Thursday, May 27, 2010

Is That All There Is?

Penny-wise and pound foolish in city budget cuts.

Posted on Thu, May 27, 2010 at 4:00 AM

A C Wharton has an aggressive plan to end homelessness in 10 years. He also has an aggressive plan to end the Overton Park golf course in about 10 weeks.

The list of jobs and salaries in Memphis city government runs to 172 pages. The mayor and his division directors, we are told, have been working 24/7, going over the budget with the proverbial fine-toothed comb to find savings and efficiencies.

I believe it. Because you would have to work 24/7 with a fine-toothed comb to find cuts that are more chickenshit than a handful of positions at a couple of libraries and golf courses.

The Overton Park golf course is eye candy first and golf course second. It is the southern entrance to the signature public park in Memphis — home of the Memphis College of Art, Brooks Museum, and Memphis Zoo. Thousands of people who don't play golf drive past it on Poplar.

The nine-hole golf course at Overton and another nine-hole course at Riverside are up for closing by the City Council, at the recommendation of the mayor. The grass will have to be mowed anyway, but closing the courses will save wear-and-tear on the flagsticks and, more substantially, eliminate some really outrageous salaries.

The manager at Overton Park earns $47,432 a year plus $10,909 in benefits, according to the city salary schedule. The manager at Riverside makes the same. But the savings don't stop there. The maintenance foreman at Overton makes $35,632 plus $8,133 in benefits, while the same job at Riverside pays $42,511 and $9,777.

All together, we're talking more than $200,000 in salaries and benefits! And that's not including the free Cokes that were given away two years ago to a kid who hit a hole in one!

There's more, folks. Also on the cutting block are branch libraries at Cossitt downtown and on Highland near the University of Memphis. Those notoriously overpaid librarians are raking in anywhere from $31,536 plus $7,253 in benefits to $53,201 and $12,236 in benefits.

We could be talking — take a seat — as much as $300,000 in savings, if the city can whack three librarians at each library. Never mind that Cossitt also happens to be a de facto daytime homeless shelter. Maybe this is part of the 10-year plan.

Never fear, the proposed cuts will not impact the library's director of community outreach and special projects assistant ($92,027 and $21,166 in benefits), the communications assistant ($86,520 plus $19,899), or the manager of public services ($75,712 plus $17,413).

It took a while to dig out this information. You have to flip through page after page of thousands of jobs in the fire department, starting at $54,980 a year on up to $90,891 a year, and in the police department at $53,573 to over $100,000. The mayor proposed cutting back on overtime in the fire department but not cutting back on fire stations.

From the same playbook, Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash trimmed the budget by proposing to cut some teacher aides. But no administrators and no schools, although he acknowledged that schools will eventually have to be closed. Now, apparently, is not the time, given how efficiently the system is running. What's going on here? Not big savings and bold cuts, that's for sure. What recession? The government sector is doing just fine.

The closing of Overton Park might make sense if it is followed up, as John Malmo suggested, with turning the course into a free course and continuing basic maintenance. There may well be a golf angel out there or some senior citizens and kids willing to man the clubhouse and cart concession for $10 an hour. The biggest waste at Riverside was not operations but the new clubhouse and gates. Riverside isn't visible at all, but the investment in the clubhouse has to be protected somehow.

The library closings seem to be real-estate driven. Cossitt is on Front Street next to the University of Memphis Law School. Highland is within walking distance of the U of M and a planned new retail development on Highland. If the libraries were closed, the building sites would seem to have other prospects.

If the end game for the two golf courses is privatization or free golf, say so. If the two libraries have a higher and better use, say so. But chopping them to balance the budget makes no sense.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fore! Closed

Golf courses face cuts in a sign of things to come.

Posted By on Thu, May 20, 2010 at 4:00 AM

When it comes to closing public facilities in Memphis — and it has come to that — golf courses are relatively easy.

For degree of difficulty, shutting down public golf courses and other sports facilities like pools and tennis courts falls well below community centers, public schools, and hospitals like the Med.

So much for perspective. We will get to schools and the Med in a few weeks or months, but right now golf courses are on the City Council's chopping block. Specifically, three nine-hole courses at Overton Park, Whitehaven, and Riverside.

The courses are already closed three days a week, and advertising executive and business consultant (and golfer) John Malmo thinks they should be closed, period, along with all of the other public courses except Galloway, Fox Meadows, and Audubon. He would leave Overton Park open as a free course, mowed but stripped of everything golf-related except the flagsticks.

"They're probably paying more for the labor to collect the money than the money they are collecting," he said.

Malmo sort of has a dog in this fight. He was on the now defunct Memphis Park Commission board when it upgraded Galloway Golf Course and clubhouse, setting off an arms race on the City Council that resulted in building expensive clubhouses at Whitehaven and Riverside as well, although they get about a tenth as much play.

"Give Audubon and Fox Meadows the same treatment we gave Galloway, and, as with Galloway, they'll operate in the black," he said. He suggested adding a driving range, which is a good revenue producer, at Fox Meadows, because there is room for one.

I visited the three nine-hole courses Tuesday when they were closed. The Overton Park course was accessible because it is the southern entrance to the park that includes the zoo, Brooks Museum, and Old Forest. A solitary golfer, Jon Hornyak, was hitting balls on the eighth hole. In the morning mist, it looked like a bucolic scene from one of those golf movies that make golfers go all mushy, except that the flag sticks had been removed from the greens and the carts and clubhouse were locked.

I couldn't get into Riverside, which is off Interstate 55 south of downtown, or Whitehaven, which is on Holmes Road north of the Mississippi line, because the gates were locked. And very nice and fancy gates they are, as are the clubhouses and entranceways. A guy on a tractor was cutting the grass at Whitehaven.

I am not a golfer, but Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden is. He called Riverside a "goat farm" no self-respecting golfer would play.

"Pine Hill and Davy Crockett are better and more interesting courses than Audubon and Fox Meadows," he said. "Run properly, the city could maintain all five of its 18-hole courses."

In this budget crunch, golf courses are easy targets of opportunity. For perspective, I also visited the Ed Rice Community Center, swimming pool, and tennis courts in Frayser, which used to be one of my favorite haunts before the Don Miller Varsity Tennis pro shop closed. I was glad to see the courts in decent shape with seven good nets and fences and high school kids playing a tournament on them. The pool, which opens next week, has been upgraded with slides and other fun stuff. The Red Cross was using the gym in the community center to house flood refugees, and an outfit called First Serve was tutoring kids in a nearby classroom.

In short, it was doing all the things community centers are supposed to be doing and appeared to be doing them well for the benefit of scores, if not hundreds, of people every day. The whole complex is surrounded by a pretty walking trail that, by my lights, is the best bang for the buck in public-fitness spending.

So if you're steamed about golf courses, save it for something that matters more, like community centers and schools, or less, like Beale Street Landing. Those fights are coming.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Electioned to Death

When it comes to democracy, more is less.

Posted By on Thu, May 13, 2010 at 4:00 AM

We have too many elections in Memphis and Shelby County.

It's worse than sports. Baseball ends in November. Hockey and basketball end in summer. Football starts in spring and ends in February. Elections, like reruns of Law & Order or I Love Lucy, never end.

In last week's county primary election, 90 percent of the eligible voters, me included, didn't vote. Like those votes to unionize workers at FedEx, my "did not vote" should be taken as a "no." It was premeditated and deliberate. There were candidates that I liked and didn't like in both the Democratic and Republican parties, and I didn't feel like making a party declaration, so I rolled right past my polling place where it would have taken only a minute or so to vote on Election Day or during early voting.

It's not like there won't be more chances to vote. One of the things about having two governments, early voting, and job-jumping mayors is that there is almost always a vote or campaign of some kind going on.

There will be a county general and congressional primary election in August, highlighted by the Willie Herenton-Steve Cohen matchup, and a Memphis municipal election in November, highlighted by the metro government referendum, and possibly a runoff election in December.

There was a special Memphis mayoral election last October, and there will be a regular one in 2011, as there was in 2007. If you're marking your calendar, you might as well mark the months when there isn't an election.

To what end? Fresh faces? Give me a break. Maybe at the council and commission levels, but the headliners — A C Wharton, Steve Cohen, Willie Herenton, Joe Ford, Mark Luttrell — are political Methuselahs. Voter participation? The trend is downward, with a 10 percent turnout in primaries and 25 percent turnout in general elections standard practice, and single digits in anything else. And I would love to know how many of those are government employees.

Greater diversity? Perhaps, if you mean more women on the council and commission. But the Democratic and Republican parties are more racially polarized than ever. With a couple of exceptions, notably Cohen and Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy, Democratic candidates in Shelby County are black and Republicans are white. Go against the grain if you like, but you probably won't win. Partisan primaries only highlight this fact.

Bill Giannini, chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission and Shelby County Republican Party chairman from 2005 to 2009, said it's time to consider primary election changes.

"Ninety percent of the taxpayers in Shelby County are paying for something they don't use," he told me. "Is it wise to spend $1 million for the 10 percent of registered voters who vote?"

He would like to see 10 days of voting, period, without regard to early voting or Election Day. Roughly 40 polling sites could be staffed with 400 workers instead of the 2,000 workers required to staff 236 sites on Election Day.

Donning his Republican Party hat, Giannini conceded that diversity is a problem:

"There are more white Democrats than black Republicans, but it's something both parties need to work on. You want a ballot of candidates who represent the community, not a bunch of 50-year-old white guys. That's harder than it looks."

Van Turner Jr., an attorney with Butler Snow and chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, said low turnouts are a fact of life. He would enlarge rather than shrink the number of early-voting sites. Early voting accounts for about half the turnout. He withheld judgment on Giannini's idea until he sees if it works elsewhere.

"You probably won't have a large turnout in Shelby County until the 2012 presidential election," Turner said. "A lot of people are running who are not as well known as candidates in the past. You want new people, but the downside is voters don't know the names."

Diversity of gender, he agrees, is easier than diversity of race.

"We have had successful white Democratic candidates such as [former assessor] Rita Clark at the county level. It's more of a demographic and geographic issue. Look at our city schools. We need to address why our communities are not diverse before we address why our politics are not diverse."

We should reduce the number of elections. But we'd have to have an election to do that.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

On Ethics Codes

What's wrong with "someone will get after you" if you mess up?

Posted By on Thu, May 6, 2010 at 4:00 AM

The Metropolitan Charter Commission and Rebuild Government have come up with an ethics survey. You can fill it out at their website rebuildgovernment.org. There are nine questions, and it only takes a few minutes.

"Citizens have told us at Rebuild Government that iron-clad ethics rules are a priority for them," the website says.

There is also an article by the group's consultant, Stephen Goldsmith, that points out some of the problems with ethics rules. Goldsmith, a lawyer and the former mayor of Indianapolis, writes: "From my experience, the weakness in the ethics compliance systems in local government is not so much the actual ethics codes but the lack of concern for administration and enforcement." In other words, the codes are toothless. A review of recent examples in Memphis and Shelby County bears this out.

Recall provisions? In the real world of Memphis politics, it simply doesn't happen. Even censure, applied most recently to council member Janis Fullilove in 2008 for driving violations, is a rare step. Attempts to censure former council members Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford Sr. after they were arrested on bribery charges in 2006 failed. An effort by a Shelby County commissioner to censure some county officials failed earlier this year. Censure can be a political weapon or it can be a way to subvert a criminal investigation by imposing "punishment lite."

Ethics training? The undercover tapes in the Tennessee Waltz investigation revealed a group of political opportunists who were perfectly aware of the rules but didn't obey them. The elected or appointed official who gets in trouble typically has a resume studded with honors and is a graduate of one or more local leadership training groups.

An ethics commission? On the secret Tennessee Waltz tapes, the only thing that gives Roscoe Dixon pause is the possibility of a federal investigation. The only thing that gives John Ford pause is the possibility that he might be talking to an FBI informant. Paul Stanley was caught on tape or else he would still be a state lawmaker. Fear is the best cop.

How about an ethics commission beefed up with retired judges and retired elected officials? The presumption seems to be that there are universally revered wise men and women out there who would make good ethics cops. There are two problems with this. One, most judges and elected officials have political histories, and, two, investigations take time and manpower.

Expand the code to boards and commissions? Fine, but there are more than 75 of them. Ambitious men and women with professional skills are drawn to powerful positions and to each other. Good luck sorting out nepotism and conflicts.

Sunshine laws? Disclosure can be a powerful deterrent. Journalists like me owe a debt to the reporters, editors, and state lawmakers who enacted sunshine laws in the 1970s. The current ones are adequate but need to be updated for the Internet world and e-mail accounts.

Tougher disclosure requirements that would uncover conflicts of interest? Well, consider that when he was county mayor, A C Wharton, a highly competent attorney, appointed his old friend Roscoe Dixon, a veteran state lawmaker, as his assistant chief administrative officer. Wharton didn't know it, but Dixon was a target of the Tennessee Waltz sting and within a year he would be convicted of crimes that would send him to prison for five years. None of this would or could be disclosed on a questionnaire.

When it comes to ethics, we see what we want to see. In his article, Goldsmith notes the past "transgressions in Memphis which negatively impact the region's reputation" and applauds Wharton "for his hard work in setting a high ethical bar in an effort to regain public trust." But it's not that simple. Wharton is no stranger to ethical gray areas. He had an aide take his car through inspection. His daughter-in-law is general counsel for the Med. He hired Dixon. He ran for one public job while holding another one. One of his directors, Robert Lipscomb, has two jobs and gets two salaries.

A Memphis lawyer named Hal Gerber once said the benefit of federal prosecutors was that "People must know there is somebody there not afraid to get after their ass if they do something wrong."

Somebody will get after your ass if you do something wrong. If in doubt, don't do it. That's 17 words. For an ethics policy for local government, we could do worse.

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