Thursday, June 27, 2013

With City Pay Hike, Are We Safer Now?

Posted By on Thu, Jun 27, 2013 at 12:34 PM

Burning questions in the aftermath of the city budget meeting this week.

Is Memphis safer now? The Memphis Police Association put up billboards saying "DANGER, ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK" like the one in this picture taken on South Third Street, one of the gateways to Memphis from Mississippi. Members of the police and firefighters unions were vocal advocates at council meetings, seeking restoration of a 4.6 percent pay cut. They got it. Why do unions play hardball at crunch time? The same reason corporations play hardball on tax breaks: because it works.

Will there be another push to revise the residency policy for public employees so they can share the burden of Memphis property taxes? City policy does not require police and fire fighters to live in Memphis. Memphis and Shelby County have gone back and forth on residency requirements for public employees in the last ten years, with referendums in 2004 and 2010.

Will the public safety unions whose members benefit from taxes mount a billboard campaign urging them to live in the CITY THAT SUPPORTS PUBLIC SAFETY, which only a minority of them do?

If the school scramble doesn't do it, will even more people move out of Memphis now that the new combined city-county rate is likely to be about $7.78 once the Shelby County Commission acts?

Will karmic justice be done when the revenue-generating ticket cameras in school zones are installed and council sponsors Myron Lowery and Bill Morrison get ticketed and fined for going 20 miles an hour in a 15 mile an hour zone after school hours by a police officer making the city safer?

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Thumbs Down to Speed Cameras in School Zones

Posted By on Fri, Jun 21, 2013 at 1:11 PM

The ranters are mostly right on this one. Installing traffic cameras at school crossings, as the City Council proposes to do, is an idea driven more by money than child safety.

I don't think proponents Myron Lowery and Bill Morrison, both stand-up guys, are in the bag. But at budget crunch time council members are under a lot of stress and they go into revenue mode and some bad decisions get made. This is one of them.

The safety of children at school crossings is obviously a legitimate concern of local government. Which is why it should be handled locally and not put in the unseen hands and cameras of a vendor called American Traffic Solutions in Arizona which is a subsidary of another company called TransCore which is part of another company called Roper Industries, traded on the New York Stock Exchange (symbol ROP) for $121 a share today, twice what it sold for three years ago.

American Traffic Solutions says that “our economic engine is driven by efficient outsourced transaction processing solutions and services delivering high value recurring revenue.” That along with the fact that the council took up this topic during a budget session (read: shortfall) Tuesday tells us pretty much all we need to know about this one.

One of the services American Traffic Solutions provides is handy data-heavy, footnote-weighty, official-looking rationalizations for politicians to use to justify hiring them. This is called salesmanship, and, as I suggested, City Council members are more prone than ever to fall for it this week.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, on the other hand, is a government agency established by the Highway Safety Act of 1970 and "dedicated to achieving the highest standards of excellence in motor vehicle and highway safety. It works daily to help prevent crashes and their attendant costs, both human and financial.”

It is not a for-profit business, but it also produces a lot of studies. According to one it did a couple of years ago, 79 percent of pedestrian fatalities among children (14 and under) occurred at non-intersection locations. The number of such fatalities decreased 41 percent between 2002 and 2011.

A Department of Transportation (DOT) report on automated speed enforcement using cameras called it “a promising technique that must be used carefully in selected areas and not as a stand-alone tool” but in the context of “political realities” and in areas “with well-documented speeding and speed-related problems.” Conclusion: “Speed camera enforcement must be thoroughly justified and explained with good media, social marketing, and signage. It must be justified as a method to improve public safety, not a revenue generator.”

I smell a revenue generator. Maybe a multi-million-dollar-a-year generator if 150 cameras are installed. It's a cowardly, backdoor, cynical way to raise revenue in the name of “safety of our children.” I prefer an honest property tax increase any day to such nickel-and-dime (or dollars) schemes.

I base my opposition to this not so much on the dueling studies as on my own observations over the last 25 years of one particular school intersection at North Parkway and McLean, location of Snowden School for more than a century. I have gone through that intersection tens of thousands of times since my children attended Snowden, which is five blocks from my house.

There is an excellent traffic control system already in place. It consists of a traffic light, blinking lights warning of a school crossing, street signs warning that the speed limit is 15 miles an hour during certain hours, and — most important — human crossing guards in their yellow or orange vests carrying their signs and escorting the kids safely across the streets. Usually they're bless-their-hearts traffic ladies, but sometimes they're bolstered or replaced by parent volunteers or cops. I have seen dozens of traffic accidents at this intersection, but not a single child-crossing injury that I am aware of.

But what a revenue generator this could be. The posted speed limit on North Parkway, a divided boulevard with two lanes for cars and another for bikes on each side, is 40 miles an hour, but 50 mph is not unusual as anyone who drives on it knows. The posted 15 mile an hour limit applies for 45 minutes in the morning when school starts and in the afternoon when it lets out. Imagine the opportunities for snagging unsuspecting motorists during other times or on days when there is no school. Got an objection? Well then tell it to the judge, because “court” is where speeding-in-school-zone tickets wind up, according to the city's website.

Once again from the DOT report: “Automated speed cameras may not be as effective in changing behavior as in-person enforcement by an officer, since speed camera citations are received days or weeks after the offense while officer-issued citations provide very immediate feedback.”

The safety of children going to school is a government function if there ever was one. So is sorting out the dangerous drivers from the occasional miscreant drivers to the wrongly accused. It should be done locally, with local public servants and parents working together. If the City Council needs more revenue to do this then it should raise taxes or cut other less important services. The solution is human, not technological.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The City Budget Explained in Ten Points, Sort Of

Posted By on Wed, Jun 19, 2013 at 2:09 PM

Talk to City Council members, go to meetings, read the handouts, put a pencil to it, and here's what I think about the budget, with one more meeting scheduled for June 25th.

1. This is complicated stuff. No wonder the council met for seven hours Tuesday. And no wonder that last-minute decisions are the new normal, as they are in Congress. On the 4.6 pay increase for city employees, the council split 6-6, with one member (Lee Harris) absent. Every member is a potentially crucial seventh vote on every big issue.

2. The once-and-for-all fix is an illusion. Shea Flinn challenged his colleagues to come out for a cover-everything-with-no-layoffs tax rate of $3.91, an increase of 80 cents over the current city tax rate. "We can all go home," he said. No takers, even with the Heat and Spurs in Game Six. Several years ago, former Mayor Willie Herenton came to the council with a long-range fix that would have raised the tax rate a lot less than 80 cents. The council declined. But even if it hadn't we would probably be about where we are now.

3. Putting a pencil to the 80 cent non-starter (using the property tax calculator on the Shelby County Assessor's website), if you own a house worth $100,000 it would cost you an additional $200 a year in city property taxes. A $200,000 house would be about $400, and so on. You have to add county taxes to that. The Commission is looking at a 9 percent increase. On the $100,000 house, that's an additional $90, or $180 on a $200,000 house, and so on. Added together, the 80-center and the 9 percenter would be about $290 for the $100,000 house and $580 for the $200,000 house.

4. To put that another way, at $580 a year, we're talking low-end season tickets for the Grizzlies or a new washing machine every year. More than a dollar a day. Less than full-service cable television or most cell phone charges. Not saying that is a lot or a little. Just comparing.

5. Some will say the house valuations I used are too rich. You can find sources that put the "median" home below $100,000 depending on whether that is "value" or "sales price" during a particular time frame and this may or may not include foreclosure sales. According to a Kiplinger survey, Memphis is one of the ten least expensive places to live in the U.S. Kiplinger uses "median home value" whatever that is, and pegs it at $99,000. I don't think many if any elected officials live in houses worth less than $100,000, but I know several who live in houses worth a lot more than that.

6. On the 6-6 vote on the 4.6 percent raise, Council chairman Ed Ford voted against it, along with five white council members, as he told me he would. White councilman Bill Boyd joined five black colleagues in voting for it.

7. If property taxes are a big factor in where people live then why isn't Lakeland, which has no city property taxes yet, growing faster than Collierville, Germantown, and Arlington (where Lakeland high-schoolers go to school)? Obviously, schools and other factors come into play.

8. The biggest mistake the council can make, or one of the biggest anyway, would be cutting back on trash pickup. It's a cliche to say that legendary big city mayors and bosses like E. H. Crump and Richard Daley, whatever their faults, got the trash picked up. Cities that work pave the streets and pick up the garbage at a minimum; broken cities don't.

9. Tourism Development Zones (TDZs) like the one at the fairgrounds are toast, if not this year then next year or the year after. Bottom line: The tax money they funnel into big underused public buildings and capital improvements in places where people don't live is needed more for general operating expenses in places where people do live.

10. The Riverfront Development Corporation didn't use $317,000 in federal funds for a walkway behind the Pyramid so the feds are taking it back. The grant was issued 13 years ago. It would have built 4,350 feet of walkway from the existing walkway over the cobblestones to the bridge to Mud Island. Any marketer with a minimum of imagination could have dubbed this stretch and the adjoining Greenbelt walkway and Tom Lee Park walkway going up the hill to the lovely overlook at Martyr's Park "The Great Mississippi Bike and Pedestrian Path." It could have been open 10 or 11 years by now, hosting annual events ala Joe Royer's canoe and bike races, but for the uncertainty of Bass Pro Shops in the Pyramid and the RDC being the RDC. Instead we have, in various stages of planning and construction, a boat dock for more than $40 million, a Bass Pro superstore for about $200 million, and a Main Street to Main Street Connector for more than $30 million. Probably $300 million in all, if and when it is finished. Think of all the things that could be done for $3 million, or one percent of that. Swinging for home runs has a price.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Council Members Clash over Fullilove's Claim of Norris Meeting

Posted By on Tue, Jun 18, 2013 at 1:01 PM

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At a Budget Committee meeting Tuesday morning, Council member Janis Fullilove criticized her colleagues for "allegedly" meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris to sic the state comptroller's office on Memphis.

Fullilove did not name the colleagues at the meeting where Mayor A C Wharton and some of his directors briefed council members on the budget. When I ran into her in the City Hall parking garage 30 minutes later, she identified them as Shea Flinn, Jim Strickland, and Bill Morrison.

All three of them denied meeting with Norris.

"Bless her heart. That's 100 percent untrue," said Strickland.

"I have not met with him at all," said Morrison.

"I have not met with Norris since 2007 when I was in the Senate," said Flinn. "It shows how pathetically unprepared she is."

The full council meets Tuesday afternoon to see if members can agree on a budget for the next fiscal year. Fullilove's comment referred to a letter from State Comptroller Justin Wilson to Wharton threatening to take drastic action if the council does not act on a balanced budget.

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Friday, June 14, 2013

Council Chairman Ed Ford's Letter From Nashville

Posted By on Fri, Jun 14, 2013 at 1:36 PM

Edmund Ford Jr.
  • Edmund Ford Jr.
Facing a crucial vote on the budget, City Council Chairman talked to the Tennessee comptroller this week and asked him to give him the straight story on the city's financial health and put it in writing.

"I asked him not to sugarcoat anything," said Ford.

Comptroller Justin Wilson did as asked, writing that Memphis cannot indefinitely "kick the can down the road" or "things are only going to get worse" and if the council doesn't take charge "someone else may end up doing this." The budget due the end of this month "may well be Memphis's last clear chance to determine its own future." Translation: state takeover, like Detroit.

No sugarcoating there. That came a day later when Wilson and Mayor A C Wharton put a different spin on things. As reported Friday by The Commercial Appeal, they "emphasized they did not expect any drastic action of that sort will be required." Wilson said his office looked at several local governments, not just Memphis. Some clucking about FedEx Forum bonds, sloppy accounting, and an $11 million imbalance in a city health care fund. No big deal. Our city is strong, our future bright. Wharton plans to hire a consultant right away. Can, prepare to be kicked.

This is like being called to your boss's office expecting to be fired and getting scolded about your messy desk instead.

Anyone who believes that the root of Memphis's problem is the financing of FedEx Forum 12 years ago is crazy. It was less than two weeks ago that Wharton presented the council with extreme fixes ranging from laying off 3000 employees to raising property taxes 50 percent. Six city unions are threatening to go to court over the city's "moral obligation" to fund members' pay and benefits. Suburbs are ready to bolt from the unified school system. The tax base is declining. Memphis has the highest sales tax in the country and the highest property tax rate in the state.

Ford, a teacher at Central High School, said he has not had a day off since the school year ended for all the work on the budget. His priorities are "long-term issues" such as debt reduction, health care, and restoring funding cuts from libraries, community centers, code enforcement, parks, and road paving. Asked if he would vote to restore a 4.6 percent raise for city employees, he said "I believe we need to put our house in order first." Comptroller Wilson, he added, "did not see that as a long-term issue."

Jim Strickland, chairman of the council's Budget Committee, also detected the sharp change in tone between Wednesday's threatening letter and Friday's make-nice report. The reality, he said, "is somewhere in between."

"The refinancing that the mayor did in 2010 was a major part of the comptroller's first letter in May when he called it 'scoop-and-toss" refinancing," he said. "We have serious problems. As opposed to other cities the comptroller might be looking at, our tax is already highest in the state. If we raise taxes 50 cents we will add to our big problem of losing population and businesses."

The council could pass a budget when it meets on Tuesday, but Ford and Strickland agree that a stalemate is likely and additional sessions later this month will be needed.

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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Investing in The Bass Pro Pyramid

Posted By on Wed, Jun 5, 2013 at 2:12 PM

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Moved by mordant curiousity and a falling stock market, I called a local bond trader to see how those Bass Pro Pyramid bonds are doing now that the Bassmasters have admitted that this deal won't be done until late 2014, if ever.

Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris has changed his mind again. The new details are, why bother, check the daily and its puff piece. Something about an elevator. Or an inclinator. Or two of them. This is his baby. It will probably change a few more times. Remember the glass band all the way around when he came here for the big announcement and fish fry a couple years ago? Here's a less flattering piece from the national media.

All Memphis can do is wait and hope. And invest, if you're brave enough.

Thanks to Johnny Lessley at Duncan Williams for the bond info. You'll need a minimum of $5000 or more likely $100,000 to get in the game. These bonds are not widely traded. Mutual funds and insurance companies scooped up most of them in the initial offering. Some days they're available and some days they're not. It isn't like buying cheeseburgers at McDonald's except that a bad one can make you really sick.

There were three different bonds on this project, two of them taxable and one tax free, with different maturities as far out as 2030. A taxable 2030 will get you five percent interest if you can find one. A tax-free bond priced at $98.50 at issue, slightly below par, is $108 or $109 today. Not because Bass Pro's prospects or the future of downtown Memphis has changed, but because interest rates have fallen since 2011. The bonds are rated "A."

They're backed by Tourism Development Zone (TDZ) revenue. A TDZ is a legislative creation to build convention centers in Nashville and Memphis, since distorted for all kinds of purposes and places. The Bass Pro bonds are not revenue bonds or general obligation bonds, which would be backed by the taxing authority of the city of Memphis. The interest payments come from TDZ funds collected downtown. MLGW is a big contributor. Nothing says "tourism" like "utility company" does it?

Bass Pro doesn't start making payments until the super store opens. That will improve the debt service outlook because more state sales taxes will be rebated to the city.

Could Bass Pro Pyramid become another AutoZone Park, where the bond holders took what is called "a haircut" and didn't get the payments they expected? Possible, but those bonds were backed by luxury suite revenue projections which turned out to be way too optimistic. That said, Bass Pro was supposed to be open late this year, so we're talking about several million in lost sales taxes if this store is the retail monster it is touted to be. And Bass Pro, we have often been reminded, is just one part of the overall redevelopment of the Pinch District and Convention Center. Nothing is happening there, and nothing is likely to happen for at least another year in light of this week's announcement.

So show your love and buy yourself a bond or two. If you can put your treasure in the promises of Johnny Morris and Robert Lipscomb and the retailing future of downtown Memphis for the next 17 years you've got a stronger stomach than I do.

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Cool Cars and Hot Crowd on Beale Street

Posted By on Wed, Jun 5, 2013 at 1:15 PM

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America may not have been a better place but cars sure were a lot more interesting when they came with tail fins, 350-horsepower V-8 engines, air cleaners the size of charcoal grills, two-tone color schemes, and lots of chrome.

The best car show I've ever seen rolled through Memphis Tuesday and hundreds of cool cars were parked on Beale Street from end to end. It was Hot Rod Magazine's 2013 Power Tour, which started in Arlington, Texas enroute to Memphis, Birmingham, Chattanooga, and the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Beale Street was packed. Somebody's been doing something besides hanging out at Club 152.

A few personal favorites:

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This 1959 Imperial convertible concept car got my vote as Best of Show. It was a scaled-down two-seater version of the land yacht that came with a 350-horsepower engine, weighed nearly three tons, and sold for a then unthinkable $6,000.

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The 1959 Chevy Impala was famous for its gull wings. This model has a truck bed big enough for a piano or two.

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The 1958 Chevy station wagon is decked out with a surfboard and a toboggan on top, a Sonic drive-in tray in the window, and Route 66 interior. Chevy made five different models of station wagons that year. None of them looked like this.

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The Pontiac GTO was immortalized in a song "Little GTO" by Ronny and the Daytonas but there was nothing little about it. As a male fantasy, this muscle car was up there with Ursula Andress and Sophia Loren. Oddly enough, this orange one has no connection at all with the Tennessee Vols. The owner is from Colorado, and put a 1966 body on a 2006 chassis and changed the paint color. He said he gets asked about the Vols all the time. It drives like a dream and has never been trailered.

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The cigar. The black high tops. Perfect. Nice cars too.

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The muscles. The sleeveless t-shirt and tattoo. The inscription. The bald dome with the sunglasses on backwards. A classic of another kind.

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A car watcher climbs the wall in front of Silky Sullivan's for a better look.

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A 1956 Chevy, with polished chrome and an engine so clean you could eat off of it. I rode from Michigan to Florida in such a car, although it looked nothing like this. It was dull blue with black sidewalls and a constant smell of unfiltered Camel's coming from the front seat. Why my father did not opt for the two-tone red and white Bel Air rag top with whitewalls I will never understand.

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This replica of a 1950s gas station is outside of Cleveland, Mississippi. Any one of these cars would look good in it.

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