Archive for the ‘Policy Proposals’ Category

The Dog Ate My Emails And My Lunch

Monday, July 6th, 2015

July 6, 2015

The Dog Ate My Emails and My Lunch

Open records and access is a national problem that started in Washington DC and is continuing throughout the nation. Now the dog is not only eating my emails but wants my lunch and for me to pay for it as shown on the attached youtube. http://www.youtube.com/embed/ub1Dc3NHZ3s?autoplay=1&cc_load_policy=1

I recently received an email from Deborah Fisher. She is the Executive Director of TCOG, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government
(615) 602-4080

Check out my open government blog at www.tcog.info

Or follow us on Facebook 

Or twitter @TNOpenGovt

I emailed her about our open records room at the Shelby County School System and here is her reply.

Hi Joe,

I read through what you sent me, and had seen the article earlier in the Commercial Appeal. I applaud you on working so persistently with the school board to create a process that would make it easier for citizens to view public records!

Clearly, obstacles do remain. How can I help you in your goals? And I would love to pull you more into the fold of what TCOG is doing.

The Tennessee School Boards Association (of which Shelby County school is a member) had as one of their top legislative priorities this year to pass a bill that would allow EVERY GOVERNMENT ACROSS TENNESSEE to charge new fees on citizens who want to inspect records. Right now, the law says no charges can be filed to inspect records – charges can only be assessed when someone wants copies of records. Not everyone charges for copies, but many do. We are seeing all sorts of labor charges when someone requests copies (upwards of $1,000), and are concerned that if the free inspection language is removed from the law, things will get much worse and more local governments will feel at liberty to charge per-hour labor fees to compile documents.

I do a lot of training, but one of my duties is tracking such legislative action. The fees bill was pulled off notice by its sponsors, after the Office of Open Records Counsel said it wanted to study the issue and hold hearings across the state.

I believe the West Tennessee hearing will be in September in Jackson. (One of the bill’s sponsors is state Rep. Steve McDaniel from Parkers Crossroads near Jackson.)

The Open Records Counsel has called a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Open Government at 10:30 a.m. Monday in Nashville at Legislative Plaza that will be live-streamed on the web. If you have time to watch it, it may help you understand better what is happening. ACOG is a group of representatives from government associations (like the School Board Association) and citizen and media groups. TCOG has a seat on ACOG. Here’s a link: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/openrecords/acog.asp

At this meeting the Open Records Counsel will discuss her plans for a survey/questionnaire, and what she thinks should be the topic of public hearings. At this point, we are very concerned about the direction she is taking the public hearings and survey. I’ll attach for you the draft topics for the hearing, and perhaps you can see what I mean.

The Tennessee School Boards Association representative on ACOG is Don Long, and he has been very active in pushing the fees legislation.  He is someone who has gotten crosswise with some citizens in Sumner County who have been seeking more information about their school district, mostly on spending matters.

While the Tennessee School Boards Association is the lead in pushing this legislation, I’m not certain that all of the elected officials who serve on school boards across the state agree with what their association is trying to do. I’m not sure Shelby County school board members support this, for example.

If a new bill is introduced in January, we need help from citizens who are willing to talk with their state lawmakers. I’m not quite sure of where members of the Memphis area delegation stand on this, or if you guys have worked in that area.

Would love to talk with you more, especially about what’s happening in Shelby County.

This is clearly the time to let our school board members know that we are for open records and that we appreciate the initial steps that Superintendent Hopson and board member Chris Caldwell have made. Our group of citizens is determined to help in building a model open records policy that hopefully can be a template statewide and to resist any efforts by the Tennessee School Boards Association to restrict access to records with new policies and restrictive fees. We, the taxpayers, pay for all of this, and we should have access to all legal information with minimal or no cost.

 

 

 

Why OPEN RECORDS Is SO Important

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

June 22, 2015

Why OPEN RECORDS Is SO Important

You may have read a front page article last Saturday in the Commercial Appeal by education reporter Jane Roberts. The article announced the creation of an open records reading room (Room 121) in the SCS Coe building at 160 S. Hollywood St. here in Memphis.

I have been working to open local public records since 2004 and have been greatly aided by many local citizens, particularly John Malmo, Eddie and Eve Settles (backinrivercity.com) and Ken Welch. I want to thank these people and many others who have contributed to this effort.

As Ken Welch has said many times, all public records are technically open to the public unless specifically named and restricted by state law. Then why can’t we get all this information easily? The answer is that public bodies and the leaders (Presidents, appointees, Governors, Mayors, Superintendents, etc) can make life difficult and expensive if they want to. The Tennessee open records law clearly states the following. However the particular public organization can drag their feet, threaten big charges paid in advance, refuse you entrances to offices without an appointment and then refuse to make an appointment. What has happened at the SCS system offices is different and significant.

Therefore this is why our agreement with Supt. Hopson and Chris Caldwell is so important. They have shown that they are open to making all legally open records actually open to the public. After all, we (the taxpayers) paid for all this bureaucracy and we are the employers. We recognize that we need good education, good fire and police services, good roads, efficient water, gas and electric services and many other public facilities. However we paid for them and we expect answers to all our reasonable and legally available questions.

Open Records is so important because without transparency there is often corruption, favoritism, waste and inefficiency. The sunshine of OPEN RECORDS and vigilant citizen can prevent this. There are many details to work out and our open records group is willing to work with the Shelby County System to make access easy and convenient. If we can make this work efficiently, we would look forward to using this as a template for other public bodies. Any suggestions from the you, the public, would be welcomed. We need to join together for full open records access.

The Great OPEB Dump

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

May 26, 2015

The Great OPEB Dump

OPEB (other post employment benefits), basically retirement health care benefits, are much in the news. Retirees are acting like it is a great surprise that their health care plans are being cut and possibly it is a surprise. They made the mistake of believing political promises.

But look at the facts. Funding for the school systems (the old Memphis City Schools and the old Shelby County Schools) was always the responsibility of the Shelby County Government. The City of Memphis kicked in some money over the years and then when things got tight at the City, they cut that funding and the Courts said NO, they had to continue the funding on the basis of the principle of MAINTENANCE OF EFFORT.

For years the old City of Memphis Board of Education had a free hand and they loaded up the budget and the teachers and other unions participated in the loading. In particular look at the OPEB provisions of the old City School Board versus the old Shelby County School Board.

Here is a statement from the 2010 Shelby County audited financial document. Their unfunded OPEB liability went from $787 million in 2008 to $242 million in 2009. Look at the reason.

“The Board began recognition of OPEB on July 1, 2007. Limited trend information may be discerned from the three valuations made to date. The change in AAL for OPEB from the June 30, 2008 to the June 30, 2009 valuation date was due to actuarial assumption changes related to reduction in claim costs for post-65 retirees. Effective January 1, 2011, post-65 retirees formerly covered under the self-insured plan will be covered under an insured Medicare Supplement plan   which is estimated to reduce claim cost by 63% to 72% depending on age. Additional reductions are anticipated due to census changes, changes in retiree contributions, and any retirements or terminations that did not occur as expected in the prior valuation.”

Then look at the old City of Memphis School Board OPEB condition and lack of action from their 2010 CAFR (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report).

AS OF JUNE 30, 2010, THE ACTUARIAL ACCURED LIABILITY FOR BENEFITS WAS $1,534,912,045 (that is $1.5 billion), ALL OF WHICH WAS UNFUNDED.

They failed to take the actions that the old Shelby County School Board took. They eventually dumped this unfunded liability on the new Shelby County School Board and the County and City taxpayers.

Again this is the result of failure of the old City School Board to recognize the huge unfunded promise and like the City of Memphis they will be forced to make the retirees pay for their past poor decisions.

 

Are Smart Meters A Smart Purchase?

Monday, May 18th, 2015

May 18, 2015

Are Smart Meters A Smart Purchase?

Tomorrow there will be a City of Memphis committee meeting and in that meeting will be the subject of further purchase of smart meters as shown below.

MLGW COMMITTEE (Chairman Berlin Boyd)

  1. Resolution approving the purchase of a Mobile Energy Efficiency Educational Unit (vehicle) for an amount not to exceed $250,000
  2. Discussion of opting-out of Smart Meters
  3. Resolution awarding Contract No. 11776, Smart Meter Solution Full Deployment, to Elster Solutions, LLC, in the funded amount of $240,000,000 for work to be done over a period of approximately five years.

I have received the following email from a friend and a very active citizen in various local public policies.

  • 240 million dollars over five years is an astronomical amount of money. The rate payers in Shelby County will be stuck with the bill.
  • Firing meter readers and using their salaries to pay for smart meters does not add up. They are not paid that much!
  • Please share this with Shelby county friends. I know several people there who spoke out and opted out of smart meters without paying a monthly fee to mlgw. If they had not spoken out, refusing a smart meter would have resulted in a monthly fee.
  • The biggest reason for smart meters will be time-of-day-rates. While you will be sold on these rates because they are cheaper at certain hours, those rates will be much higher at other hours (example: summer rates in the afternoon hours 3-8 pm will double).
  • Smart meters take usage readings every fifteen minutes and send that information directly to mlgw. Many people consider that an invasion of privacy because your usage patterns are kept by mlgw. Anyone with access can know your routine by those usage patterns. There is also concern that these meters can be hacked.

(more…)

More Money Sources For Government

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

May 12, 2015

More Money Sources For Government

The question on my mind during these budget days for the City, County and the School System is where can we go to find more money other than just cutting expenses and raising property taxes on homeowners and businesses that are already paying their full mandated share. I am not against cutting unnecessary public expenses and there are plenty examples I could point out. (Excessive sick days and vacations, line of duty disability approval at the City, dumb capital projects, etc). But let me point out two major questions that I have concerning pilots (payment in lieu of taxes).

???? When a Pilot expires does the named property actually pay the full tax load that was abated (reduced) for the following years after the expiration date ????

???? Why are pilots given for abated personalty taxes for some companies but not others? What is the policy on personalty taxes ????

I have attached a pilot file from 2007 when Bob Patterson was trustee. Part of that file shows pilots with expiration dates (pages 71 to 109). I have been asking Reid Dulberger (EDGE-Economic Development Growth Engine) for some time to show a report on those pilots that have expired and to show the pre-expiration abated tax and the post expiration tax actually paid. He has done nothing. This is not easy to do and remember that this report by the Trustee is only for County taxes and if the property is in the City, there is a similar but somewhat lesser amount owed the City. As an example I checked just recently on Hershey at 975 Kansas St. I found that their abated real estate tax was $294,065.74 and was due to expire on 12/19/2009. I looked at what they paid in 2011 and it was about $72,000. But then I looked at their personalty tax and they paid a very large tax even during the period of their real estate tax abatement. Then I look at other abated taxes in the 2014 Lenoir report and there are companies listed with personalty tax abatements. What are personalty taxes? Personalty taxes are levied on business furnishings and equipment that you report to the Shelby County Assessor each year. My question is what is the policy concerning real estate tax abatements and personalty tax abatements? Why do some get an abatement and some do not? What is the policy difference concerning real estate taxes and personalty tax abatement?

The public needs to know if when a pilot expires does the property pay the full abatement tax or do they get some kind of reduction or get a further extension of the deadline or do they just leave town? There needs to be an audit of the before and after numbers of the Pilot expiration subject and let the public see the numbers.

 

 

Subsidized Housing, MHA, HCD, HUD, HEHF, Say What?

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

April 14, 2015

Subsidized Housing, MHA, HCD, HUD, HEHF, Say What?

Recently I attended a MHA board meeting and at the end of the session I asked the board in the future to post all recent financial statements. Until recently they had not posted 2013 and 2014 statements. I also asked that in the future that they post the board agenda and all supporting documents at least two days in advance of the monthly board meetings. We will see in the future whether they do this.

They did in fact post the financial statements for 2013 and 2014 so that now we have posted 2009 through 2014 posted online.

At this point I do not pretend to understand this organization which is headed by Robert Lipscomb as well as the City of Memphis department of Housing and Community Development which is also headed by the same Robert Lipscomb. Then you add in HUD (Housing and Urban Development), HEHF (Health, Education and Housing Facilities Board) and then all the non profits like Global Ministries Foundation which was recently written about in the Commercial Appeal and you have a real witches brew brought on by big government spending in an attempt to solve social problems and garner votes. The real question is what is the most efficient way to help those truly in need? Is big government the answer or should rent money be given to those truly in need and let them make their own housing decisions? What do you think?

In order to get a better understanding of the financial structure and purpose of the MHA and HCD a friend asked for a meeting with MHA accounting (Ms. Vickie Aldridge) and here is the answer he got.

“I am not available to meet however if you submit your questions in writing, I will respond at my earliest convenience.” My friend will no doubt respond but here are my thoughts on these posted financial statements.”

I have attached one page out of each of the last six financial reports (2009 thru 2014). These pages list the notes, loans and mortgages receivable for various local housing projects. If you read on through the following pages of the reports you will see the following statement for each of the projects.

No payments were received on this note during 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009.

My request to the MHA would be that I want to see these financial documents on the loans and mortgages to understand the terms and conditions and who is benefiting from these finances. You will note that the long term notes receivable has gone from $92 million in 2009 to $155 million in 2014. The public should be made aware of these finances, the cost to the taxpayers and the benefits to the tenants of this housing.

More Scoop And Toss

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

Last Tuesday I braved the ice (black and otherwise) and went to the City Council committee meetings at City Hall. There were two particular subjects in which I had an interest and they were the Pension Funding Policy chaired by Jim Strickland and the Executive session on Debt Restructuring chaired by Myron Lowery.

These two subjects are related because due to the 2010 scoop and toss bond refinancing and the State of Tennessee demanding that the City of Memphis increases its pension ARC (annual required contribution). It turns out that the 2010 refinancing created a bubble starting in 2016 making it difficult to pay both the increased ARC and the bond payments at the same time. The answer, scoop and toss again. The City (Brian Collins) claims that this is reasonable due to low interest rates. Jim Strickland, Harold Collins, Wanda Halbert and Shea Flinn raised questions as did the Commercial Appeal. Here is the presentation given at the meeting.

I decided to investigate some past bond financing so I asked the City of Memphis for some bond information on recent bonds such as the stadium project and the Pyramid and Pinch District redevelopment. All I got from them was a computerized reply with answers to follow SOME DAY. So I went online and got the following Moodys financial analysis report.

https://www.moodys.com/research/Moodys-assigns-Aa3-to-Memphis-Center-City-Revenue-Finance-Corporation–PR_288005

Here are some of the things that the report says about Memphis.

  • The current issue is ultimately secured by all non-tax revenue that is legally available other than ad valorem revenues in the city’s general fund.
  • The Series 2011B and 2011 C subordinate are secured by a second lien on TDZ revenues with a pledge from the city to replenish the debt service reserve in the event of a draw on non-ad valorem tax revenues.

 

The negative outlook on the Series 2013A&B and 2011B&C reflects Moody’s expectation that the city’s financial position will remain challenged as fixed costs, including debt service, pension and other post-employment benefits represents 42% of operating expenditures in fiscal 2012.

In spite of all this the City continues to spend on questionable projects like the Raleigh Springs Mall renovation and to talk about the fairgrounds project as if these will all be paid for by tax incremental financing and fairy dust.

The Cargill Pilot

Monday, January 5th, 2015

January 6, 2015

The Cargill Pilot

Recently a reader of my blog asked me the following question.

“When a company pulls out before the end of their PILOT agreement, do they pay a penalty for not having delivered as promised?  I am thinking of Cargill.”

I responded “Good Question. I will check. I emailed EDGE (Economic Development Growth Engine) and asked for a copy of the Cargill Pilot agreement. They promptly responded as follows.

theath@growth-engine.org “The Cargill Lease, along with most documents, are online. See http://growth-engine.org/archive/?g=/Data%20By%20Company/Cargill

I went there online and found a number of documents about Cargill but the one that was most interesting was the following one entitled “Application Of Cargill Incorporated For Payment In Lieu Of Taxes” dated in 2010. Look at page 48 which is a letter signed by Mayor Wharton with promises of tax reductions close to $12 million and a $3 million dollar funding to assist in rail enhancements.

Then look at page 42 where Cargill would possibly provide a $500,000 funding for a school bus project in order to delay installation of equipment at Cargill to reduce their air pollution. I am not sure if they ever provided this $500,000. Does anyone out there know? Here is an article about the proposal.

Cargill is a big company and they do what is best for Cargill. They are a big employer and any city would be proud to have them as a local employer. It is best that all citizens know what is going on in the tax deals and EDGE is to be complimented for posting this information on line. However they still have not provided the critical information about properties that finish their Pilot contracts and the important information about whether they are paying the full tax amount that they were abated during the Pilot or whether they somehow left town, got an extension of the Pilot or are somehow paying less than their full share. Post that information on line PLEASE!

Transparency In The Private Sector

Sunday, November 16th, 2014

November 17, 2014

Transparency In The Private Sector

 

We have been treated to a lesson in arrogance in government with the revelations about MIT economics Professor Gruber concerning getting the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) approved.  Professor Gruber said that it was necessary to lie about the provisions of the act because the public was too stupid to understand what was good for them. This is the reason that full disclosure, transparency and open records are so vitally important.

But is transparency only important in the public sector where your tax dollars are being spent? What about the private sector?

My brother has a home in a development around a golf course in Ft. Collins, Colorado. He was aware of my interest in open records and the laws concerning access and he called me to ask about his situation. It seems that the government board of his housing association has consistently refused to give him access to financial information. I told him that he would need to research Colorado open records laws and he has hired a lawyer to assist in that effort. The board charges each homeowner for maintenance, repairs and upkeep but has failed to give details about contracts and details of expenditures. In other words, pay up and shut up.

Locally I have a friend who is an engineer and who plays in my duplicate bridge club. (By the way he is very bright and one of the best players). His name is Asan G. Tejwani. He has lived in Fountain Square Condominium, 1850 Poplar Woods Cir W, Germantown, TN 38138 since 1991. His email address is tejasan@hotmail.com.

He discussed with me his complaint about the lack of transparency of the Faith Management Company and the Board of Directors of the non profit condo association. I did some research about the Tennessee open records laws by contacting the State of Tennessee and was referred to the Tennessee Condo Act of 2008. One part of that lengthy document states as follows.

  • 66-27-417. Association Records. The association shall keep financial

records sufficiently detailed to enable the association to comply with §§ 66-27-

502 and 66-27-503. All financial and other records shall be made reasonably

available for examination by any unit owner, the holder of any mortgage or deed

of trust encumbering a unit, and their respective authorized agents.

This seems to be the heart of Mr. Tejwani’s complaint and he puts his principles of  human dealings in a most legitimate manner. They are as follows.

  1. Fiduciary responsibility.
  2. Due Diligence
  3. Transparency
  4. Accountability
  5. Compliance

I can’t disagree with those five principles. I am aware that there are two sides to every story. I would like to hear from other local condo and home owner associations as to their experience with boards and management concerning expenses and transparency and open records accountability. This is no nickel and dime operation as Mr. Tejwani is talking about an annual billing of $850,000 for his condo residents.

The Importance of Open Records (Transparency) In Government

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

November 13, 2014

My brother and I ran a manufacturing business for some 40 years here in Memphis (Saino Manufacturing Company) and then we sold the business and retired and continued in my field of fire protection as a consultant. Then in 2004 I turned to local government interests and the issue of Transparency In Government.

 

I found that this was not only a national problem but also a state and local problem. Many politicians feel that they do not want the public to know the details of their motives and actions and therefore they make it purposely difficult to get the information. Look below at part of the Tennessee Open Records Law.

 

(2)(A) All state, county and municipal records shall, at all times during business hours, which for public hospitals shall be during the business hours of their administrative offices, be open for personal inspection by any citizen of this state, and those in charge of the records shall not refuse such right of inspection to any citizen, unless otherwise provided by state law.

 

Locally I have been refused access to the City of Memphis offices and old Memphis City School offices during business hours with the excuse that I do not have an appointment with a particular person. When I then tried to get an appointment with the person that I wanted to see, my phone calls and emails were not answered. This, according to the Tennessee State open records official, is a violation of state law.

 

Just to illustrate how important transparency in government is, look at the recent revelation of the creation of the Affordable Care Act. MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber, the Obamacare architect, said in 2013 that a lack of transparency and the stupidity of the American voter helped get the law through Congress. See the “too stupid” video clip. http://dailycaller.com/2014/11/11/yet-another-video-emerges-of-obamacare-architect-calling-americans-stupid-video/

 

It is time for all local governmental and educational entities to open all their legally open records in an easily accessible manner to the public that pays all the bills for these services. As a high official at the Shelby County Government Offices (the best of all local governmental agencies) told me on a recent phone call “We work for you, Mr. Saino, and the public”. What a great attitude.