Archive for the ‘Open Records’ Category
January 25, 2016
Tennessee State Shared Revenue Review
In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.
I have been investigating the state of Tennessee taxes collected in Memphis and Shelby County and then the portion returned to us by the state. Then I decided to compare the results with Metro Nashville. In the 2016 upcoming national election one of the big questions is a large versus small central government. Should we send our money to Washington and let them decide how much and for what purpose some of it should be returned to us (less their cut) or should the Federal government stick to the original intent of the constitution such as defend the Country, establish a system of currency, deliver the mail and protect individual rights.
Therefore I decided to look at our local taxes which are sent to Nashville and then a portion is returned to Memphis and Shelby County. Here is the latest state returned revenue comparison sheet showing Memphis, Shelby County and a comparison with Metro Nashville.
You will see the big ones below.
The local option sales tax (the 2-1/4% tax) over and above the 7% Tennessee sales tax. $299 million.
The next big one is the use tax (stuff you buy out of state and ship in). $48 million.
Then down the list: gasoline and motor fuel tax ($17 million), tva in lieu of tax ($14 million) and tourist development zone ($12 million).
The alcoholic and beer tax only amounts to $1.4 million so drink up.
Overall we got $456 million back from the state whereas Nashville got $505 million.
What does it all mean in the big picture? For all its’ problems I trust my local and state government a hell of a lot more than my federal government. What do you think? Let me know.
January 11, 2016
Who Is Responsible For The OPEB Debacle?
The City of Memphis, The State of Tennessee and the active and retired employees of the OLD (no longer existing) Memphis City Schools woke up recently as there was a noise rattling around in the closet. When they opened the closet door out jumped the ghost of over $1 billion dollars of unfunded OPEB (other post employment benefits). (OPEB is the promise of furnishing retirees health care and life insurance at a highly subsidized rate without putting the money aside to pay for it).
Now everyone is saying the ghost doesn’t belong to me. Well here is the story which I have been pointing out for years.
Every politician has been ignoring the OPEB ghost for years. However some have been more responsible than others.
The most responsible people again have been Shelby County people, the old Shelby County School Board and the Shelby County Government. They recognized the problem after the 2007 GASB-45 (Government Accounting Standards Board) regulation. See the attached page showing the 2010 actions of the Board in reducing the unfunded OPEB liability from $548 million in 2007 to $242 million in 2009. They reduced the retiree benefit rules.
Now look at the old Memphis Board of Education report from 2010. They did nothing and the unfunded OPEB liability was $1.5 billion dollars. This is 6.3 times higher than the county but the active payroll of the city schools was only 2.5 times higher than the county school payroll.
Clearly the irresponsible parties are the Old Memphis City School Board, the Old Memphis School Administration and any politicians (City and County) who ignored the growing OPEB problem.
Now, how do we solve the unfunded promise? Unfortunately we have to do to the school system retirees what we had to do to the City of Memphis retirees and to a much lesser extent what the Old County School system had to do to their retirees in 2010. We have to cut their retiree health care benefits. Promises were made by elected people who should have known better or made regardless of knowing better and the chickens are coming home to roost.
December 29, 2015
A Year End Report Card From Joe Saino
Looking back over more than 10 years of reporting on local government I have hope for the future of Memphis and Shelby County. My score card for the major local governments is as follows.
Shelby County Government- A
City of Memphis- C
Shelby County Schools- D
This is not a scientific scoring, just years of experience and dealings with these large government entities. Hopefully the City of Memphis will improve with the inauguration of our new Mayor, Jim Strickland. I have high expectations for him. Past problems at the City can be laid at the feet of past mayors and especially the voting majority of past City Councils. They refused to make the hard choices until the State of Tennessee came in with the fiscal bullwhip.
MLGW under Jerry Collins is well run and efficient. I could wish that they publish more information on their website like annual pension and OPEB reports so that customers do not have to ask for this information through an open records request.
Shelby County has a proven record of good management and is open and above board. Their record on pension and OPEB management compared to the City of Memphis and the old and new school boards has been outstanding.
The old Memphis School System and the new replacement Shelby County School System is a puzzle. The new school system at first looked like they wanted to enter the modern open records world but then when they had the chance; they closed the door on common sense requests. Then they filed a huge lawsuit against the state which is going to cost millions in legal fees and are also trying through the Tennessee School Board Association to charge the public a fee just for asking for access to public data and records. It is a puzzle. They are saying in effect “We know best how to educate your children, so shut up with your requests for information.”
Enough of my scorecard so here is some real data from recent pension reports that I obtained from Memphis, Shelby County and the MLGW.
Payroll of active employees:
MLGW $152 million
Memphis $340 million
County $243 million
Retirees and beneficiaries
MLGW 2597 receiving an average of $38,601 annually
Memphis 4239 receiving an average of $34,014 annually
County $3598 receiving an average of $19,914 annually
MLGW 33 receiving a total of $491,000 annually
Memphis 653 receiving $17,370,000 annually
County 72 receiving $1,506,240 annually
Need I say more? The problem at the City of Memphis is obvious. We need to change the pension board makeup and go to the County disability system.
December 21, 2015
There was an interesting article in the CA on December 18, reporting on a large number of visitors to the Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid. According to the article there were 2 million customers in the first 7-1/2 months. I am hopeful that this report will translate into enough sales taxes that will pay off the millions of dollars that we borrowed to pay for this development. Bass Pro officials didn’t say how the store is performing financially, but an official said the general store has sold 27 tons of fudge. “That’s a lot of fudge,” he said. Let us hope all that fudge will translate into revenue and not a bellyache.
$197 million in taxable and tax exempt bonds were issued for this project. These TDZ revenues to pay off these bonds are received in one lump sum payments from the state in September of each year based on incremental state and local sales tax collections in the TDZ zone by the state as of June 30 of that same year. The TDZ revenues in 2011 shows $12 million none of which came from Bass Pro.
The initial projected TDZ revenue for June 2015 was $20.2 million, an increase of about $8 million due to the Bass Pro Pyramid project. Obviously the delay in the construction of the project will probably cut that figure but I would like to know what the actual figure is for the year ending June 2015. I have asked for this information from the City of Memphis but to date I have not received an answer. Let us hope that that the fudge and moon pie sales and hopefully more expensive items will indicate that we have a bright future for this huge project. Believe me, I want it to succeed.
November 13, 2015
Bass Pro Pyramid Review
Local ABC 24 called and asked me to comment on Bass Pro after 6 months from opening. http://www.localmemphis.com/news/local-news/final-hurdle-remains-for-bass-pro-and-pinch-district
It so happened that I had just spent all day several days previously touring Rhodes College, St Jude and Bass Pro so naturally I am an expert. It was a Wednesday when my wife and I and several out of town visitors did this tour. I must say that Rhodes was outstanding and beautiful. My visitor was a retired orthopedic surgeon and his wife a retired nurse. (He is on the board of Westminster College in Missouri (the site of the famous Winston Churchill speech on the iron curtain). This was before the disastrous University of Missouri incident.)
After visiting Rhodes we went to St. Jude and it was wonderful. Very heartwarming to see the work that they do. Then we went to Bass Pro. As I said it was on a Wednesday at about 2 PM, not exactly prime time.
We toured the ground floor and I was very impressed with the multiple selections of Moon Pies. Also I shopped for camouflaged underwear and pajamas. My wife told me that there was a good selection of women’s clothing (groan). We paid $10 each to ride the elevator to the top and had a good view of the river. We had already had lunch earlier elsewhere but we looked over the menu and it was the typical selection of sandwiches and salads that you could get at dozens of places all over Memphis. The food selection definitely did not match the view.
Now to the financial details. The City of Memphis, through the Memphis Center City Revenue Finance Corporation issued bonds to the tune of $192 million dollars for Warm Lit Shell ($20M) Seismic Retrofit ($25M), Landlord Contribution ($33M), Convention Center Acquisition ($67 M) Pyramid Acquisition ($3.2 M), Lonestar Acquisition ($15 M) and debt reserve and transaction cost of $$28.8 M).
This is to be paid back by increased sales tax revenue over and above a base which will be paid from the State of Tennessee’s sales tax collections for principal and interest. See a distribution report that I obtained from the state of Tennessee on past TDZ zones. Then look at the RKG Associates financial analysis and you will see that they are projectioning an increase in the first full year of $8.1 million more over and above the current level. Keep in mind that each year a new base is set. Also note that ½% of the sales tax goes to the School system.
I sincerely hope that the projections are correct or even underestimated but it will be several years before we know for sure. In the meantime Mayor elect Jim Strickland should publish information on existing City of Memphis financial obligations to the bonds issued by the Memphis Center City Revenue Finance Corporation showing the amount of the outstanding loans and the payment history of each of the obligations. The public has a right to transparency on this financial obligation. The taxpayers are on the hook for these debts even if ad valoren taxes are not. All other taxes collected by the City are obligated.
October 29, 2015
Big Time Bet By The Shelby County School Board
As you have read, the SCS System has filed a massive lawsuit to take the funding out of the hand of the taxpaying public and their elected representatives and put it in the hands of the various school boards across the state of Tennessee. They want to determine how much is required to do the education job and then the taxpayers must come up with the money. The proposition is “MORE MONEY EQUALS BETTER EDUCATION” and they know best how to do it. They just need the resources.
I filed an open records request with the SCS System and asked what the estimated total future cost of the lawsuit would be and asked how much had been billed to date. They responded promptly and said that there was no estimate of total future cost but that they had been billed for $106,775.35 in four monthly billings. This is just the beginning.
Next year there will be an election at the national level for President, for the House of Representatives and for 1/3 of the Senate. If some fiscally responsible people are elected in a majority I hope they will consider the elimination over time of the Department of Education at the Federal level. This department was created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and has grown like most of the Washington establishment. Look at what President Obama has requested for this failure.
In his budget proposal, the president has requested $69.8 billion in discretionary spending for the Department of Education, a $1.7 billion increase over last year’s funding level. This is in addition to $13.3 billion in additional mandatory spending for Pell Grants, bringing the total budget request to $83 billion—a 40 percent increase from Fiscal Year 2008.
No one can claim any success from this monumental failure in educational spending. Let us not repeat this kind of failure at the local level.
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.
September 8, 2015
Massive Lawsuit By The Shelby County Board of Education
In case you have not noticed, the Shelby County Board of Education just filed a lawsuit to compel the taxpayers of the State of Tennessee to fund whatever the state school boards feel is necessary to educate all children to what they feel is adequate education. It does not matter if the taxpayers can afford their idea of what constitutes an adequate education.
I must say on the front end that I want all children to get a good education. However I am a proponent of parental choice, good charter schools and parental vouchers. Let the money follow the child. They say that lack of money is the problem. I say that there is no proof that more money solves the problem. I say that the basic problem is the dissolution of the family structure and that this family structure problem started in the 1960s war on poverty and has gone downhill since then. This is a debate that I welcome.
However I just want to alert you to what is going on and I have several questions that I feel should be answered by the Shelby County School Board and I intend to ask for this information in an open records request. I encourage you also to ask for this data.
- What is the projected future cost of this lawsuit?
- What has been spent so far?
- Will all future legal bills be promptly put on line for the public to see?
- Will all payments in connection with this lawsuit be promptly put on line?
- Will all the cost of SCS legal and administrative work in connection with this lawsuit be recorded and put on line?
What they are asking is a blank check for education with the school boards able to write in the amount.
DO YOU AGREE? LET ME HEAR YOUR OPINION AND LET THEM KNOW YOU OPINION.
Here is the lawsuit and I have listed some of the highlights below.
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
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.
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.
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.