Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Debate Dodge

Presidential candidates let us off easy, and we know it.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 24, 2012 at 11:07 AM

Unscathed. And pandered to. That's how I felt as one of "the American people" after watching three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate.


Nobody told me or my Baby Boomer generation cohorts to expect less in the way of Social Security benefits and Medicare no matter which candidate wins the election next month. Nobody asked us to work longer, delay our eligibility, or pay more taxes to compensate for our expected longer life span and the shortfall in funding.

Nobody asked American high school and college graduates to do a mandatory two years of national service in either the military or a civilian program, even though applications for the Peace Corps and Teach For America are up, due to a combination of idealism and pragmatism, when the jobs picture is bleak.

Nobody said clearly and unequivocally that in order to bring spending in line with revenues "the American people," all of them, will have to expect less from government.

Instead, they blamed the rich 1 percent or the doctors or the insurance companies or loopholes or inefficiency or the takers or the lack of competition and then cynically suggested that the problem can be cured without general sacrifice by the American people. All of us.

Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney told us what we know — that the choice is reduced services and benefits or higher taxes. Or probably both. In a close race, they fear that they might lose "the undecideds" by telling it straight.

We heard all those personal anecdotes about running into an ordinary, hard-working American in a factory, in a small town cafe, or on a college campus. But we did not hear a single one about a Baby Boomer who has had it pretty good and has an eye on a place in Florida or the Ozarks but is going to have to wait one more year for retirement benefits, pay more for them, and maybe get by with less.

Nobody wants a political leader who's a scold, but is it so hard to say what most of us know full well already — that we have been spoiled by big houses, big cars, cheap gas, easy mortgages, credit cards, must-have gadgets, and budgets built on debt that someone is going to have to pay?

Politicians assume we want easy answers. Sacrifice is a loser. All those carefully crafted questions from the debate moderators and the undecided voters in the audience and not one candidate who said, "American people, hear this. Expect less or pay more. As you probably already know, the gravy train has come to the end of the line."

In Memphis and Shelby County, expansion of pre-kindergarten classes might not happen with a half-cent sales tax increase, but it certainly won't happen without it. And pre-K won't be "universal" without a firm commitment from the school board and supporters willing to pay for it if the half-cent sales tax increase falls short or gets spent somewhere else.

Closing 21 schools, as the Transition Planning Commission recommended, might not balance the unified school system's budget, but there is no way the budget can be balanced without closing schools.

Want suburban school districts? Prepare to pay for them with property tax increases as well as a sales tax increase.

Want more charter schools? One school's gain is another's loss, so face the consequences of reduced enrollment in already half-empty traditional schools and don't expect "community centers" to magically fill them at no cost.

In our daily lives, we know that goods and services cost more and that free is not really free. That holiday package with "free shipping" is going to cost more. That daily newspaper delivered to your home won't be around much longer, unless more readers pay $156 a year instead of poaching it off the internet. The no-money-down sofa comes with an installment plan. That free cell phone or tablet comes with a service plan and a contract.

So here's to politicians and leaders who tell us there are no easy answers but only hard choices, that the other side is right about some things, that all must sacrifice something, and that anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Chasing the Scofflaws

Blighted property and unpaid parking tickets vex city council.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 17, 2012 at 8:44 PM

Sometimes the Memphis City Council deals with big stuff like budgets and signature developments, and sometimes it deals with little stuff that adds up to big stuff.

In the second category you can put fines and fees and, especially, the people who incur them and do not pay them. In a word, scofflaws.

Two types of scofflaws have earned special attention from the council this month. One is the owners of blighted property and the other is people who don't pay parking tickets. It's not exactly the crime of the century, and lives are rarely at stake, but problem properties and problem parkers take up a lot of city manpower. Add that to the lost revenue from uncollected fines and you're talking millions of dollars.

As always, someone thinks they have a better idea, and the council is all ears — as you might want to be too if you live near a blighted property (who doesn't?) or have an unpaid $20 ticket (ditto).

The blight problem is estimated by city officials to include at least 63,000 vacant and abandoned properties plus a "shadow inventory" of problem properties that banks have not yet forced into foreclosure. What to do? Well, now the city can notify the owner that, say, the yard is ridiculously overgrown and there have been complaints. If there is no response, the city can cut the yard and send the owner the bill or place a lien on the property. It should be noted that overgrown lots are the least of the problems faced by some crime-ridden neighborhoods, but this will serve as an example.

The catch is that irresponsible people are by definition not responsible and unlikely to respond to neighborly complaints, official notices, or fines. The city of Memphis wants to put on the books a property registration requirement.

"We can't find anyone responsible, and we're overworking the departments involved," said attorney Julian Bolton, who is working with the city. "We need a clean database."

The cost for responsible homeowners would be as little as $5, he said, while scofflaws would be subject to a $200 fine. Memphis, at least in theory, could make some money, put the screws to out-of-town owners, and reduce blight as Bolton said other cities have done by starting a registry.

Or not. Joseph Kirkland, an attorney representing several lenders, told the council the Shelby County Assessor already keeps a database of 240,753 parcels. A new registry would duplicate it, and owners could demand jury trials over the fines, which would be "a nightmare." Or, as Councilman Jim Strickland suggested, "Bad property owners are not going to register. They'll ignore it."

The discussion ended with a showing of a Channel 3 News clip of a roach-infested apartment building in Hickory Hill and a tenant complaining that the owner is not responsive. The proposed new property registry will be discussed by all parties for another month.

The parking-ticket issue brought to the council's table two opposing parties. Charles Fineberg, president of Mid South Subpoena Service, wants to take over collections of unpaid fines he estimated at over $3 million a year. City Court clerk Tom Long wants to keep the present system and says the uncollected fines are closer to $1 million.

"We're spending money on enforcement and not getting the revenue," said Councilman Kemp Conrad.

Consumer alert! The fine for a parking ticket is $20. It escalates to $40, then to $80, if unpaid. But, as canny drivers and media watchdogs know, it goes away after one year. Still, Long says, roughly 80 percent of fines are collected. His policy is to fish where the big ones are — the big ones being people with more than $500 in unpaid tickets. Those scofflaws face "booting" by the dreaded wheel-locking boot (rarely used, Long admits) or towing, which means $200 in additional charges and $30-a-day storage. Long said police towed more than 900 cars in the first six months of 2012, which serves as a deterrent to would-be scofflaws.

"Because we're towing, they're paying," said Long, who says his office collects $2.5 million a year on parking tickets. "If I had two years instead of one to collect fines, it would be a lot more."

The council decided to take Fineberg's proposal under consideration.

Consider yourself warned.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Slow Growth or Decline?

From FedEx to the airport to school systems, big changes are coming.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 10, 2012 at 2:03 PM

Memphis is facing the greatest challenge to its growth and prosperity since the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent description of it by Time magazine as "a Southern backwater" and "decaying river town."

Memphis rose to the challenge and can do it again. This time, though, there are big changes in five of the key drivers of our growth in the last 40 years. We'll know better where we stand by the end of this year, and we'll know some key things by the end of this month and even this week.

FedEx: On Tuesday and Wednesday, FedEx CEO and founder Fred Smith and other top executives will give a detailed description, via webcast, of their plans for reshaping the company. This is unprecedented. Buyouts and possibly layoffs in Memphis are expected. FedEx, which began operations in 1973 and became a public company in 1978, employs some 30,000 people in the Memphis area. Its FedEx Express World Headquarters on Hacks Cross and the FedEx World Tech Center in Collierville were huge construction jobs, employment magnets, and growth engines from 1998 to 2005, especially for the suburbs.

Whatever FedEx does will have a big ripple effect on Memphis as a distribution center and on Memphis International Airport, one of the busiest cargo airports in the world.

The airport: It's so uncrowded that, strange as it sounds, it's scary. There's been an exterior building boom, with a new tower and parking garage, that masks the often empty concourses and shops, the short lines, and the dwindling list of daily arrivals and departures in the terminal, due mainly to cutbacks since 2010 by Delta Air Lines. Airport expansion in the 1980s and 1990s by Northwest Airlines, including international service to Amsterdam, gave the Memphis economy a boost and big-city pride. But the Northwest hub doesn't figure much in Delta's plans, and flights have been cut nearly in half.

The disappearing banks: Less than 15 years ago, Memphis was home to three regional banks — Union Planters, First Tennessee, and National Bank of Commerce — as well as homegrown Morgan Keegan. Not even Nashville could say that. Now Morgan Keegan is a piece of Raymond James, and the Union Planters and National Bank of Commerce brands are gone. There is, literally, no sign of them on the downtown skyline. Only First Tennessee, now First Horizon, still calls Memphis its headquarters, and its stock price and employee count took a big hit in the recession.

The housing bust: Home builder Jerry Gillis of Faxon-Gillis said there were more than 9,000 starts in the five-county Greater Memphis area in 2005, way over the 40-year average of 4,000-5,000 starts a year. Easy mortgage money to overextended buyers fueled the boom and ripple effect to appliances, furnishings, road building, and expanded public services. Some of it was growth, but some of it was flight. Memphis annexations of Cordova and Hickory Hill disguised what would otherwise have been a significant loss of population in the 2000 and 2010 Census. The completion of the Southwind annexation in 2013 could be the end of an era.

"The number of starts fell off 80 percent in 2008," Gillis said. "It happened all over the country, not just in Memphis. Because of low interest rates, the number of permits is going to grow, but I don't know if we will get back to 4,000-5,000 units in five years."

The changing school system: Within a week or two, U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays will rule on the legality of the proposed municipal suburban school systems. Face it, if municipal school systems aren't coming next year, they're coming soon enough. Meanwhile, charter schools will chip away at enrollment in the Unified School System. Will "multiple paths to achievement" be more than gobbledygook or will the muni systems spiral toward taking care of their own while the Unified School System becomes the former Memphis City Schools, with a final and fatal round of flight?

Cause for hope: Nobody is cooler under fire or more visionary than Fred Smith, who has said he won't retire for a few more years. Memphis has a stellar group of innovative and generous philanthropists. Electrolux and Mitsubishi will bring new jobs that should eventually drive the housing market. Southwest Airlines and Bass Pro are (probably) coming to Memphis. So are hundreds more new teachers with Teach For America. Downtown developer Henry Turley says apartment rents are rising.

We're buying growth. There will be bills to pay. But that's better than being a Southern backwater and decaying river town.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

London's Memphis Music Geek

A visit with Neil Scott of No-Hit Records.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 3, 2012 at 1:37 PM

LONDON — So I went looking for Elvis in London and instead found England's biggest fan of Memphis roots music, Amy LaVere, Jim Dickinson, and Sun Records.

"I am a music geek," said Neil Scott, who works at No-Hit Records in Camden Town, a short bus ride from central London and as packed on a Sunday afternoon as Beale Street is during Music Fest.

Scott joined an Elvis fan club when he was 8 years old, came to Memphis for the first time when he was 10, and has been back several times since then. He plays the upright bass and splits his time between Memphis and Nashville when he travels. His bible is Shangri-La Records and its guide to low-life Memphis called "Kreature Komforts."

No-Hit was founded in 1987, and the name is a reference to the owner's preferences for old-school 33 rpm vinyl albums and 45 rpm records kept in boxes stashed all over the store. Scott, 45, has worked there for 17 years, starting with compilations of various artists then digging deeper and deeper.

"Most of the stuff we've got is pretty obscure," he said.

That's an understatement.

Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis sell their share of albums and their pictures adorn the walls, but the store's biggest seller is a rockabilly guitar player named Charlie Feathers, a contemporary of Elvis who recorded at Sun Studio with Sam Phillips and died in 1998.

 "I saw him twice when he came to London," Scott said. "Both shows were sold out. He never had a hit record, but he's still a household name here and has a lot of young fans."

In 2004, the Flyer's music editor, Chris Herrington, did a guide to the 50 best albums in the history of Memphis music, which I brought along as a souvenir swapper.

Scott knew them all, from Herrington's number-one pick, Al Green ("too smooth and too soul for us"), to Jerry Lee Lewis ("still reissued, and came to London three years ago") to Rufus Thomas ("his early blues sells well") to Carl Perkins ("god-like") to Jim Dickinson ("he had just passed away when I came to Memphis") to Sam Phillips ("Peter Guralnick's documentary on him is amazing") to Herrington's number 50, Mud Boy and the Neutrons.

He's also a big fan of Amy LaVere, the bass player for the Wandering, and Big Star, whose boxed set is one of No-Hit's bestsellers.

No-Hit does half of its sales through the store and half via the website or on eBay. For some reason, Johnny Burnett is enjoying a revival this year, along with Johnny Cash, who is outselling Elvis.

"Elvis is still popular, but most people have got all of his music by now," Scott said.

Talking about rock and rockabilly made Scott as wistful as Americans get when they see travelogues of Europe.

"I've got to get back to Memphis," he said. "I love it more every time I go."

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