is coming. The insiders are loading up now so they can live comfortably while the cold winds blow. The outsiders get to buy fur coats, mittens, and hot chocolate for the insiders. Which are you? As they say in poker, if you look around the table and you don't know who the chump is ...

Their minds are made up. Don't confuse them with facts. David Pickler, the chairman of the Shelby County Board of Education, doesn't miss a chance to knock the Memphis City Schools, urban school systems, or school system consolidation. The Commercial Appeal turned him loose in an op-ed column last weekend. "Enrollment in the Nashville-Davidson County school system has declined from nearly 82,000 pupils at the time of consolidation to just 48,000 today -- during a period of unprecedented growth in Middle Tennessee," Pickler wrote.

No, it has not. The actual enrollment, according to the Metropolitan Nashville Public School System and the Tennessee Department of Education, is 68,277. Apparently plus-or-minus 30 percent is close enough for the county board and the CA, which did not correct the error. School system consolidation, by the way, occurred in 1964. If Nashvillians are still reeling from it, that's one heck of a hangover.

The ability of people with no first-hand experience with an urban school system to intuit the motives of thousands of people 200 miles away for 39 years is amazing.

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