Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tennessee's Tax Holiday

Shoppers get 9.25 percent off in August as voters are asked to hike rate.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 25, 2012 at 12:19 PM

Tennessee's sales tax holiday weekend is coming up August 3rd-5th, when there will be no sales tax on school-related items including clothing, supplies, and computers.

As holidays go, this one ranks somewhat below birthdays and Christmas, but anyone in the market for such items should take advantage of the deal because it's the equivalent of a "9 percent off" sale, or nearly $50 off the price of a $500 tablet computer.

The combined state and local general sales tax is 9.25 percent. Memphians will vote on November 2nd on a proposal to increase the local share of that — currently 2.25 percent — to 2.75 percent, the maximum allowed by law. Suburban voters will vote on referenda to increase their municipal taxes a like amount to fund municipal school districts.

The sales tax can be confusing. Consider:

• In addition to the Memphis and suburban ballot questions, the state legislature approved a bill this year that lowered the sales tax on food from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent, effective July 1st. The sales tax on food and food ingredients is lower than the general rate on, among other things, prepared food.

• The legislature also passed a law this year requiring out-of-state retailers to tell their Tennessee customers they have to pay a "use tax" on their Internet, mail-order, or telephone purchases unless Tennessee sales tax is added to the purchase price.

• Two weeks ago, Tennessee reported a state surplus of some $540 million due to 11 consecutive months of tax collections beating budget estimates.

The debate at the Memphis City Council last week over the tax referendum gave a hint of what sort of rhetoric and exaggeration we're in for over the next three months. Councilman Shea Flinn and Mayor A C Wharton led the fight for the referendum, while Kemp Conrad and Jim Strickland opposed it. The proposed increase would raise approximately an additional $47 million a year, according to city estimates.

Flinn said that without it the city will have to cut services or raise property taxes. The half-percent increase, he said, would more than cover a projected deficit next year due to higher debt payments and lower property valuations. Business community support will be needed for it to pass.

"It's not like we're creating the sales tax, we're taking it to the legal maximum," Flinn said.

The sales tax, he agrees, is regressive, but so are budget cuts that impact city services in low-income areas. The sales tax is paid by outsiders and tourists as well as Memphians and would benefit Tourism Development Zones downtown and elsewhere.

On $1,000 worth of purchases, a half-percent more sales tax comes to an additional $5. That's the cost of a sandwich or a couple of lottery tickets, a state enterprise that is heavily supported by sales in convenience stores in low-income neighborhoods so that middle-class kids can get college scholarships. A smart shopper could save $92 on $1,000 worth of school-related purchases on the upcoming tax-free weekend.

If the suburbs get their municipal school districts paid for with a sales tax increase, then there would be no tax advantage to either side. There is, however, a sales tax advantage in Arkansas and Mississippi for those willing to spend the time and gasoline to drive there.

"The sales tax is already a major driver of people going to Arkansas and Mississippi to shop," Conrad said. "This would only exacerbate it."

Conrad said Memphis has a spending and leadership issue, not a revenue issue.

"Without reforming city government we will bore through this $47 million or $50 million or whatever it is in a couple of years," he said. "This stuff about offsetting it by reducing property taxes is bogus. If Mayor Wharton would come down and lobby as hard for some common-sense reform, we could really turn the city around. I have never seen him work so hard as he did to maximize the most regressive tax."

Strickland also said it would be better to trim government costs.

"If we bring in $47 million, it will remove all pressure to right-size government," he said. "The progress we have been making will completely disappear."

The sales tax on food and prescriptions, he said, puts a hardship on low-income people, even if the proposed increase is only half a percent.

"If it passes, there will be 13 different opinions about how to spend the money," Strickland said. "But I don't think the public is going to vote for it."

Conrad agrees the tax hike "is going to be rejected overwhelmingly."

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Can't Stand That Statue?

As Paterno case shows, sometimes a statue is not a great idea.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 18, 2012 at 11:07 AM

Among the punishments under consideration for Pennsylvania State University in light of the Jerry Sandusky scandal is removing the statue of the late football coach Joe Paterno.

The greater and more fitting punishment would be to leave the statue alone. Let it stand as a reminder, background for thousands of news photos and television stand-ups, and campus landmark. Yes, that's beloved Joe, and Penn State fans will never forget him or the way his legend came undone. And every time someone looks at it they'll think of Jerry Sandusky. There could come a time when Paterno's fans want it removed just as much as some of his detractors do now.

There have been several calls for terminating football at Penn State. In other words, punish every player, fan, and coach who was ignorant of the scandal in addition to the university leaders who did know the score. That's too harsh. So is the reaction of ESPN's Rick Reilly, who regrets writing a flattering profile of Paterno for Sports Illustrated 25 years ago. The nine-time national sportswriter of the year has nothing to apologize for.

Tearing down statues inevitably recalls the dictator Saddam Hussein. That turned out to be a less-than-spontaneous demonstration of popular outrage. A dictator who killed his own people is not the same as a football coach who covered up child sexual abuse. Removing Paterno's statue would be the media event of the year. As far as Penn State being a starting point for reforming the power culture of college football, good luck with that.

Americans love college football, and the crowds and contracts will just keep getting bigger. The hype for the start of the Southeastern Conference season, still six weeks away, began this week with a conclave of coaches and hundreds of sportswriters hanging on their every word in Hoover, Alabama. The Alabama Crimson Tide opens the season against Michigan on September 1st in Dallas. Standing-room space is going for $149 on eBay. And Alabama coach Nick Saban already has his own statue in Tuscaloosa, along with Alabama's other national championship coaches.

In Memphis and the Mid-South, we have some controversial statues, along with some that are widely admired. Elvis next to MLGW's headquarters, Elvis and B.B. King at the Welcome Center, E.H. Crump in Overton Park, and W.C. Handy on Beale Street fall into the latter category. Oddly enough, there is no statue in Memphis of Martin Luther King Jr., although there is in other cities including Charlotte, Albany, and Omaha.

Memphis does not have statues of coaches or jocks. Considering what happened to John Calipari and Derrick Rose, that is probably just as well.

Some statues are more trouble than they're worth. Ramesses the Great ruled the Egyptian empire for 66 years more than 3,000 years ago. He had his 15 minutes of fame in Memphis in 1987 during the Wonders exhibition. After the fad was over, the original was returned to Egypt and a replica was produced for the Pyramid, which itself became obsolete a decade later. For eight years, fiberglass Ramesses stood watch in front of an empty building. In June, the blasted thing was hauled over to the University of Memphis.

The most controversial statue in Memphis is the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument on Union Avenue near downtown. In 2005, there was some pressure to remove the monument, relocate the gravesite, and rename the park, but it faded after then-Mayor Willie Herenton and others said it was not such a good idea. Forrest and his mount were unmoved.

A statue of Jefferson Davis has a prominent place in Confederate Park downtown. The president of the Confederacy lived in Memphis from 1875 to 1878 and ran an insurance agency, not the most heroic thing in the world. The statue was erected in 1964, nearly a century after the end of the war.

In Jackson, Mississippi, there is a statue of former segregationist governor and Ku Klux Klan member Theodore Bilbo. It was originally in the Capitol rotunda but was moved to a committee room used by, among others, the Legislative Black Caucus.

With the wisdom of hindsight, sometimes the best course is to not build a statue at all, even when it seems like a good idea at the time. But once the deed is done, the best course is usually to leave them alone. That's what Penn State should do, for better and for worse.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Low-Water Blues

Beale Street Landing, near completion, has already seen it all.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 11, 2012 at 1:53 PM

The grand opening for Beale Street Landing should be a doozy.

From concept to completion, the $42 million signature riverfront project at the north end of Tom Lee Park has taken more than a decade. It is scheduled for completion later this year as a boat dock, gathering place, and indoor/outdoor restaurant.

Nothing has come easily. When the Riverfront Development Corporation began pitching the project years ago in public meetings, officials cautioned that river-stage fluctuations of 50 feet or more in a year would make it a challenge.

That prediction has come true and then some. Last year: record flood. This year: near record drought. Fluctuation: 54 feet.

What's more, Beale Street Landing sits at the mouth of the downtown harbor that is used by barges and the tour boats of the Memphis Riverboat Company. The southern tip of Mud Island grows like a tumor as silt and sand build up, bringing it ever closer to Tom Lee Park. The harbor entrance must be deep enough and wide enough for boat traffic, including the American Queen steamboat.

In June, the majestic American Queen — the upstart that revived the dormant overnight river cruise business and promises to bring thousands of free-spending tourists to Memphis — was unable to dock at Beale Street Landing due to low water and docked at the north end of Mud Island instead. Last weekend, the dock itself was unhitched from the cylindrical ramp and moved a few hundred yards inside the harbor next to the cobblestones.

"One of the few remaining items from the original contract is completing the dredging underneath the docks," said RDC spokeswoman Dorchelle Spence. "With the river at this very low level, it is an ideal time to do this work."

The U.S. Corps of Engineers will not do the work.

"Our authority to dredge is based on either an established harbor or an area being part of the main navigation channel," said spokesman Jim Pogue. "That area does not qualify. It will have to be done privately."

While the dredging is being done at the bottom level of the landing, workmen are getting ready to finish the colorful topper on the grassy hill over the restaurant and visitor center. In different renderings under consideration, the multi-named elevator tower/shed/bulkhead resembles a Rubik's Cube of multi-colored aluminum panels or, in a toned-down version, a graphic design that generally matches the rusty-red ramp.

The Downtown Memphis Commission Design Review Board meets Wednesday to discuss this sign of our times. Among the interested parties will be the group Friends For Our Riverfront, which has bird-dogged the project every step of the way.

"Having to disassemble the highly touted year-round boat dock and move it over to the forlorn and neglected Cobblestone Landing must have been a bit humiliating," said Friends champion Virginia McLean.

The biggest commercial user of the landing will be the Memphis Riverboats that now operate day trips from the cobblestones.

"I don't know how this is going to affect us," said William Lozier, president of the company. "The issue has always been parking down here. There are 52 parking spaces at the landing compared to seven acres of cobblestones. Once it's dredged out, our boats might stay at the dock if we can get it all squared away. We will definitely board there. I think it will be positive for us."

Restaurant operator Bud Chittom said he has been told that the opening date is still September. Having opened some 50 restaurants in his career, Chittom is not one to get overly excited about delays or last-minute changes to design details.

Asked what he thinks of the structure atop the grassy roof, he said, "I think it's pretty cool."

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sports Perfection

Performance oddities with a Memphis angle and some lessons.

Posted By on Tue, Jul 3, 2012 at 3:13 PM

And now on this hot week of the Fourth of July, a change of pace and a few pearls from the world of sports and mathematics about perfection, motivation, and probability.

For sports fans, the subjects are tennis, baseball, pitcher Matt Cain, and a professional tennis match played at the Memphis Racquet Club in 2006 that was a sports rarity for the ages.

For the statistics minded, there are some calculations of the probability of perfect games in baseball and perfect sets in tennis by my friend Nancy Gates, a super math teacher at Memphis University School.

Last Saturday, there was a "golden set" in the women's division at Wimbledon. Yaroslava Shvedova won the first point and the next 23 points in a row against Sara Errani. According to the Women's Tennis Association, it was the first golden set in the modern era of women's professional tennis and all the more remarkable because Errani is a world top-10 player.

According to Gates, the probability of a golden set in pro tennis is such that it will happen once every 840 years if the players are evenly matched as they were last weekend and once every 60 years if one of them is ranked much higher than the other, as is often the case in the early rounds of tournaments.

The probability of a golden set in any given match is (.3)^12*(.7)^12+(.3)^12*(.7)^12=2*(.3)^12*(.7)^12=.0000000147. Got it? Me neither.

"This is interesting to try to analyze, but I guess the point is that it ain't easy," Gates told me.

One-shot wonders — a hole-in-one in golf or an 80-foot game-winner in basketball — are one thing. Sustained perfection is something else. The closest thing to a golden set in other pro sports might be a perfect game in major-league baseball. That's where Matt Cain, who played baseball at Houston High School in Germantown, comes in. Three weeks ago, Cain pitched a perfect game, striking out 14 batters and allowing only 7 balls to be hit out of the infield. It was the 22nd perfect game in the 143-year history of major-league baseball.

"A perfect game is probably easier than a golden set, because hitting a baseball is so difficult," said Peter Lebedevs, tournament director of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships at the Memphis Racquet Club (owned, incidentally, by Golden Set LLC). "A hitter with a .300 batting average is great yet he fails 70 percent of the time. Good tennis players do not fail 70 percent of the time on any day."

I only saw the highlights of Cain's gem on television, but I did witness near perfection of a different kind at FedExForum when the Grizzlies lost to the Clippers, who made a 26-1 run in the fourth quarter. Playoff game, home court, Griz got the ball after each Clippers basket — the odds of that collapse were astronomical.

An even more incredible (incredibler?) sports turnaround happened in Memphis in 2006. Lebedevs vouches for the story. Shvedova won the first 23 points against Amy Frazier and was within one point of a golden set when she double-faulted. She still won the set 6-1, but Frazier won the next two sets 6-0, 6-0.

In the space of a few minutes, Frazier regrouped and went from near infamy to perpetrator of a "double bagel." Somehow, her determination and confidence soared just as Shvedova's will and confidence collapsed. The literal tipping point? That double-fault.

I don't doubt that Nancy Gates could calculate the odds of that happening, but I don't think there is enough space in this column to print the calculations. So I'll just go with "most incredible."

Any life lessons for the rest of us? I believe so. In the corporate world, it's called discretionary effort. You wake up one day full of vim and vigor and positive thoughts, but then a colleague or your boss comes by with a downer or a whole succession of them. Or, alternately, with a compliment or a reward. Or you move from a stale job to an inspiring one. On such things are prizes won, discoveries made, bonuses earned, deadlines met, and masterpieces finished. And shelves of motivational best-sellers attest to the validity of the argument.

So I'm thinking of asking Gates to dope out the odds of the unified school board picking a superintendent this month and adopting the recommendations of the Transition Planning Commission.

On second thought, some things are probably incalculable.

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