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.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Owed to West Memphis

The view from the other side of the future cross-river bike trail.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 at 2:09 PM

Nobody ever calls it our sister city, but the town on the other side of the river is a vital link in the "Main Street to Main Street" project connecting Memphis and West Memphis by a bicycle and pedestrian pathway on the Harahan Bridge.

The "Main Street" over there is actually Broadway Avenue, home (still) of Pancho's Mexican restaurant and (half a century ago) a dancing and watering hole called the Plantation Inn in better days. Younger Memphians know it as the hometown of former Tiger basketball star Keith Lee, the West Memphis Three, and a shootout that took the lives of two police officers in 2010. Not exactly fodder for historical markers and destination tourism.

The eastern end of Broadway, where the bike path will connect, is forlorn these days. You can walk or bike across the river now on a narrow sidewalk next to the Interstate 55 bridge just south of the Harahan, but it's a pretty long haul on a hot day and not recommended or promoted by anyone on either side.

And when you get there, what then? There are no bike shops in West Memphis, unless you count Wal-Mart, and no trendy cafes, unless you count McDonald's. There is, however, a car racetrack (Riverside Speedway) and a dog track (Southland Park). The plan is to connect the bike trail to the levee and go south to Horseshoe Lake, about a 25-minute ride from downtown Memphis. That would bypass downtown West Memphis and require the cooperation of the Levee Board. Arkansas state senator Keith Ingram, who was mayor of West Memphis from 1987-1995, is optimistic.

"We don't have to look very far back to see the importance of the levee," said Ingram, recalling the historic flood of 2011. "Because of the levee, we have not been able to use our river view as Memphis has. But hopefully, we can work with the Levee Board on this."

Lost in the local news last week was the fact that West Memphis, with the help of Ingram and U.S. senator Mark Pryor, got a second federal grant for $10.9 million to run a rail line to its port. The total take for West Memphis last week from the two federal grants: $26 million.

"It's been a great week to be in Shelby County and Crittenden County," said Ingram, who also worked with Memphis businessman and bicycle bridge backer Charlie McVean to get the cooperation of the Union Pacific Railroad to use the Harahan.

Trains will continue to cross the river on the Harahan, making the bike/pedestrian trail more exciting and adventurous than the pedestrian bridges in Nashville and Chattanooga.

"It will be a must-see, must-do, at least one-time attraction for everyone who lives in this area," predicted Abbott Widdecombe, owner of Tom Sawyer's R.V. Park on the river in West Memphis.

In Memphis, the project is being hyped for its benefits to South Main Street as well as bicycle tourism. Street improvements will be made along the trolley line, in front of the Chisca Hotel which is slated for renovation, and south of the train station where there will be a connection to the bridge.

If you had told me 10 or 20 years ago that Memphis would reinvent itself as a bicycle town I'd have thought you were touched. But last year Outside magazine put Chattanooga — a city once scorned as "America's dirtiest city" just as Memphis was dubbed "a Southern backwater — on its cover and called the river city "best town ever" because of its rock-climbing, hang-gliding, rafting, and bike riding. Never underestimate the power of social media, extreme sports, and creative marketing to attract the coveted creative class. And in The Wall Street Journal this week, an article by Thomas Campanella on New Yorker Robert Moses makes the case that the famous city planner was "a keen advocate of bicycling and built New York City's first true bicycle infrastructure" in the 1930s, including 50 miles of paved paths exclusively for bike riders.

It helped, the author says, that the Depression created a bike sales boom because people could no longer afford cars.

In our day and our town, the driving force is green. Green as in big money from the government and philanthropists and green as in environmentally friendly. It's too early to declare a bicycle boom, but in a couple of years you'll be able to walk and bike to West Memphis — and to the sights and sounds of Broadway.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Not All In This Together

The schools merger plan runs into reality this week.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 20, 2012 at 1:41 PM

One of the explanations journalists fall back on when we are criticized for being too negative is this: Our job is to write about the world the way it is, not the way it ought to be.

I thought of that last week when the Transition Planning Commission unveiled its plan to unify the Memphis and Shelby County school systems in 2013. Heavy on the way the world ought to be, light on the way it is. Trouble's coming.

For starters, one of the TPC's guiding principles is "We are all in this together." That is not so in any meaningful sense when it comes to school choice. Shelby County residents all pay county taxes, but we send our children, dollars, and teachers to private schools, Memphis schools, suburban schools that may soon become municipal schools, optional schools, and charter schools.

The future Shelby County school system will resemble the current Memphis City Schools (84 percent economically disadvantaged compared to 38 percent in Shelby County schools) unless it has schools that families that are not disadvantaged will support with their children, not their words.

The one sense in which we really are all in this together is our declining tax base, which is predicted to be down 10 to 20 percent or more in the upcoming reappraisal. Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, a TPC member, was adamant that his colleagues should not expect any increase in county funding for schools. Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald, also a TPC member, expects a decline of 8 to 10 percent in his suburb. Memphis can also expect a decline.

Whether it's Bartlett, Midtown, Germantown, or Mud Island, the name of the game is creating value in communities where people want to live. That means coming to grips with sensitive parts of the report that have to do with optional schools, college-prep schools, neighborhood schools, underutilized schools, and teacher recruitment.

Memphis needs neighborhood schools such as Peabody and Idlewild elementary schools in Midtown. It needs all-optional schools like John P. Freeman elementary school in Whitehaven, instead of optional schools within schools. Memphis surrendered its place on the most recent lists of the best high schools in America to Collierville and Houston high schools in Shelby County and all-optional high schools in Nashville, even though White Station High School had 18 National Merit semifinalists this year. Everyone knows about the White Station magnet effect. Its alumni include U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays, Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi Thomas, and the children of TPC chairman Barbara Prescott, and my own children.

But the TPC report doesn't address it head on. It recommends that the lineup for optional school spaces be replaced with a lottery. It notes that in 2011, only 10 percent of students in Memphis and Shelby County met the ACT's college readiness benchmark but says the ultimate goal of a merged system is that every student graduates ready for success in college and career. There is nothing about vocational schools. That is not real.

The report recommends that teacher compensation "be redesigned to better attract and retain effective teachers." But compensation for starting teachers in Memphis is pretty good. Teachers bail out of teaching for lots of other reasons. I recently had dinner with some 170 members of the entering teacher corps of Teach For America. The organization has done a fine job of keeping 60 percent of its members in Memphis after they fulfill their two-year commitment. But only a small minority of them work more than three years as classroom teachers in traditional Memphis schools, as opposed to working in charter schools or with some education-related organization.

This is not the way the world ought to be; it is the way it is.

The merged system faces a starting deficit of $160 million. To close it, the plan recommends that the school board "vigorously pursue" additional funds and close 21 schools by August 2013. Luttrell said county government won't help much. And MCS superintendent Kriner Cash has countered that only 12 schools should be closed over several years. It is time for school board members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart, who recommended the surrender of the MCS charter and loss of city funding, to step up on school closings.

The school board met Tuesday night to talk about superintendent contracts. The merger is 14 months away, so the TPC recommends naming a superintendent to lead the merger effort by the end of September. They may not be everyone's favorites, but in reality that means Cash or Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Going to Extremes

Fearful and frustrated, school boards and politicians get creative.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 13, 2012 at 1:38 PM

We will have suburban votes this summer on municipal school systems. We might have a Memphis vote this fall on a sales tax increase. And we should have a countywide debate like the one in New York City over jumbo soft drinks and obesity.

We are fed up with the intractable problems of failing schools, falling property values, and fat kids and parents, so we are going to extremes that were once considered unthinkable. "Do something!" is the new imperative, because what we've been doing isn't working.

First, the latest on the schools.

A thunderstorm Monday afternoon knocked the power out in parts of Midtown, including several buildings on Union Avenue. At the Teaching and Learning Academy on Union, the lights stayed on, but there was a power failure of a different kind.

The unified school board met to take up a single item: the contract of Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash. But after going into closed session, the board promptly adjourned and rescheduled the discussion for next week, adding the contract of Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken into the mix.

Aitken was there. Cash was not. He sent word, via his attorney via the MCS communications office, that he would not attend. No word on whether he will come to the festivities on June 19th.

So the unified school board met under a big-screen video display of four smiling children and a reminder that it's all about "the children." Except, for now at least, it's all about the adults, specifically Cash and Aitken and the board members, who, while still operating separately, extended the contracts in anticipation of the 2013 merger.

Chairman Billy Orgel, a newcomer to the school board, got schooled by MCS holdover Martavius Jones. Orgel, whose comment that he had just been out of the country for 12 days won him no slack, tried to use the chairman's power to force Cash's hand. There was a "heated" discussion last December. But Jones, the leading voice for charter surrender, got wind of it and won both a one-week delay and inclusion of Aitken's contract in the next meeting.

The unified board deserves some patience. Some of them are relatively new to the job and to each other. A 23-member board is also new. There is a big difference between school reform in theory and in practice. In a few weeks, the unified board will get its first look at the Transition Planning Commission's merger plan with all of its recommended contracts, cuts, and closings that will result in winners and losers. Dealing with the superintendents will be good practice.

Give the board members this: They showed up Monday for the meeting. Without their personal lawyers. Ready to work. More than some people can say.

You can see the same sense of desperation in the Memphis City Council's willingness to consider increasing the once-taboo local property tax by half a cent. Councilman Shea Flinn says it's either that or raise property taxes or cut core services.

Flinn was met with predictable objections that sales taxes unfairly impact poor people. He conceded that the tax is regressive. He should have added that so is the Tennessee Lottery. A lottery is a sucker's game, blessed by state government, and some of the biggest ticket sellers are convenience stores and gas stations in poor neighborhoods. You don't hear many objections to that.

Finally, what this town needs is more controversy. What if superfit Mayor A C Wharton followed the lead of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in the fight against fat and diabetes by proposing to ban supersized sodas and sugary drinks? Here's The New York Times on the ineffectiveness of health fairs and such noncontroversial measures:

"But if anything, this battery of efforts points to how intractable the obesity problem has become. The number of overweight and obese continues to grow faster in the Bronx than anywhere else in the city."

Health fairs and bike lanes and skate parks are preaching to the choir. As he knew he would, Bloomberg got everyone's attention. Memphis City Schools got on the right track when it hired "Cafeteria Man" Tony Geraci as health-minded director of food services. Take the bull by the horns here in one of the fattest cities in America. People will understand. Or not.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Easiest Tax

Increasing the sales tax may be an idea whose time has come.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 6, 2012 at 8:58 AM

Tennessee has the highest sales tax in the country.

The sales tax is widely regarded as regressive, because it hits poor people disproportionately.

Yet Memphis and its suburbs are all seriously considering increasing the local-option part of the sales tax from 2.25 percent to 2.75 percent, bringing the total tax to 9.75 percent.

It is a measure of either hard times or hard hearts that a subject once considered taboo is now in fashion.

What gives?

For starters, some of the stigma has been removed, because everyone's doing it or at least talking about it. The state legislature provided the half-cent cushion, and so many cities in Tennessee have already maxed out their local-option sales tax on top of the 7 percent state sales tax that the statewide average combined tax is 9.43 percent.

In Memphis, with an average household income of $36,437 compared to the Tennessee average of $43,314, the sales tax increase is supported by Councilman Shea Flinn and Mayor A C Wharton. The proposal came up Tuesday in the council's executive session.

"We have three options," Flinn said. "Increase the sales tax, increase the property tax, or cut services."

Six suburbs in Shelby County are considering a sales tax increase of one-half percent to fund municipal school systems if voters approve them. Southern Education Strategies, the consulting firm advising the suburbs, says "a one-half cent local-option sales tax rate increase could reduce or eliminate the need" for any increase in property taxes.

In Memphis, a half-cent increase would raise an estimated $47 million and go a long way toward closing the city's budget deficit. Some council members want to offset it with a property tax cut. If the sales tax increase gets out of city council, it would have to be approved by a simple majority of voters in a referendum in November.

"This has nothing to do with this year's budget," Flinn said. "This is about planning for the future."

Wharton said the sales tax increase is a reasonable alternative to a property tax increase. "I support it wholeheartedly," he said.

One council member who supports the increase admitted to me that it is "chicken," because it puts the responsibility on the voters to make the call. Flinn and Wharton said a referendum is the only option that gives the public a direct voice.

There are several reasons why a sales tax increase in Memphis would have a chance, especially with Wharton supporting it.

The other options are just as unattractive. Memphis has the highest property taxes in Tennessee, with a rate of $3.19, which is more than twice as high as Bartlett, Collierville, or Germantown.

Higher "sin taxes" on cigarettes and alcohol don't raise as much revenue, and states set them, not local governments. The hotel-motel tax increase is opposed by the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. A "soda tax" on sugary drinks is surefire debate fodder, but no one in local government has proposed it.

Tennessee does not tax wages and is one of only a handful of states that can say that. But a Memphis payroll tax is not going to happen, in the opinion of Flinn and other council members.

The sales tax is sometimes called the most transparent tax, although untaxed online purchases have clouded the picture. It is paid a little bit at a time. Consumers have some control over how much sales tax they pay.

One half of one cent doesn't seem like much. On a $1,000 purchase, the difference between 9.25 percent and 9.75 percent is $5. On a $100 grocery bill, the difference is 50 cents. On a $10 meal, it's a nickel.

The argument will be made that "everyone" pays the sales tax, including visitors. If the suburbs take the plunge, Memphis would just be leveling the playing field. Yes, Mississippi and DeSoto County could brag about lower sales taxes, but Mississippi has a state income tax.

People in the South take the sales tax for granted. To find a state without any sales tax, you have to travel to Alaska, Montana, Oregon, New Hampshire, or Delaware.

For all of these reasons, the admittedly regressive sales tax hike has a real chance this year.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Summer School

Game on: a guide to what's coming up on schools.

Posted By on Wed, May 30, 2012 at 2:47 PM

School's out for summer, but the future-of-our-school-systems story is just getting warmed up and there will be no vacation for school board members, Transition Planning Commission members, and suburban elected officials and voters.

Here are some key dates to watch and some analysis of what will be known and unknown after each date.

On Tuesday, May 29th (after the deadline for this column), the elected boards in Germantown, Collierville, Arlington, Bartlett, Lakeland, and Millington will decide whether to hold referendums on August 2nd to establish and fund municipal school systems.

What will be known: whether there are any dissenters to what seems to be overwhelming support for "munis." If the boards approve, organized campaigns will begin to take shape. The specific language of the referendum will be drafted. And news media can stop talking about referendums as a hypothetical, as we have done for more than a year.

What won't be known: whether the funding, expected to be a 15-cent increase in property taxes and a half-cent increase in local sales tax, will be enough to fund the municipal system that may or may not have to pay a considerable sum for existing buildings.

On June 11th, the 23-member unified Shelby County school board meets in a specially called meeting to consider the employment contract of Memphis superintendent Kriner Cash and, possibly, Shelby County superintendent John Aitken. Billy Orgel, chairman of the unified board, called for the meeting last week. It immediately met with an objection from board member Martavius Jones, who said it was premature, but as of now the meeting is on.

What will be known: Cash has a contract until August 1, 2013. He opposed the merger and has applied for at least one other superintendent's job. The board could ask him to publicly state his intentions, invite him to apply for the job as leader of the unified system in 2013, tell him he has no chance, or invite him to leave early with a buyout.

What won't be known: who will lead the unified system as superintendent in 2013. Aitken is under contract until February 2015, but the current Shelby County system excludes 103,000 students in Memphis. The unified board could invite candidates other than Aitken and Cash to apply for what is sure to be one of the most unusual and scrutinized education jobs in the country.

By mid-June, the 21-member Transition Planning Commission (TPC) aims to have its full set of recommendations on a merger plan. The commission, which includes Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald, and some members of the unified school board, has been meeting for eight months.

What will be known: which suburbs are going to hold referendums in August, and after that it gets tricky. The TPC is planning for a unified system of up to 150,000 students while knowing full well that the suburbs may not become part of it.

What won't be known: whether the suburbs will break away, and whether the unified school board will accept the TPC recommendations, which are just that, on such controversial issues as closing schools and outsourcing. The TPC says the plan will "evolve" over the summer.

On August 2nd, there will be elections in Shelby County. Suburban voters will decide whether to establish separate school systems. And there will be a countywide election for seven spots on the unified school board. In September, the seven winners will replace seven people appointed as interim members by the Shelby County Commission. Some of the winners could be people already serving on the unified board. Calling this confusing would be an understatement.

What will be known: the willingness of suburban residents to tax themselves an unknown amount for a separate school system. This is the big one. If all six suburbs or even if only three of them go muni, it will be a devastating blow to the unified system.

Also known will be the names of the seven members of the unified school board that will govern a system that may or may not include suburbs. As of September 1, 2013, the terms of the 16 board members who formerly served on the Shelby County and Memphis school boards will expire. The seven members elected in August will constitute the Shelby County Board of Education and govern the combined school system. After September 1, 2013, the Shelby County Commission can expand and redistrict the school board so that it will consist of not more than 13 members.

Hey, no one said summer school was going to be easy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Price of Free Music

A smash at the Levitt Shell, not so much at Mud Island.

Posted By on Wed, May 23, 2012 at 1:14 PM

At a time when everything from Facebook to Delta airfares is monetized to the max, one of the nicest stories to come out of Memphis is the popular free concert series at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park.

Last Saturday night, the grassy embankment in front of the Shell was packed with 4,800 people for a season-opening concert by the Wandering featuring acoustic music and singing with a regional flair by Luther Dickinson, Shannon McNally, Amy LaVere, Valerie June, and Sharde Thomas. It was especially nice to see LaVere, who has occasionally made ends meet by working part-time as a receptionist for the Flyer's parent company, Contemporary Media.

While I was praising the Wandering at work on Monday morning, two of my colleagues were raving about another concert the same night by Wilco at the Mud Island Amphitheater. But, they said, that venue was only a little more than half full. Granted that the barbecue contest was also going on downtown, the musical offerings were somewhat similar except that one was free and the other was $42 a ticket, plus service charges.

Was there any connection between the size of the two crowds? (Disclosure: The concept of "free" is something of an obsession to those of us in journalism.)

One person who thinks so is Bruce Newman, a Memphis attorney specializing in clients in the music and entertainment business. Newman, who moved to Memphis from New York in 1989, is also a songwriter, guitar player, humor blogger (, and host of "Folksong Fiesta" on WEVL Memphis 89.9 FM.

Newman is a big fan of the Levitt Shell and its 50 free concerts each year, which are supported by major grants from the Mortimer Levitt Foundation, the Plough Foundation, and the Assisi Foundation of Memphis. But he is wary of the power of "free" in music, books, and intellectual property.

"The Internet has given us the mindset that everything should be free or discounted," he said. "Free downloading of music in the early days gave people the expectation that they should not have to pay. There are more opportunities to have intellectual property heard or seen, but in essence, everybody is making less money."

Newman and his partner, tax expert Peter DeCoster, have worked with most all of the local nonprofits, artists, record companies, and producers, so he has a pretty good sense of the economics of the market.

"If Wilco, a national act, is doing half the amphitheater at Mud Island, I can't imagine the band is going to want to come back or that the promoter will want it to come back," he said. "That's why a lot of acts don't pass through here, because it's not profitable."

Simply put, free concerts impact the local concert scene and venues that have a cover charge.

"People should pay for live entertainment," Newman said. "If you want quality, you've got to pay for it. When you have too many free venues, it certainly will reduce the revenues at some of the struggling venues. That may be just healthy economics. But if you kill off venues, you have less opportunity for acts to come through. That's why some good musicians have left Memphis."

Anne Pitts, executive director of the Levitt Shell, said it's a rare occasion when the Shell hurts another venue, because the acts are family oriented and usually end by 9 p.m. "so you can still go out on the town."

It costs about $8,000 to put on each concert, including production, hospitality, and performance fees. Donations collected at the concerts go toward expenses.

"We negotiate," she said. "Every artist is different. Performers get a guarantee based on what we feel the crowd and donations will be. We have a long wish list and a long waiting list."

She said the Wandering drew the largest crowd in the history of the concert series. The show ended at 10 p.m. but was not as loud as the Stooges Brass Band on Thursday night, which shut down at 9 p.m.

"It was a mellow crowd, and we didn't have any problems," Pitts said. "There was some hesitation on the part of neighbors in the beginning years, but people have seen the benefits now."

If you want to support Memphis music, keep those donations — and cover charges — coming.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Who Gets the Organs?

A territorial dispute erupts over transplants and donors.

Posted By on Wed, May 16, 2012 at 11:25 AM

Face it, Memphis doesn't get statewide bragging rights that often — FedEx, the river, Elvis, St. Jude, the Grizzlies, a few others. So when I heard in 2009 that Apple founder Steve Jobs came to Methodist University Hospital for a life-saving liver transplant, I thought it was pretty cool.

It was an example of the positive effect that universities and hospitals — eds and meds — have on a community. And it was a good story, with a rich celebrity, a dynamic company (Apple's stock market value increased $300 billion between the surgery and Jobs' death last year), a skillful surgeon, a mystery about Jobs' whereabouts, and an underlying ethical question about who gets a liver when there is a waiting list for donors.

I could imagine John Grisham writing about it in a novel called The Transplant or a movie with Ryan Gosling as Jobs. But that didn't happen. Instead, the back story is about turf wars, and the scriptwriters are federal bureaucrats. Methodist University Hospital is at odds with Vanderbilt, and, in an odd twist, a Memphis nonprofit that procures organs for transplants is criticizing Methodist University, while a similar nonprofit in Nashville is sympathetic. In condensed form, here's the deal:

In 2008, a contractor that runs the federal organ procurement and transplant network revisited the 20-year-old organ-sharing agreement, resulting in a change in the area from which organs are drawn for local transplants. It doesn't take effect until the end of this year, which is an indication of the sensitivity and complexity of this issue. Presently, Memphis is part of a donor area that includes all of Tennessee. The change, upheld by the Department of Health and Human Services, puts Memphis in a Mid-South region that includes West Tennessee, plus part of Arkansas and Mississippi.

"There are basically two major transplant programs in Tennessee, one in Memphis and one in Nashville," said James Eason, medical director of the Methodist University Transplant Institute and the surgeon who performed the liver transplant on Steve Jobs. "Starting in 2008, Vanderbilt did not agree to the sharing agreement. Under the new plan, we will only have access to our area and Nashville has access to their area, which has 75 percent of the donors. At the end of the year, we will be looking at a 75 percent reduction in transplant access.

"A liver in Jackson, Tennessee, can go to the least sick person in Nashville while our sickest person with a few days to live on life support won't be able to access that. This also affects kidneys. We have the largest African-American population in the state, and 80 percent of our kidney recipients are African-American."

Failing to get HHS to reconsider, Methodist University went to Plan B, which was to recommend a merger of donor nonprofit organizations in Memphis and Nashville. No sale.

"The statement that more patients will die, we just don't believe to be true," said Kim Van Frank, executive director of the Mid-South Transplant Foundation in Memphis, which has a $11.7 million budget and recovers some 220 organs a year. "The current system gives Methodist an advantage, and their patients don't have to wait as long, which is why individuals outside the Mid-South are coming here. They are cutting in line, make no mistake."

Nashville-based Tennessee Donor Services, with a $41.7 million budget, is pro-merger.

"We would not object at all," said executive director Jill Grandas. "Many states already have organ procurement organizations that cover the entire state."

To an outsider, this is where the story gets baffling. Both organizations are well funded. Public documents show that Van Frank made $169,000 in 2010 and Grandas $264,000. Can't nonprofits with a similar mission merge? No. Martin Croce is director of the Elvis Presley Trauma Center at the Med. He used to be chairman of the board at Mid-South Transplant Foundation.

"I made it clear I thought the best thing for our organization was to merge," he said. "I wanted everyone on the board to know my position, and, after that, I was not reelected or reappointed to the board. Mid-South Transplant is a well-performing organization, but they just don't have the numbers."

The decision to change Tennessee's transplant territory predates it, but the Jobs transplant has had a lingering impact. Van Frank said "it brought forth a lot of those myths we try to dispel." Eason said Jobs and Methodist went strictly by the rules.

They agree that any publicity that encourages more donors is good. If you are so inclined, consult the nonprofits for the how-tos.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

True Grit: Detroit

Memphis and Motown have much in common, for better and worse.

Posted By on Wed, May 9, 2012 at 12:02 PM

"You're the only person I know who takes a weekend vacation to Detroit," a friend said to me last week before I boarded a Delta jet for an 80-minute, hub-to-hub flight to Motown for $420.

Detroit and Memphis have a lot in common — populations around 700,000, white flight, urban blight, the music of Motown and Stax, the riots of the late 1960s, recent federal investigations of corruption, popular mayors trying to clean up the mess, and a belief in the magical power of the words "grit" and "aerotropolis." Detroit's loss of population and auto industry jobs has been Tennessee's gain, even though Memphis missed the party. If you Google "Detroit and Memphis and worst cities," you get 278,000 results.

Detroit is a historical novel that I've been reading for 50 years. I'm from Michigan and hadn't seen Detroit in decades, even though I still follow the pro teams, writers like Mitch Albom and Elmore Leonard, and The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. The hook was a new exhibit called "Driving America" at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn and a Ford Rouge Factory Tour. The package price was $24. Getting around downtown Detroit on foot isn't that hard and it's cheap. The Tigers were in town. All that and Coney Island hot dogs with chili made from cow hearts. Such a deal.

Besides, reality tours are growing in popularity. People pay good money to take a boat from Fisherman's Wharf to Alcatraz. There are slum-dog tours in India and guided tours of the state prison in Jackson, Michigan. The media bombard us with the word "reality." In Memphis, Jimmy Ogle has found a niche as a tour guide taking people to the Harahan Bridge, underground bayous, and downtown alleys.

"When I did the walk across the bridge, 146 people showed up," Ogle said. "And I had 85 people for my alley tour that twists and turns 17 blocks and lasted three hours. It's not the most scenic view, but you get the real history and fabric of the city."

Exactly. In Detroit, I walked from a friend's office in a specialty food warehouse in the Eastern Market to Zeff's Coney Island Hot Dogs, then hoofed it a couple of miles past vacant lots and abandoned high-rise housing projects to the Music Hall, Comerica Park (home of the Tigers), and Ford Field (home of the Lions). A sign between them marked a long-gone black neighborhood called Paradise Valley. The African-American population of Detroit increased from 5,000 in 1910 to 300,000 in 1950, thanks to the Great Migration and war production, swelling the population of Detroit to 1.8 million. Mississippi and Memphis sent their share.

General Motors now occupies the towering glass-enclosed Renaissance Center on the river that Henry Ford II envisioned in the 1970s as the savior for downtown after the 1967 riot. It was doomed by cars, crime, and suburban flight. The fourth generation of the Ford family has taken up the torch. "Driving America" and the tour of "the Rouge" blew me away. Democracy's arsenal during World War II is an industrial complex that stretches as far as the eye can see from the third-floor observation room. The tours do not airbrush the facts. The Edsel and the Corvair get equal space with the Mustang and Kemmons Wilson's early Holiday Inn. There's documentary footage of labor leader Walter Reuther getting beaten up by Ford's thugs in 1937 and of Detroit's failure to meet the Japanese challenge that would eventually put Nissan's North American headquarters and an assembly plant in Middle Tennessee.

My companion worked in the car factories in Dearborn and Willow Run after college in 1972 and 1973. He joined the United Auto Workers and worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day, for seven straight weeks one summer. His earnings paid for his first year of law school, just as Michigan's middle-class prosperity made it possible for me to go to college for $500 a year in tuition. The men and women putting together the F-150 trucks in the final assembly plant glanced up at us now and then through the glass ceiling, as robotic arms lifted cabs on to chassis. Everyone ought to see this and punch a time clock some time in their life.

Skylines look best across a body of water such as the Mississippi River or the surprisingly clear Detroit River, which is connected to Lake Huron. Up close, the abandoned buildings stand out like bad teeth. Reality tours. That's the ticket.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Time Is Ripe

We may not get it, but a unified school system needs our best shot.

Posted By on Wed, May 2, 2012 at 10:56 AM

This is national signing week, in a way that has nothing to do with the vertical jump, bench press, or 40-yard dash. This is the week when high school seniors send in their enrollment deposits for college. At $400 or so a pop, it's a pretty big bet that is forfeited when academic stars decide on, say, Vanderbilt instead of Rhodes, Ole Miss, or SMU after getting accepted by all of them.

For some reason, it is acceptable to talk about desirable "top schools" and less desirable "lower-ranked schools" when the subject is colleges, but we get squeamish when the subject is public elementary and high schools. The politically correct thing to say is that all schools in Memphis and Shelby County should strive for excellence, or something like that.

We're not going to get to a unified school system that way. And a system that does not include the suburbs is not a unified system. We might not get there no way no how, but since we've gone to so much trouble already, we ought to give it our best shot.

It is not pandering or groveling to the suburbs to make practical compromises on attendance zones and personnel. It is not a desire for segregation or apartheid that is driving the 'burbs. Legal segregation and apartheid were enforced by courts, cops, and White Citizen's Councils. Bartlett High School is 46 percent minority, Germantown High School is 56 percent minority, Houston High School is 32 percent minority, and Collierville High School is 20 percent minority. There are only 33,000 white students in the current Memphis and Shelby County systems combined. It is not pre-Civil Rights Act 1964 or pre-busing 1972.

Louis Padgett, principal at Northaven Elementary and member of the transition team, made a good suggestion a few months ago. Members should "really go at each other really hard" and "take on our biases."

What is driving the push for municipal school systems more than race is the desire to protect the status of the top public schools and the property values of the neighborhoods around them. That is what motivated me to choose the top Memphis optional schools when I had school-age children in Memphis. I want those schools to survive. I want people who can afford to send their children to the top public and private schools to choose to live in Memphis.

I want the empty and foreclosed houses on my street to have people in them who pay their taxes, keep up their property, and compliment my wife on her garden. Darn right I want suburbanites in the same boat. Because I'm afraid that with four or five small boats and one big boat, the big boat will sink. If you're not rich and you have school-age children, why buy 2,500 square feet of Memphis property taxes if you won't send them to public school?

Here's the problem for the Transition Planning Commission. It can only make recommendations. And if the suburbs form their own school systems, their report will be moot. So it should compromise to try to save the union.

Here's the problem for the unified school board. It has a responsibility to the future but also to the present. It's the board of education, not the board of civic betterment. The main obligation of the Memphis members on it is to the people who come, not the ones who don't come.

The task force recommends closing 21 unnamed schools. That's a lot relative to the three closed this year and the four closed in 2005 but not so many relative to the 90 underutilized schools in all. The school board must not only name them but also pull the trigger before the 2013 school year to save $20 million a year. Easy to say, huh?

And here's the problem for U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays, if I can be so presumptuous. In his 146-page ruling last year, Mays had a whole section on "ripeness." A case is ripe for a judge in "a dispute that is likely to come to pass." Ripeness would not happen until "an attempt was made to create a municipal school district or special school district. Nothing in the record suggests that such an attempt has been made or will be made in the future."

Look again.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Not an Easy River

Past troubles aside, investment on the river is at flood stage.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 26, 2012 at 1:21 AM

Memphis loves its river. Or does it?

Just as the level of the Mississippi River on the Memphis gauge rises and falls from the near record 48 feet in 2011 to -10.7 feet in 1988, so do investment and interest in tourism and recreation along the river. This year, we're well above flood stage and approaching a record.

At the $42 million Beale Street Landing, the American Queen, which is being christened Friday, is bringing back overnight steamboat trips. A new restaurant at the landing will offer the river views that have been missing since the Pier and Landry's closed. Memphis in May is bringing the barbecue contest back to the river after the 2011 flood forced it to relocate to Tiger Lane at the fairgrounds. In June, Joe Royer is bringing back the Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak Race after a two-year absence. Bass Pro Shops is turning the Pyramid into a retail store and indoor swamp. And the Harahan Bridge Project will create a bike trail across the river.

Taken all together, the public and private investment in riverfront projects coming on line this year and next is well over $250 million.

But the excitement is tempered by experience — the delays and cost overruns at Beale Street Landing, the slow pace and high cost in public incentives of Bass Pro, the uncertain funding for the Harahan Project, and the barren landscape of Tom Lee Park after Memphis in May.

The Front Street public promenade, a gift to the city from its founders, is still dominated by parking garages. Mud Island River Park, which came out of hibernation this month, is 30 years old and nearly deserted on weekdays. The cobblestone landing next to Riverside Drive remains a stepchild of Beale Street Landing — mostly talk and no action. The unfinished Horizon high-rise on the South Bluff is a monument to bad investing, bad architecture, and bad planning.

"I don't have an easy river to work with," Royer told me while he explained why he pushed back the date of the canoe and kayak race. And that goes for anyone who tries to do something on or along the river. It's like the heroine in a noir movie or novel — beautiful, irresistible, and trouble.

After losing money two years in a row, Royer said he was ready to call it quits last year. The paddling scene, such as it is in Shelby County, had moved out east to Shelby Farms and the Wolf River. But a canoe or kayak on man-made Patriot Lake is a pretty ordinary picture compared to a flotilla of them coming down the river along Mud Island on a summer morning. The entry: $40. The experience: priceless.

Same goes for the barbecue contest. Diane Hampton, executive director of Memphis in May, said she really liked Tiger Lane last year "but it just wasn't the same as being next to the river." A survey of teams showed a clear majority in favor of coming back to Tom Lee Park, where the contest, the Beale Street Music Fest, and the Sunset Symphony will co-exist with the construction of Beale Street Landing.

Bud Chittom will operate the restaurant at the landing.

"Great cocktails, sunsets, good food, lovely veranda, and the only unobstructed view where you don't smell a paper mill," said Chittom, who was the only one to bid on the contract.

If the Pyramid comes back to life as a Bass Pro superstore, it will be because of the public incentives and the personal determination of Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris, who is calling all of the shots.

And if the Harahan Project comes to fruition, it will be due in large part to the efforts of Aerobic Cruiser hybrid bicycle entrepreneur Charles McVean. The vision goes back to at least 1976, when it was proposed in a Memphis magazine story on "bikommuting" to accommodate the estimated "283,000 admitted pedallers" in Shelby County.

Joe Royer is right. This is not an easy river. The Tennessee River in Chattanooga is easy. You can bike across it, walk across it, float it, build on both of its banks, and permanently dock a steamboat on it. This helped make Chattanooga "best town ever" in Outside magazine's singular estimation last year.

Our river is majestic but hard to work with. It is a photo-op. It is a challenge to our civic vision. We are often reminded how mistaken we would be to turn our backs on it. So we keep on keeping on.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Get It? Not Me

Baffled by big video screens, big names, and baseball quirks.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 18, 2012 at 1:38 PM

"I get it" is the standard way of assuring others that you understand all the complexity and nuance of a controversial subject but disagree on some of the particulars.

Not me. No matter how much I read and watch and listen and reconsider, sometimes I simply don't get it.

I don't get the fuss over video boards or JumboTrons or whatever you call the giant scoreboards at stadiums. Liberty Bowl Stadium is getting a new one for $2.5 million, replacing a smaller one that is as dated as print papers. Video boards reinforce the view that the best seat in the house is at a sports bar or on a leather couch in your living room in front of a high-definition, 48-inch television with the NFL and SEC game packages. If you want to enhance the Memphis "game day" experience, just win more games, like they did at South Carolina, Alabama, Stanford, and Michigan State — none of which is in the Top 40 of largest video boards. Watching the Tigers once is usually enough.

AutoZone Park has a new video board this season. I went to the Redbirds game Sunday and admired the 60'-by-60' picture as sharp as all outdoors. Ninety percent of the time, the big board showed a mug shot of the player at bat along with his stats. The rest of the time it showed couples kissing or fans taking part in on-field promotions involving costumes and sponsors.

I don't get it that, with a few exceptions, baseball doesn't show replays of controversial calls on the stadium big screen, although you can see endless graphics-enhanced replays of pitches, pickoffs, stolen bases, foul balls, and umps' blown calls on home television. If there had been a close play with a runner racing home from third, a throw coming in from the outfield like a laser, a stout catcher blocking the plate, a collision and a cloud of dust, followed by an umpire's call of "safe" or "out," and a manager charging out of the dugout to protest the call, the video board operator would have pretended that nothing had happened and flashed a head shot of the next batter.

The Redbirds and lovely AutoZone Park need a boost. The stadium holds 15,000; the generous attendance estimate Sunday was 5,000. A crawfish festival drew more people. Minor-league baseball should be the leading edge of experimenting with stadium replays because there is so little action relative to football and basketball. But that wouldn't be baseball. God forbid that an umpire's judgment should be second-guessed by technology.

No other sport is so sensitive. At the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships tennis tournament at the Racquet Club this year, the "Hawk-Eye" system was installed so players could challenge the calls of linesmen. In professional football, instant replay and "the coach's challenge" have become integral parts of the game. For several years now, a college or pro football player who commits a penalty is identified by his number. In the NBA, fans can see the good, the bad, and the ugly over and over at the game, on ESPN, or on YouTube or a smartphone.

I don't get University of Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson being celebrated for doing a great job and being underappreciated for success in minor sports and student GPAs. Football and basketball are the standards for success in NCAA Division-I programs and the reason that so much money goes into them. The football program is a mess. The last coach was a disaster. The coach before him said the program was a disaster. The basketball team is the epitome of one-and-done "student athletes" and had to give back its 2008 Finalist banner for NCAA violations. The thanks for fund-raising success should go to the boosters and corporate sponsors, not the athletic director.

I don't get Kriner Cash's contract extension until the school systems merge in August 2013. The extension, given by the now-defunct Memphis school board in March 2011, was supposed to provide continuity and stability during the transition. It was not — nor could it be — a promise of the top job in the unified system. Midway through the transition, Cash's running buddy, Irving Hamer, behaved badly at a cocktail party and was forced to quit. Cash applied for the superintendent's job in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and made the final three. If he gets the job, the extension is meaningless. If he doesn't get the job, why would anyone in Memphis or Shelby County look to him for stability?

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