News NewsTracker

Memphis Leaders Struck ’05 Deal To Protect Garbage Workers

The Commercial Appeal over the weekend highlighted a “gentlemen’s agreement” between Memphis leaders and the local sanitation workers’ union, in which the city agreed not to upgrade its fleet of garbage trucks to automated models that require fewer workers, officials told the newspaper. Officials say the decision has cost taxpayers up to $20 million per year since 2005.

“I don’t recall the circumstances or who met with who, or when, but I imagine it occurred when we were preparing to order trucks and it came up in normal discussions with the union,” a Public Works deputy director tells the paper.

The news comes as the city ponders privatizing trash collection and one year after the city imposed a $4.50 per month fee increase for garbage pickup.

The city has 534 employees in its Solid Waste Department. Private companies have told the city they could do the same job with less than half as many workers.

NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Memphis Officials Dislike Proposed Tax Increase, Cuts to Services

Memphis city officials are debating how to close a $60 million deficit in the next fiscal year, with the two options of service cuts and a tax increase on the table. But as the Commercial Appeal reports, politicians interested in self-preservation in an election year are loathe to do either.

A 58-cent property tax hike today would raise $63 million.

The 12-member council appears divided over Wharton’s proposed $676 million budget. Several council members have opposed workforce and holiday reductions but also oppose a tax increase.

Mayor A C Wharton’s administration has also said the city should go after property owners who owe the city back taxes.

Education NewsTracker

In Memphis Merger, Here Comes the Judge

A judge has decided to personally mediate the talks between governments over the consolidation of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, talks that one party has described as futile.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays ordered the Shelby County Schools, Shelby County Commission, Memphis City Schools, Memphis City Council, city of Memphis and state Department of Education to appear today, indicating that he would handle the talks directly after a court-appointed mediator failed to make headway, the Commercial Appeal reports.

Steve Mulroy, a county commissioner and law professor at the University of Memphis, said judicial mediation enhances the “arm-twisting” ability of a judge. The judge can signal strongly that he’s inclined to rule a particular way in order to nudge one or both parties from their stalemated positions.

The parties disagree over the process for merging the two systems. The city, council and commission seek an expanded county school board now, while Shelby County Schools favors a plan passed by the legislature and keeping the Memphis City Schools board as-is until the consolidation process is completed.

County Commissioner Walter Bailey, who represents the commission in the mediation, said the talks so far have been “futile.”

“If this new mediation process does not work Mays’ first order of business would be to decide whether to let the commission move ahead with appointments or grant an injunction sought by five of the seven county school board members to keep the appointment process on hold,” the Memphis Daily News reports.

NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Memphis Budget Balancing Act

If you owe property taxes to the city of Memphis, the city’s coming for you.

The city may sell your land as a quick-fix to balance its budget this year, the Commercial Appeal reports today. That proposal and others, like reducing paid holidays for employees, are under consideration as the city works to reduce a projected deficit of as much as $70 million. As many as 200 city workers may be laid off, the city’s finance whizzes said.

Not likely to face the budget ax are two new six-figure city employees heading the Division of Community Enhancement, charged with reducing blight. The interim director and interim deputy director together make almost $225,000, the newspaper reports.

Education NewsTracker Tax and Budget

Memphis Charter Schools’ Funding Squeezed

Charter schools in Memphis have seen their funds reduced, in some cases by half, as a political tug-of-war between the Memphis City Schools and City Hall plays out.

The city is withholding money owed to the schools system, and the schools in turn have decreased payments to charter schools, which are publicly funded even though they operate independently.

“Some will have to take loans to meet payroll. Others wonder if they can stay open,” the Commercial Appeal reported this week. On Wednesday the newspaper’s editorial board bemoaned the situation, saying “financial foot dragging” will affect the students’ ability to perform on standardized tests. They also point out, as we have, that the pending consolidation of Memphis City and Shelby County schools will bring more uncertainty for charter schools.

And with that, the voters in Memphis may be glad they decided earlier this month to dissolve the district and cede responsibility for educating the city’s youngsters to the county system. Sadly, there seems to be no such “eject” button for Memphis city government.

Education NewsTracker

Memphis City Schools, RIP

Memphis voters have approved by a 2-to-1 margin the merger of the city schools with the Shelby County school system.

But as the Commercial Appeal points out, now the real test begins:

Many oppose the plan, there’s no timeline for carrying it out and it will almost certainly be mired in the ongoing scramble for control by city and county officials, school leaders and legislators.

People on both sides of the issue agree that ultimately, multiple judges will decide when or whether to consolidate Memphis City and Shelby County schools. Tuesday’s vote will likely set off a new round of court challenges, in addition to lawsuits that have already been filed.

Memphis city leaders will likely challenge a new state law from Sen. Mark Norris, which delays the merger to the 2013-14 school year. Also, the county school system is challenging the county commission’s plan for a unified school board for the consolidated systems.

Since the December Memphis City Schools’ board vote that set the stage for this week’s referendum, much of the debate has centered on money — who gets what share of the tax dollars for education and how that balance could change.

Shelby County leaders have sought to make their system a “special school district,” which would allow the county to keep more tax dollars instead of having them redistributed in the larger Memphis school system. Norris’ bill “opens the door (in 2013) for creation of special school districts and municipal school districts in Shelby County, although further legislative action would be required,” according to the Commercial Appeal.

Some Memphis residents have said “that the predominantly white and more-affluent county school system didn’t want to take on the struggles of Memphis, which is predominantly black and has a high percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch,” Education Week notes.

Education NewsTracker

AG Opines on Memphis-Shelby School Merger Voting Issue

Only city of Memphis residents may vote in an upcoming election on whether to merge Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools, according to an attorney general’s opinion issued Monday.

The city has been engaged in a fierce debate over whether to combine the predominantly black city schools with the predominantly white county system since a December vote by the city school board backing the move.

Proponents, including the Memphis Branch of the NAACP, say a merger is best for children in the county and city.

“The sum of the Memphis City and Shelby County schools can be greater than its disparate, warring parts,” the Commercial Appeal’s Wendi Thomas wrote shortly after the vote.

But opponents fear the merger could hamper economic growth and encourage people to leave the area. The Tri-State Defender recently predicted that combining the school systems would  lead to “a further downward spiral of the education system and an unimaginable situation for those that remain.”

Read more:

State attorney general rules on charter surrender vote, WREG Channel 3

Tennessee AG says residents outside Memphis cannot vote on charter surrender, WMC Channel 5

Business and Economy NewsTracker

Wine in Grocery Stores – Another Round

Beer, wine and liquor interests gave more than $576,000 to state-level candidates this year, making the industry one of the top 10 contributors and, of course, one of the most influential on Capitol Hill. By comparison, the top industry, of health professionals, gave $1.8 million.

The numbers are a sure sign that a proposal to allow wine sales in grocery stores could go nowhere when the Legislature convenes in January. The sacred cow is the state’s three-tiered system of distributing wine, which ensures that wholesalers get a cut of every sale. If Kroger and Publix were allowed to buy and sell direct, the thinking goes, the wholesalers would be that much poorer.

The Commercial Appeal explains the economic argument and also hints at a potential compromise:

The state’s liquor retailers and wholesalers have opposed the bill, on the grounds that it would increase access to alcohol by minors and hurt liquor retailers’ business, forcing stores to close and costing many employees their jobs.

Liquor stores in Tennessee are prohibited by law from selling other products and they argue that passage of the bill would put them at a competitive disadvantage with grocery stores. A potential point of compromise would allow liquor retailers to sell other products, including non-alcoholic mixers, snack foods and devices like corkscrews.

Don’t uncork that bottle in celebration just yet, though. The Commercial Appeal reminds us that if the Legislature fails to pass the bill, it would be for the fifth straight year in a row.