Archive for the ‘human interest’ Category

The Open Records Fight

Monday, July 25th, 2016

July 25, 2016

There was an interesting editorial in the Commercial Appeal last Sunday concerning Germantown open records and the battle with Jon Thompson and Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman in order to get information on Germantown government salary, insurance and other perks. Congratulations to Thompson and Freeman. I have been fighting this open records battle since 2004.

 

Recently I asked the MLGW for current electronic copies of their annual pension and OPEB reports. I asked by email. I received an electronic copy of an open records request form which I filled out and signed electronically and sent it in. I then received the following message.

 

“Good afternoon, your documents are available for pickup. You can come to the Administration building and the documents will be at the security station.” I then objected to this bureaucratic requirement and sent my objections to Mr. Thompson (MLGW), Mayor Strickland and many others. I eventually got the electronic copies that I asked for and you can now look at the MLGW pension report and the MLGW OPEB report at www.memphisshelbyinform.com.

 

Now the Tennessee Open Records law does not require furnishing electronic copies but governments with a fully open records policy will furnish the information in electronic format because it is cheaper and easier and nearly all data is already in electronic format. If they want to discourage open records requests they will require you to travel down to their office and pick it up at the security desk.

 

I like the MLGW and their utility services. Very professional. President Jerry Collins is a great manager and runs a well trained and effective company. I call on the MLGW to put this information (pensions and OPEB) on their website and keep it updated. I also ask them to publish a return on investment report for their smart meter program to show the public how this program will be paid for and the return on the rate payers’ investment.

Now as to the pension and OPEB reports. Shelby County published their annual pension and OPEB reports online. The City of Memphis and MLGW do not.

 

The MLGW pension fund has a net value of $1.32 billion and $118 million of unfunded liability.

 

The City of Memphis pension fund has a net value of $2 billion and $533 million of unfunded liability. The City of Memphis does not publish their annual pension report online.

 

The Shelby County pension fund has a net value of $1.1 billion and $316 million of unfunded liability.

 

The MLGW OPEB fund has a net value of $333 million and $461 million of unfunded liability.

 

The City of Memphis OPEB fund has a net value of $17 million and $730 million of unfunded liability. The City of Memphis does not publish their annual OPEB report online.

 

The Shelby County OPEB fund has a net value of $197 million and $101 million of unfunded liability.

 

The trouble spots are shown underlined above. Again Shelby County leads in local government in open records policy and fiscal responsibility. I urge you to let local governments know what information you think should be put on their website. What are your thoughts on transparency in government?

 

 

 

 

 

Lack of Transparency On Local Contracts

Tuesday, July 19th, 2016

July 19, 2016

Lack of Transparency On Local Contracts

I have been investigating the barriers companies have to jump over in order to do business with local governments. As an advocate of open records and transparency, I measure the contract information transparency available to the public (taxpayers are the financiers of government purchases). Therefore let us look at what we (the taxpayers) get to know about government purchases and the cost of trying to direct a percentage of government business to minority, women  (MWSBE  minority, women small business enterprises) or locally owned small businesses (LOSB).

I was told recently that the County Commission passed a charter amendment a few years back (city also) that any contract over $100k requires 20% minority participation. Bidders include that in their pricing of the project.

I checked to verify the information and was told that the information was not  exactly correct.  The Locally Owned Small Business (LOSB) ordinance was passed by the County in 2007 and established a target of 20% of all purchases to be awarded to LOSB’s. There is a bidding advantage for LOSB’s of 5% for contracts up to $500,000; 3.5% for contracts up to $750,000; 2.5% for contracts up to $1,000,000 and 2% for contracts over $1,000,000.  For large construction projects the county normally establishes a LOSB percentage requirement.  According to the source, the County has met the LOSB target each year.

The City of Memphis has the following statement.

WHEREAS, the City of Memphis desires to be proactive in ensuring that economic opportunities in the Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) are equally available to all individuals or businesses, including minority and women-owned businesses, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.

Certified AABE (African American black enterprise), HBE (Hispanic American business enterprise), ABE Asian American Business Enterprise, NABE (Native American Business Enterprise), or WBE (Women business enterprise) shall mean an AABE, HBE, ABE, NABE or WBE which has been certified by a City approved central certification agency and approved by the Office of Contract Compliance (OCC).

The initial annual MWBE goals shall be:

  • a. Goals for Subcontracting Construction:
    • (16 %) – Minority
    • (3 %) – Women
    • (19 %) – Total goal
  • b. Goals for Prime Construction:
    • (15 %) – Minority
    • (3 %) – Women
    • (18 %) – Total goal
  • c. Goals for Architecture & Engineering Services:
    • (22 %) – Minority
    • (7 %) – Women
    • (29 %) – Total goal
  • d. Goals for Goods and Supplies:
    • (12 %) – Minority
    • (1 %) – Women
    • (13 %) – Total goal
  • e. Goals for Non-Professional Services:
    • (23 %) – Minority
    • (2 %) – Women
    • (25 %) – Total goal
  • f. Goals for Professional Services:
    • (13 %) – Minority
    • (2 %) – Women
    • (15 %) – Total goal

The annual goals provided above shall be reviewed annually by the EBO advisory committee. These overall MWBE participation goals are only intended to be benchmarks evaluating the overall performance of the EBO program on an annual basis. These participation goals are not and, shall not be quotas for purposes of determining or satisfying annual participation goals.

I have tried to find the actual results of this program but I cannot find anything online. It may be there but I cannot find it. I will ask the City of Memphis in an open records request. What I want for the public to know is the results of the City and County small business and minority programs. What are the percentages and what did it cost over and above lowest and best bid for the work? We, the taxpaying public, deserve to know.

How The West Got Rich

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

How The West Got Rich

May 23, 2016

There was a fascinating article in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. I want to point it out because it will be at the heart of our upcoming 2016 presidential election. We hear the talking heads speaking about gender-less bathrooms, free stuff for everyone, income disparity, redistribution of income, taxes, the benefits of socialism, bullying and lots of other issues.

The number one issue in survey after survey is the economy and this is what this article is all about. Look and read some of the facts.

Two centuries ago, the average world income per human (in present-day prices) was about $3 a day. It had been so since we lived in caves. Now it is $33 a day—which is Brazil’s current level and the level of the U.S. in 1940. Over the past 200 years, the average real income per person—including even such present-day tragedies as Chad and North Korea—has grown by a factor of 10. It is stunning. In countries that adopted trade and economic betterment wholeheartedly, like Japan, Sweden and the U.S., it is more like a factor of 30—even more stunning.

Now we have people calling for a change to our system in order to make it more like Cuba, Venezuela and a long list of countries run by top down federal bureaucracies.

Here is the explanation of how our society got these wonderful improvements. What enriched the modern world wasn’t capital stolen from workers or capital virtuously saved, nor was it institutions for routinely accumulating it. Capital and the rule of law were necessary, of course, but so were a hard working labor force and liquid water and the arrow of time.

The capital became productive because of ideas for betterment—ideas enacted by a country carpenter or a boy telegrapher or a teenage Seattle computer whiz. As Matt Ridley put it in his book “The Rational Optimist” (2010), what happened over the past two centuries is that “ideas started having sex.” The idea of a railroad was a coupling of high-pressure steam engines with cars running on coal-mining rails. The idea for a lawn mower coupled a miniature gasoline engine with a miniature mechanical reaper. And so on, through every imaginable sort of invention. The coupling of ideas in the heads of the common people yielded an explosion of betterments.

The other day I heard a report about our current Vice President, Joe Biden, wondering what he would do after the upcoming election. He has never had a private sector job working for a “for profit” company in his life. Neither has Barack Obama or most of the Washington DC politicians and bureaucrats. Let us get back to returning government to the people with important decisions made at the state and level local, empower local thinkers and entrepreneurs, and reduce the size of the DC bureaucracy.  Do you believe in the benefits of legal and fair capitalism or do you want a radical change in our system?

Bureaucracy Is Alive And Well

Thursday, May 12th, 2016

May 12, 2016

Bureaucracy Is Alive And Well

Bureaucracy exists not only in Washington DC where it thrives and continues to grow, but right here locally in Shelby County Tennessee. Here is an example.

A number of years ago I filed up to six lawsuits (pro se, for myself) in Chancery Court. When faced with a recalcitrant government agency that refused to comply with our Tennessee Open Records laws I would troop down to Chancery Court with lawsuit papers in hand and plunk down $211.50 CASH money and file the suit. Sometime later when the lawsuit papers were delivered to the Respondent I would sometimes get the requested access action. Other times I would have to wait for the respondent to show up (or not show up) in court. I remember one time waiting in Judge Golden’s chancery court for an attorney from the old Memphis School System to show up. They failed to show up and when I spoke to the court I requested my $211.50 back and an additional $1000 for, my time and expenses. Judge Golden gave me the right for the $211.50 but refused the $1000. The reason for the refusal was that I was not a lawyer and had filed pro se. I guess the legal fraternity sticks together. The judge is a great guy and later when we meet at a gathering, we laughed about the incident.

However apparently I failed to receive back one of the $211.50 fees and I received the attached letter from Chancery Court. I went downtown to Chancery Court and filled out the requested form. The young lady that helped me said that I would be notified when the check was available to be picked up. I requested that the check be mailed and she said that their policy was that checks could only be mailed to out of town people but that I would have to pick up the check in person since I lived in Memphis. “NO MAILING LOCALLY WAS NOT PERMISSIBLE!”. I offered to pay for mailing but that was refused. 17 MILES DOWNTOWN, PARKING FEE, GO THROUGH SECURITY, PICK UP CHECK, 17 MILES BACK HOME. Bureaucracy at work right here in River City.

They said that I would be notified when the check was available. When I received no notice I emailed the Court but still got no answer. The next time I was downtown I went to the Court and sure enough I got the check. I hurried and deposited it as soon as possible.

Now the thing that really galled me was my knowledge that this was the same Court that suffered a $1 million loss beginning in 2008 and ending with a conviction in 2012. So much for the vigilance of bureaucracy!

How We Could Have Saved $1 Million Dollars

Monday, May 9th, 2016

May 9, 2016

 

How We Could Have Saved $1 Million Dollars

 

I have been following the stories about the Memphis Health Education and Housing Facility Board. The story began with the low income properties owned and operated by Global Ministries. Residents complained about bedbugs, rodents and improperly maintained appliances.

 

I began investigating all the various boards and commissions operated under the City of Memphis and Shelby County governments. I found that there were two Health Education and Housing Facility Boards (HEHFB), one run by the Memphis and one by Shelby County. As usual, the one run by the County was better, more open to records access and less controversial. The outstanding difference was a provision of the county board statement of policies and procedures that restricted the amount of cost paid to the Board Counsel. On just 5 bonds issued by the Memphis HEHFB this difference amounted to $59,000. The Memphis HEHFB says that they have issued over 85 bonds. This overpayment to the Board Counsel could be as much as $1 million dollars at the average of the 5 bonds reviewed.

 

At the most recent Memphis board meeting I asked the board some questions and made some public recommendations concerning open records, ethics and conflict of interest. Here are my points.

 

  1. Board agendas should be posted online at their website on the same day they are posted in the Daily News.
  2. All supporting information given to board members along with their agendas should be posted online at the website along with the agenda.
  3. Minutes of the meeting should be posted on the website not later than 1 week after the meeting.
  4. Bond costs and parties to the expenses should be posted on the website when sent to the state as required by law. (Report of debt obligation)
  5. Adopt the same or similar ordinance as the County limiting board counsel fees.
  6. Adopt a strong ethics ordinance regarding conflict of interest and post online.
  7. When a member of the board has a subsequent financial involvement in a board bond or property transaction, that member should make a public acknowledge of that involvement on the board website.

 

I call on the City Council to demand these changes and I ask all citizens and taxpayers to contact the Mayor and their council members to act on this matter. If you have a further suggestion, I ask you to contact Joe Saino at memphisshelbyinform@gmail.com.

Brilliant At The Basics

Monday, April 25th, 2016

April 25, 2016

Brilliant At The Basics

Our new Mayor has come out with his proposed 2017 City budget. I have not had a chance to study it closely yet but I will in the next few weeks. However a recent open records request confirmed what I suspected was happening.

Read the CA article of April 7, 2015. In a CA article (April 7, 2015) our present Mayor Strickland questioned the possibility of Sammons doubling his City pension. In my recent open records request to the City of Memphis I asked for current pension payments to retired City of Memphis employees. I wanted to compare the current pensions to past pensions. Sure enough there was Jack Sammons receiving an annual pension of $68,457.36, up from his previous pension of $34,960.56. Doubled!!!

How has this happened? Apparently there is a provision in the City of Memphis pension ordinance that allows the pension to be recalculated based on the highest 12 month salary overturning any fiscally responsible actuarial calculations. This is a public employee scam that needs to be corrected.  Here is what is done at the County government. Plan A and Plan C both compute pensions based on the employee’s highest 36 consecutive months of earnings.  The new Plan D computes pensions based on the highest 60 consecutive months of earnings. Plan D was effective July 1, 2011 and has proven to be a less costly plan because of the earnings calculation plus the lower years of service multiplier and the retirement age requirement.

Then there is he abuse of the City of Memphis pension board of LINE OF DUTY DISABILITY. This is costing the City up to $14 million per year. The rate of line of duty disability approval at the City is ten time higher per active employee than the MLGW and Shelby County Government. These built in actuarially unsound pension provisions need to be changed as part of the Brilliant Basics.

 

 

My Memphis Airport Experience

Monday, April 18th, 2016

April 18, 2016

My Memphis Airport Experience

I am not a fan of current airplane travel experiences. Let me count the ways.

My wife and I recently completed a trip from Memphis to San Francisco to visit my daughter, son in law and grandson. I looked on line and booked a flight out to SFO on United Airlines with a connection in Denver. The flight left Memphis at 7:16 AM so we got up about 4:30 to do all those things necessary before driving to the airport. We got to the airport about 6 AM to proceed through security. Before security I took everything out of my pockets except my driver’s license and boarding pass. I was allowed to keep on my belt and my shoes. The flight was pleasant enough considering the reduced space between seats. We were not seated across from the airplane Outhouse thank goodness. The connection flight to San Francisco was on time and we arrived in SFO about noon. Getting the rental car in SFO is a trial as you have to take the Air Train and then track down the agent and car.

The stay in Sebastopol in Sonoma was wonderful and we enjoyed three nights there. Then the trek back home. Another night near the SFO airport and then back to turn in the car after getting the luggage checked in. The return flight was on American thru Dallas. Again the seat spacing was even tighter. The flight from San Francisco to Dallas was late and we had to rush from Terminal A to C in Dallas on the air train and just made it late in the boarding process. The flight to Memphis was OK except the last 15 minutes was very bumpy due to thunderstorms.

The arrival was at 10 PM and by the time we got to the luggage area all the free carts were gone to other folks. I went and got the car from the long term parking garage and was expecting to pay $6 per day but was surprised at the bill for $15 per day or $75.00 total. I objected but my protests fell on deaf ears.

Two days later I went back to the airport to check out the signage about parking rates and directions. I now know that I misread these two signs. I went straight ahead instead of a sharp left turn. Later I went to the airport website and sure enough the explanation was there. I wonder how many of you readers have made my mistake.

I have attached some pictures that show the signs as you navigate the directions to the massive parking garage. My mistake was proceeding straight ahead instead of making a quick left turn. Sorry fellow, that will be $45 extra. Has anyone else out there made the same mistake?

I have wondered in the past how the Airport Authority justified the huge cost for the parking garage which ruined the view of the beautiful airport building and put all the Park-Ride and Fly people out of business. Then I wondered about the recent CA story of two Vice Presidents at the Airport Authority leaving and getting paid. One oversaw airport concession agreements, parking and rental cars, disadvantaged and minority business programs, contract compliance and leasing of airport-owned properties. Both were being paid $191,000 per year. Interesting. What has been your airport experience? I would like to know.

Further Info On The Memphis HEHFB Controversy

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016

April 13, 2016

Further Info On The Memphis HEHFB Controversy

I recently reported on the two Health Education & Housing Facility Boards, one from the City of Memphis and one from Shelby County. One is apparently well run and the other has had its’ authority temporarily suspended by the Tennessee Housing and Development Agency because of problem with properties run by Global Ministries.

 

I have attended two meeting of the Memphis board. The first one was not a regular monthly board meeting, but a reading of a proposed bond issue by Charles Carpenter, the board attorney. After the formal reading, I asked a few questions concerning transparency and open records and did not get a lot of information.

 

The second meeting, which was a regular monthly meeting, was attended by Channel 3, the Commercial Appeal, several business interests and myself. The only person, other than the business interests, to ask questions was myself. Before the start of the meeting, I asked the secretary for an agenda and she refused to give me one until the actual meeting started. At the end of the meeting I asked why the agendas and all attachments were not published at least two days before the meetings and I received no answer. I asked about the difference between the County ordinance that limits the amount that the Board Counsel can make. Mr. Carpenter said that he was not aware of the County ordinance. I pointed out that for just five Memphis bonds, the overpayment for the Memphis board Counsel was $59,000. Then I asked about a possible conflict of interest on the bonds for the Uptown Manor Senior Project by a board member and they said that they would have to consult the minutes of that meeting to see if the member recused herself. I asked for the minutes but received no reply. After the regular public meeting, they had an executive meeting and I asked if I could attend. They said that it was a closed meeting and the public was not able to attend.

 

Then several days later I, in fact, received the minutes from the two past board meetings concerning possible conflict of interests. I have attached those minutes and they are interesting.

 

Minutes of Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Lee Patton and  Monice Moore-Hagler recused themselves from the Inducement Resolution for the Uptown Manor Senior motion. Under Discussion Items, John Baker brought to the Board’s attention for further consideration a revised short term bond fee structure. Under New Business, Nancy Willis brought to attention a request for  an annual ethics statement to be signed by members of the board and provided an example copy for the Council’s review.

 

Minutes of Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Under action items, Dan Reid recused himself from consideration of inducement bond resolution for Global Ministries Foundation Bent Tree Apartments. Renasant Bank was to provide a private placement loan for the property.

Then Dan Reid re-entered the meeting and Monice Moore-Hagler and Lee Patton recused themselves before consideration of final bond resolution for Uptown Manor Senior Development LLC. Mr. Carpenter recommended approval.

Finally, Paige Walkup asked for an update regarding GMF Warren-Tulane property. Mr. Carpenter reported on his positive contact with Chris Lamberson and the ongoing response to correct issues and bring it up to standard.

 

This just goes to show that all these boards need to publish their agendas in advance along with all accompanied data and the public should see the same information that the board members get. I will look forward to your comments as you get ready to pay your federal taxes that funds all these projects.

ROI (Return On Investment)

Monday, February 8th, 2016

February 8, 2016

 

ROI (Return On Investment)

 

Recently I asked for the following information from the Riverfront Development Corporation.

 

I would like to know the final cost for the Beale Street Landing

 

I would like to have the most recent financial statement concerning the income and expense of the Landing operation showing income and expenses.

 

I would like to have the most recent annual financial statement for the RDC.

 

I received a prompt answer to these questions (with some delay due to my fault). You can look at the attached results.

 

They say the cost was $43.5 million with the Feds and State kicking $11.8 million, Housing and Community $1 million and the City $30.6 million. All of this is taxpayer money. Now we all recognize that parks, playgrounds, running and biking trails and other civic amenities do not pay a return on investment in a true business sense. However this restaurant/souvenir shop and boat landing should pay a better return than is shown by the landing operation income and expense sheet shown above. Except for the Foundation Corporate Grant of $75,000, it is losing money each month. Maybe the additional income generated by river boat tourists landings make up for some of this but could the landings have been done without this $43 million dollar project? Virginia McLean certainly thinks so. Here is what she told me recently.

 

Our new $43M taxpayer funded boat dock probably might make it easier (at the right water-levels) for passengers to board and has probably led to more business for our local daily excursion boat company, but I’m not absolutely certain about either of those points, and I can’t imagine that Beale Street Landing has had a serious impact on multi-state-city riverboat cruises.  The boat companies appear to be promoting Southern history, food, and music as draws for cruises on the Mississippi River. They dock at Natchez, Vicksburg, Helena, Paducah, to name a few, and those cities/towns don’t have expensive new boat docks. The boats appear to just tie up at the shore (like they still do here at Greenbelt Park when water levels are low ) or dock at historic landings like in St. Louis on the old landing which is adjacent & beneath the plaza the Arch sits on or at basic, simple open-air ticket-sale type places like in New Orleans’s Woldenberg Park. Personally I think Mud Island River Park’s landing would probably beat out anything, including Beale Street Landing. When the boats docked over there and if it was being run properly visitors would have had access to restaurants, a music, pretty park, amphitheater, and via monorail or skywalk downtown city by foot. 

 

I’ll stick with the idea that we didn’t really need it, couldn’t afford it, and now what do we do about running and maintaining it?  

 

The Mississippi River is our greatest asset but it is huge and powerful and maintaining anything on the river always ends up costing more than expected. The Beale Street Landing will continue to cost us in the future to maintain it. We do not need the Riverfront Development Corporation to guide and lead changes to Mud Island River Park considering their past history. What do you think?

Shelby County School Job Positions and Salaries

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015

September 29, 2015

Shelby County School Job Positions and Salaries

 

Nothing is more important than education. We hear all the talk about programs to combat poverty, workforce development, skill training, etc. etc.

 

The real solution starts with a caring family that is determined to see that their children get the basics, love, discipline, encouragement and the ability to read. The parents must take an active role in these basics.

 

The next step is education and this is where the debate rages. Do we need more money as most public school boards claim or do we need a 21st century model.

 

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal states, in part, the following.

 

Whatever your measure—the reading and math proficiency of high-school graduates, the skills gap in the nation’s labor market, or the real value of college—there can be little argument that America’s schools, as a whole, are failing to prepare students for the 21st century.

 

There are countless explanations why, but here’s a significant contributing factor: Until recently, we simply didn’t know how to use technology to make teachers and students happier, better engaged and more successful.

 

Think about it: In every field of human endeavor, from manufacturing to knowledge work, we’re figuring out how to use technology to make humans more successful—to raise the quality of their work, if not their measured productivity.

 

But the same can hardly be said of teaching. In education, the overwhelming majority of students are still learning as they always have, in classrooms dominated by a one-to-many lecturing model in which teachers inevitably leave some students behind while boring others. That model has barely changed in a century.

 

Parents, educators and especially taxpayers need to get involved and have an open discussion about how our education taxes are being spent. As a result of my recent open records request, I have attached a complete list of Shelby County School System employee names, job titles and annual salaries. If you do not have Microsoft Excel You can click here for a PDF copy of the salary list. I have decided to list the names only for those making $70,000 per year or more. The total annual salary for the listed year is $581 million for 16,664 employees. Add to this another 20% for benefits. This is around 75% or more in the budget for salaries and benefits.

 

I think we need to have a public discussion of the Shelby County Education model and ask the question of whether the School Board should be suing for more tax money or should we update the education model to the 21st century.