Archive for the ‘Schools’ Category
August 25, 2015
Transparency And Government
I am always amazed at the arrogance of bureaucrats. Nationally we have a festering case of arrogance and lack of transparency in the Hillary Clinton email scandal. Another example is the pending Iranian executive agreement which is terrible in what we know and much worse in the hidden side agreements that they are withholding.
On a national scale the above examples are life threatening and scary. I do what I can and let my senators and representatives know what I think. Locally I think we have more direct influence and I want to call on you to help me and others by letting the state and local officials know how you feel. Here is a prime example of government arrogance.
Currently, Tennessee law allows citizens free access to inspect public records, but allows charges if the citizen wants copies. There are bills to allow additional public records fees that are being sponsored by state Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, and state Rep. Steve McDaniel, R-Parkers Crossroads, at the request of the Tennessee Association of School Boards. TCOG (Tennessee coalition for open government), TPA (Tennessee press association) and other citizen groups opposed the proposed legislation because of concerns that new fees would be used to block access to public records that provide government accountability, and be abused in the same way copy fees have been abused. (more…)
Let’s Take a Look At OPEB, Retiree Health Care Costs!
July 28, 2015
Yesterday there was an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Relief for Cities’ Budget-Busting Health-Care Costs”. It talked about new accounting rules for retiree health care plans. Nationwide the total unfunded liability is close to $1 trillion dollars.
For the first time the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) will require local government to report their obligations to retirees as liabilities on their balance sheet. (Side Note: The Federal Government wants cities to report this but the federal government continues to ignore their multiple front unfunded liability.)
So I decided to take a look at Memphis, Shelby County, Shelby County Schools and Nashville.
Unfunded Liability for OPEB, 7/1/2014
Memphis $716 million
Shelby County $243 million
Shelby County Schools $1.43 billion
Nashville Metro $2.03 billion (including metro schools)
The striking thing about this is that the only adult in the above group is the Shelby County government. There was a warning back in 2007 from the GASB about unfunded OPEB liability and Shelby County took action and forced retirees over 65 who were eligible (or their spouse was eligible) to use Medicare as the primary payer with a County supplementary plan as the backup. They required those retirees under the age of 65 without a Medicare eligible spouse to pay a higher health care premium based on years of service. The City and apparently Nashville did nothing. This led to the above huge numbers.
The City of Memphis finally took action which has led to the current turmoil among the retirees and the unions. The school system and Nashville are finally facing their fate and will be required to make hard choices. I call on the City of Memphis to not go back on their late hard choices on retiree health care costs and go forward with their adopted but late difficult decision.
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 26, 2015
The Great OPEB Dump
OPEB (other post employment benefits), basically retirement health care benefits, are much in the news. Retirees are acting like it is a great surprise that their health care plans are being cut and possibly it is a surprise. They made the mistake of believing political promises.
But look at the facts. Funding for the school systems (the old Memphis City Schools and the old Shelby County Schools) was always the responsibility of the Shelby County Government. The City of Memphis kicked in some money over the years and then when things got tight at the City, they cut that funding and the Courts said NO, they had to continue the funding on the basis of the principle of MAINTENANCE OF EFFORT.
For years the old City of Memphis Board of Education had a free hand and they loaded up the budget and the teachers and other unions participated in the loading. In particular look at the OPEB provisions of the old City School Board versus the old Shelby County School Board.
Here is a statement from the 2010 Shelby County audited financial document. Their unfunded OPEB liability went from $787 million in 2008 to $242 million in 2009. Look at the reason.
“The Board began recognition of OPEB on July 1, 2007. Limited trend information may be discerned from the three valuations made to date. The change in AAL for OPEB from the June 30, 2008 to the June 30, 2009 valuation date was due to actuarial assumption changes related to reduction in claim costs for post-65 retirees. Effective January 1, 2011, post-65 retirees formerly covered under the self-insured plan will be covered under an insured Medicare Supplement plan which is estimated to reduce claim cost by 63% to 72% depending on age. Additional reductions are anticipated due to census changes, changes in retiree contributions, and any retirements or terminations that did not occur as expected in the prior valuation.”
Then look at the old City of Memphis School Board OPEB condition and lack of action from their 2010 CAFR (Comprehensive Annual Financial Report).
AS OF JUNE 30, 2010, THE ACTUARIAL ACCURED LIABILITY FOR BENEFITS WAS $1,534,912,045 (that is $1.5 billion), ALL OF WHICH WAS UNFUNDED.
They failed to take the actions that the old Shelby County School Board took. They eventually dumped this unfunded liability on the new Shelby County School Board and the County and City taxpayers.
Again this is the result of failure of the old City School Board to recognize the huge unfunded promise and like the City of Memphis they will be forced to make the retirees pay for their past poor decisions.
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.
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.
November 13, 2014
My brother and I ran a manufacturing business for some 40 years here in Memphis (Saino Manufacturing Company) and then we sold the business and retired and continued in my field of fire protection as a consultant. Then in 2004 I turned to local government interests and the issue of Transparency In Government.
I found that this was not only a national problem but also a state and local problem. Many politicians feel that they do not want the public to know the details of their motives and actions and therefore they make it purposely difficult to get the information. Look below at part of the Tennessee Open Records Law.
(2)(A) All state, county and municipal records shall, at all times during business hours, which for public hospitals shall be during the business hours of their administrative offices, be open for personal inspection by any citizen of this state, and those in charge of the records shall not refuse such right of inspection to any citizen, unless otherwise provided by state law.
Locally I have been refused access to the City of Memphis offices and old Memphis City School offices during business hours with the excuse that I do not have an appointment with a particular person. When I then tried to get an appointment with the person that I wanted to see, my phone calls and emails were not answered. This, according to the Tennessee State open records official, is a violation of state law.
Just to illustrate how important transparency in government is, look at the recent revelation of the creation of the Affordable Care Act. MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber, the Obamacare architect, said in 2013 that a lack of transparency and the stupidity of the American voter helped get the law through Congress. See the “too stupid” video clip. http://dailycaller.com/2014/11/11/yet-another-video-emerges-of-obamacare-architect-calling-americans-stupid-video/
It is time for all local governmental and educational entities to open all their legally open records in an easily accessible manner to the public that pays all the bills for these services. As a high official at the Shelby County Government Offices (the best of all local governmental agencies) told me on a recent phone call “We work for you, Mr. Saino, and the public”. What a great attitude.
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.
July 24, 2014
There is a very important election going on. Early voting is going on. General early voting started Monday July 21st and early voting ends Saturday August 2nd. The last voting day is Thursday August 7th but only at your normal local voting site.
The ballot is huge. I have attached the ballot with my selections. I want you to make your own choices but I want you to get out and vote.
I have been working with Eve and Eddie Settles and they have done a wonderful job in researching the candidates. Be sure to go to www.backinriversity.com and read about the research they have done.
You will have to declare that you want to vote in the democrat or republican primary. This is for the Governor, United States Senate, United States House of Representatives, the Tennessee Senate, the Tennessee House of Representatives, and the State Democrat or Republican executive committee people. This party declaration will not prevent you from voting on the rest of the ballot which is open.
The final page of the ballot is interesting. It is to vote to Retain or Replace the Tennessee Supreme Court judges (3 ea.), Court of Appeals Judges (10 ea.) and Court of Criminal Appeals judges (10 ea.).
The Tennessee legislature voted recently to let the Judicial Nominating Commission to expire and in November 2014 we will vote whether to adopt a constitutional amendment for Tennessee, a system like the one set forth in the US Constitution. I believe that an 8 year term is sufficient and should be at the end of a distinguished legal career or the justice should go back to his legal practice to earn his living, not be a career justice. Therefore I support the REPLACE vote.