Archive for the ‘Taxes’ Category

Term Limits

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

January 8, 2015

There was a recent editorial in the CA about the upcoming 2015 city elections and term limits. This is a subject that is close to my heart. Let me be clear. I am for reasonable term limits for all elected public offices from the President on down.

At the Federal level, thank goodness that the office of President is limited to two four year terms. Now it is time for the senate and the house to institute at least a twelve year limit (two six years terms and six two year terms). The argument that our politicians need long experience in government to make good decisions is greatly overrated by actual performance.

Now as to the new term limits for the City of Memphis. I would like you to remember how this came about.

Without going in to a long history lesson, it came about by the actions of Mr. John Lunt, a Germantown resident but a great Memphis businessman. He was incensed by the foolish January 2001 pension resolution allowing elected and appointed people to receive a pension after twelve years regardless of age. This has cost the City of Memphis millions. Mr. Lunt instituted a charter commission election with the help of thousands of voters which the politicians fought tooth and nail. The citizens got behind the proposal and it passed.

The one good result of that effort was term limits for the Mayor and City Council. Myron Lowery was the sometimes chairman of that Commission and thank you Myron for your support of the citizens. Shelby County already had term limits in their charter which certain members of the County Commission fought in court but lost.

Public spirited citizens should come forward and offer their services in elected positions but after four or eight years, they should go back to the private sector and earn their living.

As a retiree I ran for City Council in 2007 and I thank the over 16,000 voters who voted for me. My wife and children thank the voters who gave Shea Flinn and Kemp Conrad more votes. They both have done good work for the City of Memphis. I encourage young new people to come forward and put their ideas for good government before the voters. I encourage retirees to get involved in the issues and lend their experience in letters, calls, blogs and unpaid public service positions. Good government needs input from the citizens and tax payers. Do your part and get involved.

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!

The Fairgrounds TDZ

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

December 16, 2014

There has been a lot of discussion back and forth about approving this project and its impact on our economy and education funding. I have been doing some research on this matter and it is quite confusing. I would like to point out the most important points.

  • The use of a TDZ is proposed because it is supposed to be risk free. The proponents claim that the tax payers are not at risk and the risk is all on the bond purchasers. That is not true because if the incremental sales tax increases are not sufficient to cover the principle and interest, then the taxpayers are the backup less the ad valorem (property tax) tax base. My point here is that if these bonds issued for the Fairgrounds TDZ are the same as those for the downtown TDZ zone and if the incremental tax revenue is not sufficient to cover the required bond payments, then all city revenue other than the Ad Valorem Tax (basically property taxes) will be called on to make up the difference. It is not risk free. If you look at the City of Memphis 2013 general fund budget you will see that ad valorem taxes are about 40% of the revenue. The rest presumably would be subject to the bond insurance.
  • There is a question about the effect on education funding of a TDZ zone. According to the Tennessee Department of Education, half of the 2.25% portion local option sales tax must be appropriated to education.
  • Another important point is that each year a new base will be set for the TDZ zone at the level it grew or declined to the year before. The increase in sales taxes will be measured from this new last year level. Only this increase less the education portion will be available to pay the bonds.
  • There is a lot of push back in the proposed size of the proposed fairgrounds TDZ zone. The proponents of the fairgrounds project want to include Cooper Young and Overton Square because these areas are successful areas and the proponents of Fairgrounds want to take advantage of their success to finance the Fairgrounds. They are afraid that it cannot stand on its own merits. See the attached map of the proposed zone area.
  • Finally there is a possible increase in the 7% portion of the sales tax in the TDZ. This portion will go first to pay off the bonds. If there is any left over after paying off the debt, it will go to the local government for education and other purposes. The problem with including Cooper/Young and Overton Square is that their success will be used to finance the Fairgrounds risky venture.

This is another real estate venture done by the government rather than development professionals with taxpayers taking the risk rather than private investors.

Pension Reform At The City Of Memphis

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

December 4, 2014

 

Pension Reform At The City Of Memphis

Finally the Memphis City Council has taken action to address our unfunded pension liability. Eight members decided that we needed reform and took decisive action to get this under control. The unions are not happy and will probably take this action to court in a lawsuit.

Mayor Wharton originally proposed that the City of Memphis go to a defined contribution system for all new employees and those unvested employees with less than 10 years of service. There were, of course, objections to including those unvested employees and later on a different proposal came out from the administration which was a cash balance plan. A cash balance plan needs some explanation and you can read about cash balance plans in the attached article.

In the City Council meeting it appeared that Myron Lowery’s plan which would include only new employees and would have the least savings for the City of Memphis would get the seven votes. However the City Council voted for the Hybrid cash balance plan (8 YES, 5 NO) and only those with more than 7.5 years of service would be covered under the old expensive defined benefit plan. Everyone else as of the start of the plan in 2016 would be under the new plan.

The impact on the unfunded liability of the approved plan in year one would be a savings of 6.8 million dollars and would reduce the unfunded liability in the first year by 60 million dollars. This is as compared to the Myron Lowery plan of zero savings the first year in dollars and unfunded liability reduction.

Again this is not the final decision and according to the commercial appeal this approval will be discussed again in committee in two weeks. Stay tuned. Attached are the Hybrid pension options.

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.

ON THE EDGE (Economic Development Growth Engine)

Thursday, October 30th, 2014

October 30, 2014

ON THE EDGE (Economic Development Growth Engine)

Last Tuesday I attended the Memphis Rotary Club Luncheon at the University Club. The speaker was Mr. Reid Dulberger, President of EDGE and related entities.

He presented an excellent presentation of the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) program. His main point in favor of Pilots is his contention that without the Pilot program Memphis or Shelby County (or both) would lose the opportunity for new jobs or investment and future enhanced tax revenue. An example would be a company that expresses an interest in investing here or somewhere else. Unless we give them a tax break for up to 15 years, they say the company will go elsewhere.  So the choice is nothing or something. That seems clear enough.

Another example is an existing local business taxpayer who says they want to expand but they need a tax break or they will not expand or they (more…)

The MLGW Island

Monday, October 27th, 2014

November 27, 2014

The MLGW Island

There was a very good and interesting article in a recent issue of the Memphis Flyer. It was written by Les Smith, a reporter for WHBQ Fox-13 News. The point of the article was his belief that the MLGW is and always has been tone deaf to its customers. The most recent example of the deafness, according to Les, was MLGW announcing the need for a 2 percent hike in the residential water rate just after receiving a tongue lashing from City Council member Wanda Halbert.

As a former member of the MLGW Board of Directors and a long time observer of their services, I have the following observations.

  1. Over the past years MLGW has been a well run organization delivering electricity, natural gas and clean water in a professional manner. However there have been times when politics caused problems with the management, specifically when Mayor Herenton put Joseph Lee in charge.
  2. The employees generally are well trained and they respond to weather related outages in a prompt and professional manner.
  3. With the exception of Lee, the top job at the MLGW has been filled by professionals with the highest integrity.
  4. Utility rates are competitive compared to other cities of similar size.

I have studied the MLGW financial statements over the years and they are clear and complete. I have in the past contested the surplus in net worth as inconsistent with their constitutional nonprofit status. However they contend that they need a certain percentage of unrestricted assets to cover unpaid bills and expenses. You can argue about the size of the unrestricted cash but I do not think it is unreasonable.

(more…)

Finally A Defined Contribution Pension Plan

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

October 7, 2014

 

Finally A Defined Contribution Pension Plan

 

Today the City Council will consider a defined contribution pension plan for City employees with less than 10 years of service (as of July 1, 2015) and new employees hired after that date. I have been recommending this for years and finally the City Council will consider this reasonable plan. Here are the proposed ordinances.

Ordinance #5554-Adopt a defined contribution pension plan.

Ordinance #5553- Transferred participants to the defined contribution plan.

Ordinance #5552- Five or more years of service and age 65.

I have been recommending a defined contribution pension plan for years ever since I was on the Shelby County pension revision committee. This is fair for the private sector taxpayers who generally have no defined benefit retirement plan. It will probably be better for those City of Memphis employees in the future if the City’s pension investments perform as they have over the last 25 years (over 9% return).

Will the City Council and the Administration follow through and pass these ordinances? We will see but you have to consider that a year from now there will be an election for the new City Council and the city Mayor. What do politicians do when faced with an upcoming election? You have to look no further than the upcoming November 2014 national election. These changes are needed and should also apply eventually to the MLGW. Shelby County should adopt a similar plan but only for new employees, not those currently employed but not vested. This exception is in recognition of their past good fiscal responsibility as compared to the City of Memphis.

There Are Promises And Then There Are Promises

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

September 18, 2014

There Are Promises And Then There Are Promises

 

Promises are only as good as the character of the promiser and laws to back up the promise. The City of Memphis made promises in the past about pension benefits and also about retiree health care benefits. The pension benefits were backed up by law and generally could only be changed by bankruptcy (look at Detroit). However retiree health care benefits are not protected by law and are subject to change by the governing body.

 

Recently certain publications have pointed to Nashville as the model that Memphis should emulate. Therefore I decided to look at Nashville (Metro Davidson) and see what their numbers look like.

 

The first thing that struck me was that the Nashville Metropolitan Council consisted of 41 members. Our 13 is bad enough. Imagine a meeting where all 41 want to get their opinion on the record.

 

Then I looked at the pension and OPEB numbers. Their pension liability was funded to 84.6% as compared to 72.6% for Memphis. However their OPEB unfunded liability is $1.88 billion compared to $1.29 billion for Memphis. Therefore the state of Tennessee looked at Memphis and said that you are low on gas for the pension fund and also the OPEB fund and therefore you have to do something. However Nashville gets a pass because they can always cancel the OPEB promise in the future if they get in a pension contribution bind. Would you want 41 metro council members rather than the 26 we now have (13 City and 13 County) representing the City and County especially when the County has been doing a good job compared to the City.

 

Nashville is certainly vibrant and has grown whereas Memphis has been basically stagnant. However, you should be careful about claiming that the difference between Memphis and Nashville is the result of a metro government versus two separate governments in Shelby County.

Confusion At City Hall

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

September 8, 2014

Confusion At City Hall

 

It was interesting to watch the confusion at the committee discussions Tuesday (a week ago)  about the budget. The following was in the budget document.

 

The proposed FY 2015 Operating Budget includes an increase of approximately $15 million to help fund our pension system. Combined with a FY14 contribution of $20 million, pension payments will be approximately $35 million. Since 2008, financial constraints have prevented us from paying the full Actuarially Required Contribution (ARC) needed to maintain solvency long-term. The current ARC is approximately $95 million.

 

Under newly enacted Tennessee law, the City will be required to ramp up our annual contributions until we reach 100%, no later than 2020.

 

The FY 2015 Operating Budget includes fundamental changes to medical benefits provided to current and former employees. First, the FY 2015 Budget assumes that the city will no longer pay 70% of the health care premium of retired, Medicare-eligible employees, their spouses and dependents. These retirees will have options: remain on the City’s plan; join plans offered by either their current employers or their spouses’ employers; purchase Medicare supplement plans; or join the new Affordable Care Act’s health insurance exchanges or private exchanges. This change will save approximately $27 million in FY 2015. Also, it will be the first step toward eliminating the $1.3 billion unfunded OPEB (Other Post Employee Benefits Programs) liability. Second, the Budget assumes that we implement long overdue changes to the base health plan that will result in an additional $4 million savings in FY 2015.

 

The City Council and the Administration are looking for ways to save money to increase the pension fund contribution. The easy target was the health insurance costs for active employees and retirees. However the real problem is the pension structure itself. We have too many retirees  from the City when compared to the County. The ratio of retirees to active employees at the City of Memphis is 79 per 100 versus 57 per 100 at the County. This of course means more retirees on the City health care plan. Then consider that the average City pension is $31,000 versus $19,000 at the County. Also the average health care cost for retirees at the City is $10,900 versus $7,100 at the county. The whole pension fund at the City needs an independent study to determine why more people proportionally are retired at the City than the County. This and the past refusal to take needed reforms is the root cause of the current problem.