Archive for the ‘Open Records’ Category
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.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.
- Fiduciary responsibility.
- Due Diligence
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.