Archive for the ‘Taxes’ Category
July 25, 2016
There was an interesting editorial in the Commercial Appeal last Sunday concerning Germantown open records and the battle with Jon Thompson and Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman in order to get information on Germantown government salary, insurance and other perks. Congratulations to Thompson and Freeman. I have been fighting this open records battle since 2004.
Recently I asked the MLGW for current electronic copies of their annual pension and OPEB reports. I asked by email. I received an electronic copy of an open records request form which I filled out and signed electronically and sent it in. I then received the following message.
“Good afternoon, your documents are available for pickup. You can come to the Administration building and the documents will be at the security station.” I then objected to this bureaucratic requirement and sent my objections to Mr. Thompson (MLGW), Mayor Strickland and many others. I eventually got the electronic copies that I asked for and you can now look at the MLGW pension report and the MLGW OPEB report at www.memphisshelbyinform.com.
Now the Tennessee Open Records law does not require furnishing electronic copies but governments with a fully open records policy will furnish the information in electronic format because it is cheaper and easier and nearly all data is already in electronic format. If they want to discourage open records requests they will require you to travel down to their office and pick it up at the security desk.
I like the MLGW and their utility services. Very professional. President Jerry Collins is a great manager and runs a well trained and effective company. I call on the MLGW to put this information (pensions and OPEB) on their website and keep it updated. I also ask them to publish a return on investment report for their smart meter program to show the public how this program will be paid for and the return on the rate payers’ investment.
Now as to the pension and OPEB reports. Shelby County published their annual pension and OPEB reports online. The City of Memphis and MLGW do not.
The MLGW pension fund has a net value of $1.32 billion and $118 million of unfunded liability.
The City of Memphis pension fund has a net value of $2 billion and $533 million of unfunded liability. The City of Memphis does not publish their annual pension report online.
The Shelby County pension fund has a net value of $1.1 billion and $316 million of unfunded liability.
The MLGW OPEB fund has a net value of $333 million and $461 million of unfunded liability.
The City of Memphis OPEB fund has a net value of $17 million and $730 million of unfunded liability. The City of Memphis does not publish their annual OPEB report online.
The Shelby County OPEB fund has a net value of $197 million and $101 million of unfunded liability.
The trouble spots are shown underlined above. Again Shelby County leads in local government in open records policy and fiscal responsibility. I urge you to let local governments know what information you think should be put on their website. What are your thoughts on transparency in government?
July 19, 2016
Lack of Transparency On Local Contracts
I have been investigating the barriers companies have to jump over in order to do business with local governments. As an advocate of open records and transparency, I measure the contract information transparency available to the public (taxpayers are the financiers of government purchases). Therefore let us look at what we (the taxpayers) get to know about government purchases and the cost of trying to direct a percentage of government business to minority, women (MWSBE minority, women small business enterprises) or locally owned small businesses (LOSB).
I was told recently that the County Commission passed a charter amendment a few years back (city also) that any contract over $100k requires 20% minority participation. Bidders include that in their pricing of the project.
I checked to verify the information and was told that the information was not exactly correct. The Locally Owned Small Business (LOSB) ordinance was passed by the County in 2007 and established a target of 20% of all purchases to be awarded to LOSB’s. There is a bidding advantage for LOSB’s of 5% for contracts up to $500,000; 3.5% for contracts up to $750,000; 2.5% for contracts up to $1,000,000 and 2% for contracts over $1,000,000. For large construction projects the county normally establishes a LOSB percentage requirement. According to the source, the County has met the LOSB target each year.
The City of Memphis has the following statement.
WHEREAS, the City of Memphis desires to be proactive in ensuring that economic opportunities in the Memphis Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) are equally available to all individuals or businesses, including minority and women-owned businesses, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity.
Certified AABE (African American black enterprise), HBE (Hispanic American business enterprise), ABE Asian American Business Enterprise, NABE (Native American Business Enterprise), or WBE (Women business enterprise) shall mean an AABE, HBE, ABE, NABE or WBE which has been certified by a City approved central certification agency and approved by the Office of Contract Compliance (OCC).
The initial annual MWBE goals shall be:
- a. Goals for Subcontracting Construction:
- (16 %) – Minority
- (3 %) – Women
- (19 %) – Total goal
- b. Goals for Prime Construction:
- (15 %) – Minority
- (3 %) – Women
- (18 %) – Total goal
- c. Goals for Architecture & Engineering Services:
- (22 %) – Minority
- (7 %) – Women
- (29 %) – Total goal
- d. Goals for Goods and Supplies:
- (12 %) – Minority
- (1 %) – Women
- (13 %) – Total goal
- e. Goals for Non-Professional Services:
- (23 %) – Minority
- (2 %) – Women
- (25 %) – Total goal
- f. Goals for Professional Services:
- (13 %) – Minority
- (2 %) – Women
- (15 %) – Total goal
The annual goals provided above shall be reviewed annually by the EBO advisory committee. These overall MWBE participation goals are only intended to be benchmarks evaluating the overall performance of the EBO program on an annual basis. These participation goals are not and, shall not be quotas for purposes of determining or satisfying annual participation goals.
I have tried to find the actual results of this program but I cannot find anything online. It may be there but I cannot find it. I will ask the City of Memphis in an open records request. What I want for the public to know is the results of the City and County small business and minority programs. What are the percentages and what did it cost over and above lowest and best bid for the work? We, the taxpaying public, deserve to know.
Why Is Doing Business With Local Government So Closed and Difficult?
July 5, 2016
I have wondered about this question for a long time. I have talked to many local business owners and almost all of them say that it is too expensive and difficult to bid on city of county business. I decided to look into how the City and County buy stuff and what we as taxpayers get to know about the successful vendor and how the vendor was selected. What do I, as a taxpayer, want to know?
- If it is a negotiated contract, I want to know who was contacted, who bid and who was selected and why that firm was selected. If more than one firm was contacted for negotiations, I want to know those firms and their bids.
- If it is a sealed bid contract, then I want to see all the bids after opening and if the lowest bid was not selected I want to know the reasons.
- I want to know the qualification process for being accepted as a possible city or county vendor. What do they have to do to get on the qualification list and is the process of qualification really necessary?
I recently met with a ranking County official and we discussed the above points. He wants to open up the sealed bid process so that the public will get to see online the winning bidder and the reasons the winning bidder was chosen over the low bidder if that is the result of the sealed bid process. Currently this is not the case for either the City or the County. We did not discuss the negotiated contract process but I feel that he would be open to more public information about that process. Negotiated contract are necessary in many cases due to time restraints and emergencies and thereby the taxpayers have to have trust in their public officials. By the same process, these public officials have to earn this trust by being open in their dealings and by making open records their gold standard.
The problem with this whole purchasing area is the clamor for equal opportunity and minority access to public contracts. Therefore there is a whole infrastructure set up which is difficult for the average business to navigate. Many just say on the front end that they will not bid public work because it is too difficult and costly to jump over the hurdles. This difficult qualification process necessarily raises the cost of the purchased goods. Here are some examples of what is necessary to even bid on public work.
City of Memphis: click on this: http://www.memphistn.gov/Business.aspx/SupplierRegistration.aspx
And then to here: http://www.memphistn.gov/Business.aspx/Certification.aspx
The Shelby County process is similar but somewhat simpler. However both registration and certification processes are difficult because of the minority and equal opportunity concerns. I want minorities to get a share of the business but I want the taxpayers to be able to see on line that they are doing so and to see what cost we have to pay if the successful bidder is not the one with the lowest price. What premium would you be willing to pay for this objective? Eventually I want open competition between vendors without regard to race, color or any other factor.
Again the County is leading the way in opening their records and they deserve credit for this leadership.
A Solution For Germantown’s And Any Government Open Records Problem
June 20, 2016
There was an article in the Commercial Appeal yesterday concerning a large request for emails in Germantown.
This is part of the article. Germantown, which has paid more than $62,000 in the first half of the year in attorney fees generated by citizen open records requests, is looking to Nashville for relief.
In meetings with Shelby County lawmakers and the state Attorney General, city leaders are researching ways to limit the city’s exposure from the cost of producing large data requests, including potentially charging the costs back to the citizens making the requests.
“Asking for four years of someone’s email — all of them — is not normal,” Mayor Mike Palazzolo said. “Asking for a police report dated Jan. 17, 2009, to clear up an insurance manner is routine. But a wide-cast net that takes up our professionals’ time and legal staff to review is something residents need to know is very costly.”
The City of Germantown’s proposed budget for next year includes a 64 percent increase (from $350,000 to $575,000) in legal fees. City staff suggested an $80,000 increase, but aldermen upped it to $225,000 — for the $575,000 total — based on the size of the legal bills the city is receiving to blackout sensitive data in City Administrator Patrick Lawton’s emails.
In December, resident Sarah Wilkerson-Freeman requested two years of his email, including all attachments.
Under law, governments in Tennessee may charge 15 cents a copy plus labor costs for requests that take more than an hour for staff to gather.
Wilkerson-Freeman has asked to inspect the data, which is free, and then requests copies made of pages she wants.
The problem with this type of open ended request is “REDACTION OF INFORMATION WHICH IS NOT OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.” This non public information could be such things as social security numbers, home addresses, private medical information and other non public information according to the Tennessee Open Records law.
My ANSWER to this redaction problem is a new email protocol that should be adopted by all bodies subject to the Tennessee Open Records Law. This new protocol would apply to all new emails and text messages. Under this protocol the body of the email or text message would be public information. If needed there would be two types of attachments to the basic email text. #1 attachment would be any data that is open to the public. #2 attachment would be any information that is specifically mentioned in the Tennessee open records law as not public information such as addresses, social security information, restricted medical information and exempted legal communications. Then when a request for emails comes in from the public, the requested emails could be easily sent without any #2 attachments containing redactable information. This would do away with the high prices lawyers reading through a bunch of emails. The creators of the emails would have to be trained in the new electronic communications protocol. No personal messages would be allowed on public paid for email services. A public transparency board should be created in each Tennessee County to periodically review emails and text messages to insure compliance with the new protocol.
Any email sent from a government entity, or agent thereof, from a private email account that would otherwise be considered a public record should be carbon copied or forwarded to an official email account created for the purpose of the government entity, or agent thereof, to maintain transparency of and provide a record of that public information.
Let’s face it. Generally politicians hate open records and transparency and they will use the expense gambit to restrict public access to their records. I would appreciate your thoughts on my proposal for a new public records creation protocol. It seems to me a low cost answer to the “I have to hire a lawyer to redact those email requests” from local politicians. Transparency and open records comes from the top. Lack of transparency comes from the same place.
May 12, 2016
Bureaucracy Is Alive And Well
Bureaucracy exists not only in Washington DC where it thrives and continues to grow, but right here locally in Shelby County Tennessee. Here is an example.
A number of years ago I filed up to six lawsuits (pro se, for myself) in Chancery Court. When faced with a recalcitrant government agency that refused to comply with our Tennessee Open Records laws I would troop down to Chancery Court with lawsuit papers in hand and plunk down $211.50 CASH money and file the suit. Sometime later when the lawsuit papers were delivered to the Respondent I would sometimes get the requested access action. Other times I would have to wait for the respondent to show up (or not show up) in court. I remember one time waiting in Judge Golden’s chancery court for an attorney from the old Memphis School System to show up. They failed to show up and when I spoke to the court I requested my $211.50 back and an additional $1000 for, my time and expenses. Judge Golden gave me the right for the $211.50 but refused the $1000. The reason for the refusal was that I was not a lawyer and had filed pro se. I guess the legal fraternity sticks together. The judge is a great guy and later when we meet at a gathering, we laughed about the incident.
However apparently I failed to receive back one of the $211.50 fees and I received the attached letter from Chancery Court. I went downtown to Chancery Court and filled out the requested form. The young lady that helped me said that I would be notified when the check was available to be picked up. I requested that the check be mailed and she said that their policy was that checks could only be mailed to out of town people but that I would have to pick up the check in person since I lived in Memphis. “NO MAILING LOCALLY WAS NOT PERMISSIBLE!”. I offered to pay for mailing but that was refused. 17 MILES DOWNTOWN, PARKING FEE, GO THROUGH SECURITY, PICK UP CHECK, 17 MILES BACK HOME. Bureaucracy at work right here in River City.
They said that I would be notified when the check was available. When I received no notice I emailed the Court but still got no answer. The next time I was downtown I went to the Court and sure enough I got the check. I hurried and deposited it as soon as possible.
Now the thing that really galled me was my knowledge that this was the same Court that suffered a $1 million loss beginning in 2008 and ending with a conviction in 2012. So much for the vigilance of bureaucracy!
April 25, 2016
Brilliant At The Basics
Our new Mayor has come out with his proposed 2017 City budget. I have not had a chance to study it closely yet but I will in the next few weeks. However a recent open records request confirmed what I suspected was happening.
Read the CA article of April 7, 2015. In a CA article (April 7, 2015) our present Mayor Strickland questioned the possibility of Sammons doubling his City pension. In my recent open records request to the City of Memphis I asked for current pension payments to retired City of Memphis employees. I wanted to compare the current pensions to past pensions. Sure enough there was Jack Sammons receiving an annual pension of $68,457.36, up from his previous pension of $34,960.56. Doubled!!!
How has this happened? Apparently there is a provision in the City of Memphis pension ordinance that allows the pension to be recalculated based on the highest 12 month salary overturning any fiscally responsible actuarial calculations. This is a public employee scam that needs to be corrected. Here is what is done at the County government. Plan A and Plan C both compute pensions based on the employee’s highest 36 consecutive months of earnings. The new Plan D computes pensions based on the highest 60 consecutive months of earnings. Plan D was effective July 1, 2011 and has proven to be a less costly plan because of the earnings calculation plus the lower years of service multiplier and the retirement age requirement.
Then there is he abuse of the City of Memphis pension board of LINE OF DUTY DISABILITY. This is costing the City up to $14 million per year. The rate of line of duty disability approval at the City is ten time higher per active employee than the MLGW and Shelby County Government. These built in actuarially unsound pension provisions need to be changed as part of the Brilliant Basics.
March 29, 2016
This is a story of our two Health Education and Housing Facility Boards, one is a Shelby County HEHFB and one is a City of Memphis, HEHFB. I have asked for copies of bond information including Bond Counsel fees and other bond Issuance and Professional fees. As usual, it was fairly easy to get the information from the County Board and impossible to get it from the City board. I finally got some information about 5 bond issues (MemphisHEHFB) from the State of Tennessee Comptroller after no response from the City of Memphis board. I am still waiting for additional information from the State of Tennessee that generally has been very forthcoming. I have previously published the information about the 5 bonds issued by the Memphis board and here is a recap of the information from the Shelby County Board followed by the City of Memphis Board’s 5 bond issues that we have. Please note that the Shelby County HEHFB has a written policy limiting the Board Counsel fee. There is no such policy for the Memphis HEHFB and therefore they paid $59,000 more on just 5 bond issues on which we have information.
|Name of Project from the Shelby County HEHFB||Bond Amount||Bond Counsel Fee||Board Counsel Fee||Maximum Board Counsel Fee Allowed per County Policy||Total of All Fees for Bond Issue|
|Southern College of Optometry||$9.8M||$25,000 for Bond Counsel, Purchaser and Trustee Counsel||$12,500||$19,800||$29,000|
|Eastwood Apts 2012||$1.1M||$36,000||$3,400||$3,300||$114,528.37
|St. Agnes, 2012||$5.5M||$30,733||$13,155||$14,000||$50,388|
|Grace St. Luke’s Episcopal School 2012||$5.875M||$30,000||$14,970||$14,750||$70,533|
|The Village of Germantown 2012||$39.96M||$160,000||$48,160||$49,960||$1,418,414|
|Trezevant Manor 2013||$66.475M||$120,000||$49,805||$76,475||$1,578,135.50|
|St Benedict 2013||$10M||$15,000||$7,500||$20,000||$33,000|
|Countryside North Apartment 2013||$5M||$42,000||$18,122.50||$13,000||$191,446.45|
|Name of Project from the Shelby County HEHFB||Bond Amount||Bond Counsel Fee||Board Counsel Fee||Maximum Board Counsel Fee Allowed per County Policy||Total of All Fees for Bond Issue|
|Southern College of Optometry 2014||$9.8M||$25,000||$12,500||$12,500||$43,500|
|Presbyterian Day School 2014||$10M||$10,000||$5,000||$5,000||$15,000|
|The Village of Germantown 2014||$21.94M||$142,000||$30,140||$71,000||$1,020,587|
|St. George Independent School 2015||$32.585M||$40,000||$20,000||$50,585||$106,936|
|Rhodes College 2015||$21.35M||$55,000||$27,500||$27,500||$294,646|
|Name of Project from the Memphis HEHFB||Bond Amount||Bond Counsel Fee||Board Counsel Fee||Maximum Board Counsel Fee Allowed per County Policy||Total of All Fees for Bond Issue|
|Uptown Senior Housing Project 2006||$4M||$40,000||$25,000||$11,000||$222,550|
|Arbors of Hickory Ridge||$11.45M||$26,000||$30,500||$21,450||$235,767|
|John Madison Exum Towers||$19M||$85,000||$40,000||$29,000||$159,600|
|Uptown Manor Senior Project 2015||$2,825M||$21,000||$21,350||$8,475||$278,687|
|Total of actual Board Counsel Fee versus fee per County limitation fee||$140,350||$81,047
The savings here would have been $59,303 if county policy applied
As you will see most of the above County bond issues were for educational, medical and retirement facilities. Only two (Countryside and Eastwood) were similar to what has been financed by bonds from the Memphis HEHFB.
My investigation of these two boards was instigated by the Global Ministry story and the bond downgrade. There is a real question of transparency and adequate ethics rules, conflict of interest rules and rules concerning competition for front end bond expenses. I have not yet, in response to my open records request, received past bond information from the Memphis HEHFB. I have received past bond information from the State of Tennessee (Steve Osborne, Senior Analyst, Comptroller of the Treasury ǀ State and Local Finance). Here is some of the information that he sent showing past bond expenses and who participated.
Here is a list of past bond work done by Charles Carpenter (board counsel for the Memphis board). While Mr. Carpenter is a competent bond counsel lawyer, there needs to be more transparency in the issuance of these bonds, written conflict of interest rules, limitation of front end bond costs and competition for the various issuance costs. There is also a need for a public discussion of the best and most cost efficient method to provide adequate housing for those unable to work and provide needed housing for themselves.
March 22, 2016
Where Does The Increased Downtown Tax Revenue Come From?
I read with interest the March 20th Sunday article in the Commercial Appeal entitled Bass Pro sales near $45M in nine months. This would be from May 2015 thru January 2016. This is indeed good news for cash strapped Memphis but the question still remains in my mind, what downtown sales tax businesses are responsible for an increase of over $7 million in Tourist Development Zone sales taxes returned to Memphis in the fiscal year from July 1, 2014 to June 30, 2015. Read the article at http://www.memphisshelbyinform.com/2016/02/16/tdz-tourist-development-zone-revenue-review/
Now the CA article claimed that the Bass Pro Pyramid sales for June 2015 were $7.1 million. So let us assume that May 2015 (the opening month) was $6 million or a total for the first two months of $13 million. This would account for about $1.17 million in additional sales tax returns to the downtown TDZ. But there was over $7 million extra TDZ returns in the year ending June 30, 2015. This is the question I asked the Downtown Memphis Commission? They said they would investigate and let me know. To date I have heard nothing from them.
In any event, considering that Memphis is in such desperate need of additional income, it is good news to hear that the incremental sales taxes for 2015 over and above 2014 are up over $7 million. Let us hope that this trend continues.
Can any of you readers tell me what downtown businesses in the downtown TDZ zone, other than Bass Pro, could be responsible for the big increase in TDZ incremental sales taxes? Let me know at email@example.com.
March 15, 2016
The Hidden Cost of Health Education and Housing Board Bonds
The Commercial Appeal recently published a story about a downgrade of a local bond issue as follows. “On Feb. 12, the Bank of New York Mellon Trust Company, which oversees the$11.8 million bond, sent a notice of default to bondholders notifying them the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had ended its contract with the borrower, Global Ministries Foundation.”
I have been researching the whole issue of City and County boards and commissions and particularly the Memphis Health Education and Housing Facility Board. I asked that board for a list of bonds issued by the Board for the last five years with cost data and information of the parties receiving payment upon the issuance of the bonds. The board has failed to respond to that request for open records. Therefore I went to the State of Tennessee and received five reports on local bond issues from Steve Osborne, Senior Analyst, Comptroller of the Treasury, State and Local Finance. Here are the five issues I received.
The five reports are very revealing but first I have to tell you about my request to the Shelby County Health, Education and Housing Facility Board (same name as the similar City HEHFB) but a completely different board. I asked for their documents on ethics and conflict of interest policy and I received it as shown. I particularly call your interest to page 6 wherein is shown a maximum fee calculation for the legal fee of Bond Counsel.
I have shown below the fee paid to the bond counsel of the Memphis HEHFB board on the five recent bond issues versus what would be the fee from the Shelby County Board HEHFB.
|Name of Project||Bond Amount||Actual Bond Counsel Fee City of Memphis HEHFB||Maximum Bond Counsel Fee of County HEHFB|
|Arbors of Hickory Ridge Project||$11,450.000||$26,000||$21,450|
|Housing and Social Services||$4,061,000||$25,255.08||$11,122|
|John Madison Exum Towers and Apartment I and II||$19,000.000||$85,000||$29,000|
|Uptown Housing Senior Project 2006||$4,000,000||$40,000||$11,000|
|Uptown Manor Senior Project||$2,825,000||$21,000||$13,062.50|
|Total Bond Counsel Fee||$197,255.08||$85,634.50|
On these five bond issues, this is $111,621 more than the County maximum amount in their ordinance. But this is just the beginning of the cost of the bond issuance. The total for these five bond issues just for the Memphis HEHFB is $967,304.03.
Then there is the question of a possible conflict of interest although apparently there is no provision that I have been able to obtain concerning a City of Memphis conflict of interest policy although I have been told that the Strickland Administration is working on such a policy.
I think that it is high time that we get a discussion going on this high cost of bond issuance and is this approach to adequate housing for low income citizens the best and most efficient method. Also there needs to be a clear and open policy on bond issuance fees, conflict of interest and ethics.
March 8, 2016
I will raise my $106,000 bet by $234,000
Last October I posted a blog article describing the lawsuit filed by the Shelby County School system board for the purpose described below in my posting. A few days ago I asked for an update of the current billed cost of the lawsuit. They upped the ante by $234,000 for a total to date of $340,000. Obviously they think spending your money is worth it. Who knows what it may cost in the end. I ask you the taxpayers of Memphis and Shelby County this. Do you want to turn over your taxing authority to the Shelby County School Board and let them determine what taxes you must pay for the education of your children? This is what they are asking in the suit. As a template, consider what results we have achieved nationally from the Federal Department of Education as shown below. Let me know what you think of this lawsuit.
Big Time Bet By The Shelby County School Board
Posted by jsaino on Oct 29, 2015
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.