Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Playing Small Ball

Why the annual city budget battle is always a grind game.

Posted By on Wed, May 25, 2011 at 11:01 AM

The expression "small ball" comes from baseball. It means manufacturing runs in small lots by using bunts, walks, singles, and smart base-running instead of producing them in bunches with home runs and extra-base hits.

The Memphis Redbirds, lacking sluggers, often play small ball. So do local governments when it's budget time.

Just as baseball teams always promise thrills and wins in the preseason, politicians always use the budget preseason to talk tough about big hits and bold moves. Then they play small ball.

This is what Memphis mayor A C Wharton wrote in February in his letter to a committee of business leaders called the Strategic Business Model Assessment Committee charged with repairing a broken business model:

"Changing the way we do business is not simply a good idea; it is an urgent necessity. Memphis City Government is long overdue for a reckoning — an exhaustive review of the size and purpose of city government, how it is funded, how it can be made more cost-efficient and effective, and most importantly, how we plan to grow and sustain our middle class."

The committee's charge was to "deliver recommendations that are affordable, accountable, aspirational, and attainable." (And, apparently, that start with the letter "A".)

Three months later, as we head into the late innings of budget season, a majority of Memphis City Council members oppose a property tax increase. A different majority is opposed to more than token cuts in city jobs. A standoff means more small ball. The hot topics are bike lanes, pimping the downtown parking meters to private operators, reducing hours at libraries, and cutting $1 million or so from the Division of Parks and Recreation.

A few players have swung for the fences. Councilman Shea Flinn proposed a one-time property tax assessment to make the court-ordered back payment to Memphis City Schools. Wharton endorsed it. Council members Joe Brown, Wanda Halbert, and Janice Fullilove have spoken — vaguely — about new revenue sources.

One such source that other cities, including Boston, Providence, and New Orleans, are looking at is nonprofit hospitals and universities, or "eds and meds," much coveted for their high-paying jobs. As The New York Times wrote in a recent story, "But for cities that rely heavily on property taxes, those benefits have a cost" because development moves to the suburbs and prime land stays off the tax rolls.

As the article explained, some cities are looking at higher fees for utilities and roads. Boston is seeking new or larger "voluntary" payments known as payment in lieu of taxes or PILOTs from big nonprofit institutions. Memphis uses PILOTs extensively to create jobs and promote downtown development but not this way.

Despite Wharton's call for shared sacrifice and new business models, the idea has gone nowhere in Memphis. His Strategic Business Model Assessment Committee made no mention of it. Perhaps this is because its leadership comes from the world of banking and hospitals.

Coming in at number two on the committee's list of recommendations — right behind hiring more part-time employees ineligible for benefits — was this: "The city should reexamine pay scales for city employees to bring them in line with salaries and benefits packages for comparable private sector jobs."

Hear, hear! But let's not have parity in executive jobs. Wharton makes $172,000 for running the city. Nonprofit hospital CEOs make 10 to 20 times that amount, and bankers 50 times.

The simple fact is that in a city where unemployment is about 10 percent, jobs rule. Companies that provide them can move to Memphis and demand and get tax incentives. Eds and meds that provide them are celebrated as city saviors. If FedEx were not the enlightened corporate citizen that it is, it is scary to think what concessions it could demand if it took a notion to move some of its operations or headquarters.

Cut my hours, cut my pay, cut my benefits, raise my insurance premiums, even raise my taxes if you must, but please don't cut my job. That's my future, my kids' future, my security, my dignity. That's where all of us draw the line. It's easy to talk about whacking hundreds of jobs but awfully hard to do. That goes for the public sector and the private sector.

And that's why we play small ball.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Style and Substance

How Memphis can keep its positive momentum going.

Posted By on Wed, May 18, 2011 at 11:24 AM

President Obama and 2011 graduates of Booker T. Washington High School made some eloquent remarks Monday about overcoming failure and adversity, but the pressing question is how Memphis will handle its recent success.

Memphians are enjoying the afterglow of Obama's visit and the Grizzlies' successful season. The themes of the last few weeks have been "believe" and "come together" to support the team and the BTW grads.

Will it last, or will Memphis revert to being a city divided black and white, city and county, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat?

Yes, the Grizzlies players said all the right things about the gritty city and loyal fans, but now Shane Battier and Marc Gasol are free agents, and they might not be back.

Yes, Obama was joined by Democratic congressman Steve Cohen and Republican senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander on Air Force One and at the graduation ceremony, but it's not likely that they agreed on a budget, Social Security, and Medicare while they were up in the air.

Yes, Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash was joined by Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken at the graduation ceremony, but the issue of merging the two systems is a long way from being resolved.

Yes, BTW boasts an 82 percent graduation rate, but the overall graduation rate for MCS is 70 percent and the system is losing enrollment.

Like everyone else, I hope Memphis builds on its good fortune. I want to believe. I'll start when I hear something like this:

From Shane Battier: "It's not where you play, it's where you stay. Whether I finish my career here or not, I'll be back. I've been watching the career of NBA Hall of Famer, entrepreneur, and current mayor Dave Bing in Detroit."

From Marc Gasol: "I could get a few more million a year somewhere else, but who needs another Bentley? And I want to win a championship in Memphis."

From Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander: "We've got some real lightweights in our party who have no business running for president. If it comes down to Palin against Obama, I'll bolt."

From Steve Cohen: "Senators Corker and Alexander and I have more in common than you might think."

From Kriner Cash: "For these 155 graduates, money in our budget had less to do with their success than their personal motivation. You can't graduate if you don't come to school, and that means starting on August 8th this year, not after Labor Day. A billion-dollar budget means nothing if the kids don't come."

From John Aitken: "These BTW graduates are fine young men and women who want to learn just as much as county students. There is no reason why our two systems should not go ahead and merge. And let's make it 2012 instead of 2013."

From Bill Haslam: "I plan to have my commissioner of education find out why some Memphis schools overachieve and some underachieve, and when I do I'll let everyone know. And if we find any shenanigans, watch out."

From the BTW graduates: "Thanks, Mr. President, for reminding us that we are competing with students in China and India. And for telling us to aim high. Our test scores are rising but still have a long way to go, but we'll get there."

From former BTW graduates Willie Herenton and Johnnie B. Watson: "Dr. Cash, you've got to close some schools. As former superintendents, we know how hard that is. But Memphis can't operate schools that are half empty. Call if we can help. We're on your side."

From the BTW parents: "This is how you are supposed to dress and behave at a graduation. Pretend the president is there."

From the Shelby County school board and parents: "You know, maybe we overreacted. We can live with MCS."

From the Memphis school board and parents: "No more us-and-them means just that. We're not playing the race card or using 'economically disadvantaged' as an excuse."

From private-school parents: "Maybe we should take another look at public education. It's kind of hypocritical to talk about what's best for other people's children."

From teachers completing their second year in the classroom: "Law school can wait. I plan to come back for a few more years because I'm a better teacher now than I was when I came here."

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Immersion Incursion

Burning question: Did waders flatter Diane Sawyer’s figure?

Posted By on Wed, May 11, 2011 at 10:46 AM

We are all photojournalists now. Some of us wore rubber boots and flip-flops. Some of us wore high heels and Sunday dresses and pushed baby strollers. Some of us went barefoot and waded in the river at Tom Lee Park or Mud Island.

But if you have not come down to the Mississippi River to take a picture or 20, you are either not trying very hard or, like me until last year, do not own a cellphone.

Phone camera in hand, I took lots of you-gotta-see-this pictures last week, but I don't have anyone to show them to because everyone in Memphis has their own you-gotta-see-this pictures. Outside of Memphis, people think we're all drowning or fleeing to shelters because the national media is suddenly on this story like mud on Music Fest.

How disappointing it must be to them to find FedExForum, Graceland, Beale Street, the Peabody, and most of the rest of Memphis high and dry. And blue skies on top of that. And people happy for the Grizzlies. Sometimes nothing goes right.

Inspired by the hardcore storm chasers of the Weather Channel and desperate to outdo one another in the "best dramatic production by a television anchor" category, reporters have been donning fishing waders and plunging into the Wolf River Harbor, the faux Mississippi River, up to their waists to do their live reports. On Monday evening, ABC's Diane Sawyer took the plunge and anchored ABC's World News from a variety of settings that wouldn't have looked bad on Animal Planet.

From highly placed sources at ABC News, this reporter obtained exclusive details of the intricate planning that went into Operation Immersion Incursion, also known as "Dunking Diane."

Planning for the operation began weeks ago when the Mississippi River passed 34 feet on the Memphis river gauge. Sawyer and an elite team of producers known as Flood Team Six rehearsed various scenarios at a model of the Mississippi River in a location in Missouri so secret it still cannot be disclosed. The grueling exercises involved doffing and donning waders, walking on slippery ground, and going without limousine service and room service for five days.

A stand-up report from the Mud Island bridge was considered safer but wimpy. "We've got to go in," Sawyer reportedly insisted. The waders were a producer's idea, and Sawyer was skeptical at first, wondering aloud: "Do these waders make my butt look big?" A network bigwig reportedly replied that "for what ABC is paying you, you'll put on an 'I'm With Stupid' T-shirt if I say so."

Memphis officials were not informed of the incursion into their river space. It was feared that the information would be leaked and that NBC's Brian Williams would go camo and that Fox News correspondents would go barechested.

A team of Navy SEALs disguised as sightseers patrolled the area around Sawyer, with shoot-to-kill orders for snakes and varmints. A Black Hawk helicopter was stationed in West Memphis, prepared to extract Sawyer by a rope ladder if necessary.

The planning team still worried that Sawyer might slip and fall during the broadcast. In that case, the network would have immediately cut to a Cialis commercial. A total immersion of Sawyer at the end of the report was briefly considered, but the idea was discarded because it was feared that it might offend the local Southern Baptist population.

"It was the longest 24 minutes of my life," said one person who watched with bated breath from the ABC situation room.

Sawyer also had to contend with Bob Nations, the head of emergency preparedness for Shelby County, who earlier Monday pleaded with reporters to "stay out of the water."

On the broadcast Monday evening, Nations could be seen smiling broadly and riding in a very cool amphibious vehicle with the comely Sawyer. He declined comment Tuesday.

When the broadcast went off without a slip, there were cheers and high-fives in the ABC situation room. But the celebration was tempered by the realization that waders, which are now flying off the shelves at Bass Pro Shops, won't be enough next time.

"They say this river is too thick to drink and too thin to plow," said an ABC executive. "There's some guy named Andy and a dude called the Watchdog at the Memphis stations. We're not getting beaten on this story. Get yourself a mug and some overalls, Diane."


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

High Water Everywhere

Extreme weather clobbers statistics and probabilities.

Posted By on Wed, May 4, 2011 at 11:44 AM


As bad as they are, Mississippi River floods, thankfully, are not what they used to be.

The standard for high water in Memphis is 1937, when the river reached 48.5 feet on the Memphis gauge. That flood, the subject of two books in the last 10 years, made tens of thousands of people in Memphis and Arkansas refugees.

The standard for misery and destruction, however, is the 1927 flood which was lower but broke the levee and flooded a huge part of Mississippi, as described by John Barry in his book Rising Tide and bluesman Charley Patton in "High Water Everywhere."

Memphian Frances Kauffman, 92, remembers that one. Her mother loaded her and her siblings and the maid into the family Hupmobile and drove to the Harahan Bridge, the only one over the Mississippi River in Memphis at that time.

"It had a wooden viaduct at the end going to Arkansas," she said. "We drove all the way across, and when we got over, we could not see land ahead as far as we could see. There was no dry land until you got to Forrest City. I can remember it vividly. We were looking out the windows, and that muddy water was all but on the bridge itself. So my mother had to turn around and bring us back. In downtown, the water was over the railroad tracks and all the way up to Front Street and Cotton Row."

It's unlikely that anyone will write a famous book or song about the 2011 flood even if it reaches 48 feet or even 50 feet on the gauge next week. A flood is a harsh teacher, the men and women at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are fast learners, and levees and flood walls are wonderful things.

On Tuesday, workers were stacking sandbags at the base of the flood wall behind the Pyramid, which is apparently out of harm's way. (Too bad, some of you are thinking.) The parking lots on Mud Island Greenbelt Park were closed, but most of the sidewalk was open. The residential and commercial part of Mud Island was high and dry.

Architect Tony Bologna, part of the team that developed Harbor Town, is confident it will stay that way. Mud Island was reshaped and built up 10 to 12 feet when the Hernando DeSoto Bridge was built.

"At Harbor Town, we are six to 10 feet above the 100-year flood," he said. "At 45 feet on the gauge, we are fine. At 48 feet, we would be concerned about the 12 cottages on the harbor. That is the only place we have any potential problem."

This is the new 100-year flood. The National Weather Service defines that as an event that statistically has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year.

Extreme weather has been clobbering mathematics lately. It's only been 74 years since the Great Flood of 1937. And one year ago this week, Nashville was swamped by a 500-year flood. This is one civic competition that I hope we lose.


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