Wednesday, July 3, 2013

TV Minus Zombies, ESPN, and Food Channel

Posted By on Wed, Jul 3, 2013 at 1:38 PM

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Six months ago I switched to basic cable, the cheapskate option in my AT&T U-verse package. I did it to save a little money, gain a little quality time, and make a symbolic protest against AT&T and ESPN, which I blame for jacking up my monthly bill to $174 and ruining civilization as we know it.

Resolutions are easy in January. Most of the football bowl games I wanted to watch were on broadcast stations ABC, NBC, CBS or FOX. There were Christmas gift DVDs to enjoy instead. Then it got harder. ESPN has fought back against people like me by capturing exclusive rights to more and more events. Here is my report.

Total Savings: The difference between my old 280-channel package and my new 15-channel package is $40 a month, or $240 for six months. The savings should be more than that, but AT&T charges cheapskates and Luddites $15 a month for equipment that is "free" with other packages. Offsetting expenses: Netflix subscription for $7.99 a month, $4 beers at sports bars.

Most Grief Taken: My wife loves the AMC zombie show "The Walking Dead." She reminds me about once a week. Offsetting factor: The Brad Pitt movie helped, but the zombie appetite is not easily sated. If I break it will be due to zombies.

Second biggest loss: Who knew the Grizzlies would go so far in the Playoffs, and that several of the games would only be on ESPN? Or that Michigan would beat Kansas in a thrilling game on TBS? Offsetting factor: Mooching off neighbors.

Third biggest loss: Watching people cook on "Chopped." Offsetting factor: Actually cooking.

Other regrets: French Open and Wimbledon early rounds. Offsetting factor: ABC highlights and replays, if you don't mind knowing Federer and Nadal lost.

Worthwhile discoveries on basic cable stations: None. The major networks are a wasteland and appear to have given up on everything except reality shows and copycat crime shows. Offsetting factor: Black Hawks and Bruins in NHL Playoffs and WKNO documentary on Henry Ford.

Best rented movies I would not have seen otherwise: "Sherlock Holmes" and "In Bruges".

Worst rented movie I would not have seen otherwise: "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close".

Long books I probably wouldn't have read otherwise: "Blue Latitudes" by Tony Horwitz and "11/22/63" by Stephen King.

Smug moment: Pointing out newspaper stories about Evil ESPN and viewers cutting cable and asking people "Does Paula Deen have a show?"

Sick moment: ESPN ends sharing agreements with broadcast stations for major events. AT&T comes up with more fees.

Guilty pleasure: Surfing 200 stations while on vacation and watching Paula Deen and Matt Lauer on "Today" on NBC.

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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

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  • 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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Friday, May 31, 2013

Mayors Wharton and Landrieu and the 66 Percent Doctrine

Posted By on Fri, May 31, 2013 at 1:50 PM

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  • Mitch Landrieu
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu came to Memphis and The Peabody Thursday and had the audience in the palm of his hand. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton came to the Memphis City Council Thursday and had them at his throat.

Landrieu was guest of honor at an event called "A Summons to Memphis" sponsored by our sister publication Memphis magazine. He said lots of nice things about Memphis and suggested that mayors and cities try to do things that two-thirds or 66 percent of "the people" will support, writing off the other 33 percent as hardcore opposed.
He contrasted the idea of trying to achieve a majority of "50 percent plus one" ("which doesn't work because somebody can flip that one") with "governing on the 66 percent model," in that "Something that works for almost everybody is always better than something that works for half the people, plus one."

Coincidentally, Landrieu, who comes from a political family, was elected in 2010 with 67 percent of the vote.

Wharton was guest of honor at an event that could have been called "A Summons to The Reckoning" with a mostly cranky Budget Committee of the City Council. Coincidentally, Wharton was elected in 2011 with 65 percent of the vote. Close enough to make him, like Landrieu, a certified 66-percenter.

But if you want to be hailed as a great guy mayor with a bright future, it is not a bad idea to travel to another city where you can smile, compliment, tell jokes, and speak in platitudes. I have no doubt A C Wharton would get a standing ovation as luncheon speaker next week anywhere in New Orleans.

The 66-percent doctrine is brilliant in its simplicity. And if it is not taken too literally, it makes some sense, particularly when a city is on its heels from a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina or reveling in euphoria over the success of its favorite professional sports team as New Orleans was with the Saints in 2010.

But it breaks down when you apply it to specific ideas and things and have to put a price on them, as Wharton did Thursday when he floated a 50-percent property tax increase and 3,250 city employee layoffs as the extremes of the spend-cut continuum.

Continue reading »

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Super Tuesday Coming Up on City Budget

Posted By on Thu, May 30, 2013 at 7:29 PM

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Stock up on the energy drinks. The upcoming City Council session on the budget next week looks like a marathon, with scary numbers like a 50 percent increase in property taxes and/or 3,250 layoffs of city employees being tossed out.

The City Council's Budget Committee met with Mayor A C Wharton Thursday in a dress rehearsal for Super Tuesday. Wharton and CAO George Little presented four for-illustration-purposes-only scenarios ranging from a property tax rate of the current $3.11 per $100 of assessed value with 3,250 layoffs to a scare-the-pants-off-you $4.83 with no layoffs and hefty payments for future debt service and pension obligations. In between were the mayor's favored $3.36 rate with no layoffs and $3.11 with 1,420 layoffs.

The final rate is likely to be something north of $3.36 and south of $4 when the council gets through hacking away at it. The council and administration have been engaging in a dance of "who will make the tough cuts." Councilman Kemp Conrad, a budget hawk from way back who has said for years that the council and administration are "kicking the can down the road" to ruin, called the $4.83 rate — which he does not support — an "honest budget" because it owns up to long-term obligations as well as wish-list budgets from various city divisions. From the administration side, Little presented, in the finest of fine print, a list of 21 possible cuts and savings.

"This is the package," he said when pressed by members about whether the administration is willing to take ownership of them.

The items in the package include such goodies as elimination of medical benefits for the dependents of retirees, a defined contribution retirement plan instead of a defined benefit plan for city employees, reductions in paid leave, elimination of the proposed 4.6 pay increase for city employees, and a freeze on cost-of-living adjustments in employee benefits.

Cutting 3,250 jobs would eliminate nearly half of the city's workforce, impose extreme cuts in every type of city services,, restore the 4.6 percent pay cut for employees who don't lose their jobs, and cut the property tax rate from Wharton's recommended $3.36 to $3.11. At least some of the increase is due to a decline in the aggregate property valuation in Memphis. When that goes down, the tax rate has to go up to compensate.

Boosting the property tax rate to $4.83 (on top of the Shelby County rate of a proposed $4.32) would give Memphis a sky-high combined rate that would make the most dedicated Memphians think seriously about leaving town. The "upside" would be no layoffs of employees, no cuts in services, restoration of the 4.6 percent pay cut, and payment of about $170 million to future debt service and reserves, pensions, and post-employment benefits.

The bargaining begins , or ends, Tuesday. The state comptroller has served notice that Memphis may not balance its budget via smoke and mirrors, also known as pushing around debt.

"I don't think we will have a budget on Tuesday," said Councilman Shea Flinn.

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Monday, May 27, 2013

Will Rhodes Students Take to Bikes?

Posted By on Mon, May 27, 2013 at 1:24 PM

(Tyler Springs is a 2013 graduate of Rhodes College with a degree in English. He wrote this post on the Tennessee Bicycle Summit at Rhodes last week.)

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Fifty percent of all bicycle trips made in the United States are under three miles in length. As someone who often called on an old Diamondback Recoil to get me the two blocks between my front door and an 8 a.m. geology class at Rhodes College, I can count myself as an active member of the “under-three” club. More to the point, the local membership in that club has the chance to get considerably bigger, and soon.

With the second annual Tennessee Bike Summit being held this past week at Rhodes, it is clear that bikes matter in the Bluff City, and that is becoming more and more true for the school and its surrounding population in particular. Anthony Siracusa, a 2009 graduate who started Revolutions Community Bike Shop and earned a prestigious Watson Fellowship to study bike cultures around the world, is happy to see the cause advancing around his alma mater’s Midtown campus.

“The McLean Avenue bike lane will take you from this area all the way to Cooper-Young, a primary entertainment district, and [within a year] the North Parkway bike lanes will be able to take you from the college all the way downtown,” he said. “I think [Rhodes] should take very seriously the investment that the city is making, and also make a subsequent investment here on campus, both in terms of [bike] education, and pushing students to get out and use that new infrastructure.”

Though he has commuted to Rhodes by bike for years (first as a student, now as an administrator), Siracusa believes that the framework for a widespread proliferation of pedal-power is just now being realized.

“They’re going to build a connector trail from the main circuit of Rhodes and Overton Park to East Parkway that will carry riders across East Parkway with timed signal into the new protected bike lanes on Broad Ave and to then, the Shelby Farms Greenline,” he said. “That should be boasted about to incoming students as a major asset. You literally walk out your front door, have access to one of the oldest growth forests in an urban area in the country, and then you access the only two way cycle track in the country to a seven-mile Shelby Farms Greenline that leads you to the largest urban park in America. That’s pretty sweet.”

An obstacle to a more bike-friendly mindset, however, might be the notion that people at a residential college contained on barely one hundred acres don’t need anything more than their feet to get around. With 70% of students currently living on the Rhodes campus—where most academic buildings are just a five-minute walk from residence halls—some would probably say that bikes actually aren’t needed in greater numbers. For a kid with daily access to the campus rec center and a weekly meal-plan that can cover all meals, the incentive to buy (and maintain) a bicycle might seem limited. Still, Siracusa says that more bikes could simplify some prominent campus issues.

“You can solve a number of problems [by encouraging biking], one of the big ones being having too many cars here on campus,” Siracusa said, referring to the parking lots that are becoming increasingly crowded as the school grows its student body from 1,800 to more than 2,000. “But you’ve got to have a commitment from the college to getting folks out on bikes and safely using that infrastructure.”

At the moment, Rhodes does operate a bike maintenance and rental shop on campus for Rhodes students and faculty, but it may take some time yet for the college to embrace a role as a biking base for Midtown. But, the wheels are turning.

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

"Taps" For a Memphian Awarded the Medal of Honor

Posted By on Sun, May 26, 2013 at 12:12 AM

Now there are ten of them.

Vernon McGarity, a Memphian who was one of the last living Medal of Honor recipients from World War II for his heroic actions during the Battle of the Bulge, died last week. He was 91 years old.

"Extraordinary bravery", "extreme devotion to duty", "intrepid leader of men", and "gallant soldier" are some of the phrases in Mr. McGarity's citation.

Funeral services were held Saturday, two days before Memorial Day. At the time of his death, Mr. McGarity was one of 80 living recipients of the Medal of Honor, the U.S. military's highest decoration for valor. There are now only ten living Medal of Honor recipients from World War II.

"He never asked to be a hero but he handled it well," said the brief obituary notice. Mr. McGarity was eulogized by his son, Ray McGarity, as a humble man who never tried to capitalize on his honors although he knew Tennessee politicians from Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb to Governor Ned McWherter.

Mr. McGarity was born near Savannah, Tennessee and joined the Army on his 21st birthday. He shipped overseas in 1944 and in December of that year he and his squad of ten men were ordered to "hold out at all costs" against the German counter-offensive. They continued to do that for two days, as Mr. McGarity rescued comrades, routed German machine-gun nests, destroyed tanks, and risked his life to gather a hidden stash of ammunition. They fought, literally, to the last bullet before Mr. McGarity was captured. He spent six months in a prisoner-of-war camp before being liberated.

Mr. McGarity served in the Tennessee National Guard for 28 years and worked with veterans for many years in Memphis and Jackson, Tennesse. The Harrison McGarity Bridge over the Tennessee River in Savannah is named for him.

Ray McGarity is well known to Memphis tennis players as "Big Ray," a gentle giant who was an excellent player, teacher, and undoubtedly the biggest and strongest man ever to play the game at such a high level in his tournament days. He could probably drive a ball right through you, cartoon-like, were it not for his sportsmanship and soft-spoken disposition.

"Daddy was quiet and strong," he said in his eulogy. "A father's love never dies, nor does a family and son's love for him."

President Truman and Vernon McGarity
  • President Truman and Vernon McGarity
Mr. McGarity received his Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman on October 15, 1945.

"I'd rather have that blue ribbon with the Medal of Honor on it than be President of the United States," Truman told him.

Here is the citation from the Medal of Honor Society's website:

He was painfully wounded in an artillery barrage that preceded the powerful counteroffensive launched by the Germans near Krinkelt, Belgium, on the morning of 16 December 1944. He made his way to an aid station, received treatment, and then refused to be evacuated, choosing to return to his hard-pressed men instead.

The fury of the enemy's great Western Front offensive swirled about the position held by T/Sgt. McGarity's small force, but so tenaciously did these men fight on orders to stand firm at all costs that they could not be dislodged despite murderous enemy fire and the breakdown of their communications. During the day the heroic squad leader rescued one of his friends who had been wounded in a forward position, and throughout the night he exhorted his comrades to repulse the enemy's attempts at infiltration.

When morning came and the Germans attacked with tanks and infantry, he braved heavy fire to run to an advantageous position where he immobilized the enemy's lead tank with a round from a rocket launcher. Fire from his squad drove the attacking infantrymen back, and three supporting tanks withdrew. He rescued, under heavy fire, another wounded American, and then directed devastating fire on a light cannon which had been brought up by the hostile troops to clear resistance from the area. When ammunition began to run low, T/Sgt. McGarity, remembering an old ammunition hole about 100 yards distant in the general direction of the enemy, braved a concentration of hostile fire to replenish his unit's supply.

By circuitous route the enemy managed to emplace a machinegun to the rear and flank of the squad's position, cutting off the only escape route. Unhesitatingly, the gallant soldier took it upon himself to destroy this menace single-handedly. He left cover, and while under steady fire from the enemy, killed or wounded all the hostile gunners with deadly accurate rifle fire and prevented all attempts to reman the gun. Only when the squad's last round had been fired was the enemy able to advance and capture the intrepid leader and his men.

The extraordinary bravery and extreme devotion to duty of T/Sgt. McGarity supported a remarkable delaying action which provided the time necessary for assembling reserves and forming a line against which the German striking power was shattered.

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Friday, May 24, 2013

Judge Potter and a Man Called Hoss Apologize

Posted By on Fri, May 24, 2013 at 1:36 PM

Larry Potter
  • Larry Potter
Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter apologized to a man for calling him "hoss" Thursday during a hearing.

The man, Danny Carter, also apologized to Potter for the exchange earlier in the day. Carter was in court over allegations regarding his property when Potter addressed him casually as "hoss" and Carter objected. He was threatened with jail and ordered to sit down and his case was pushed to the end of the daily docket.

Court employees said the apologies came later in the day. One observer described it as "friendly" and said both men "sort of were hat-in-hand."

Club 152 on Beale is Open Again

Posted By on Fri, May 24, 2013 at 1:20 PM

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Let the upscale freakism resume.

Club 152 on Beale Street reopened Friday at noon (technically 1 p.m. because the order came just after noon) after a settlement was reached in Environmental Court. Third time was the charm, as the case had been reset twice this week while Judge Larry Potter met with attorneys. The club was closed a week ago as a public nuisance due to drug sales.

"This resolution must be abided by," said Potter. "Deviation from this will incur the wrath of the court."

Ted Hansom, representing Club 152, and Katie Ratton from the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office, both said it was their common interest to try to get drugs off of Beale Street.

"The club has taken steps in assuring the prevention and abatement of any nuisance activity that was alleged to have existed at Club 152. Managers of Club 152 drug tested each and every potential employee of the club and are complying with the current mandatory background check requirement," says the order. "Respondents have been very cooperative and efficient in complying."

The club acknowledged the allegations and will submit to court supervision and monitoring for one year. They will fire all employees involved in illegal activity and ban them from the premises. Hansom said 106 employees had been tested. He said at least two and possibly more employees face criminal charges.

Club 152, which markets its upper floors as "upscale freakism," will pay $4,000 to the West Tennessee Judicial Drug Task Force. Most important to the club owners, however, is that the club will reopen for what is expected to be one of the biggest weekends of the year.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Is It OK for a Judge to Call Someone "Hoss" in Court?

Posted By on Thu, May 23, 2013 at 7:42 PM

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There was a weird incident in Environmental Court Thursday. I haven't seen anything like it in my career.

I was covering the "public nuisance" hearing for Club 152 on Beale Street, which was postponed until Friday. Meanwhile, Judge Larry Potter called a couple of other cases.

Some quick background. My use of the word "cases" may be a little misleading. If you appear in Potter's court you are accused of creating some sort of public nuisance from blight to noise to running a rowdy nightclub. Most people are there because of their property, and they represent themselves before the judge and a public prosecutor.

A man named Danny Carter was called. He was a short, bearded, stocky guy in bermuda shorts and a shirt who looked like he didn't take any crap. He was there about his allegedly blighted property. He objected to Potter's description of the property and offered the comment that he was tired of taking pictures of nearby properties that looked worse. He said he did not have the money to fix his property up. That's when things got strange.

Potter, in the midst of some fairly unsympathetic comments, called Carter "hoss." Seconds later, Carter firmly but respectfully took exception to being called "horse" which is not the same as "hoss" but maybe close enough. He told Potter that he "disrespected me." Potter paused for several seconds, apparently deciding how to respond. Then he proceeded to lecture Carter about disrespecting the court, and called him "hoss" again. Carter did not give any ground and spoke up again, drawing a warning from Potter that "there is a place for you." A marshal cautioned Carter to keep his mouth shut. Suddenly three of us reporters in the front row were taking notes. Back to his seat in the courtroom he went. I do not know how his case came out but I would be surprised if it went well for Carter.

Now a little context: In the previous case, Potter was nice as pie, complimenting a man on cleaning up his property in exemplary fashion. So impressed was the judge that he asked the man to offer lessons to the court in a future appearance. And in the case that followed Carter, Potter was back to old school and called the man in front of him "sir." Potter has a good reputation and by his account often works until 6 p.m. But in hundreds of trials and court appearances I have covered, I have never heard a person in the dock addressed as anything but sir, ma'am, Miss, Mrs., or Mr., and that goes for rogues in prison clothes and bluebloods.

I thought an apology to Carter was in order, along the lines of, "sorry about that, won't happen again, now about your case." "Hoss" is sort of like Bub, My Man, Bro, or Fella. It is not insulting or racial but it struck me as overly familiar and distracting. Carter's response, for all I know, could have been influenced by free-wheeling television courtroom shows like Judge Judy or Judge Joe Brown. Or a bad experience with a horse. Whatever, a reminder from the judge that decorum is the order of the day would have been proper.

A judge is a god. Gods must be treated carefully. They're entitled to be human and have bad days. But the rest of us have rights too, and one guy chose to exercise them in his own way. I hope I would have as much sand in the same circumstances and would like to hear what courtroom regulars, witnesses, jurors, judges, lawyers, and defendants think. And my house and yard are squeaky clean, by the way.

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