In our May 19th issue, we asked some community leaders, "What Would You Do?" to improve Memphis. We got a lot of bright ideas from these folks and a lot of letters from our readers, many of whom had ideas of their own. What follows is a sampling of reader suggestions some down-to-earth, some pie-in-the sky, some just silly but most of them well worth considering. Politicians and civic leaders, take heed.
Bruce VanWyngarden, editor
How To Improve the Schools
by Jay Foshee (Memphis)
The biggest problem the city faces is fixing its school system. And that takes money. What I picture is that years from now, Memphis children will go to schools with names such as FedEx Middle School or Pepsi Elementary. Their school uniforms could have Nike logos on them; their backpacks might be donated by McDonald's. All desks will have company logos on them.
Textbooks will have ads something along the lines of "The story of the Civil War is brought to you by Ford." Pens and pencils will be free 'cause they will have an Office Max logo on them.
Every locker door, every chalkboard, every wall is an opportunity to generate money for the school system.
I would allow Laidlaw Transportation to put ads on their school buses in exchange for letting the school board have half the revenue. This would also help Laidlaw provide newer buses and better service. This was actually considered by Palm Beach County, Florida, a couple of years ago.
There would be advertising rules, of course: no specific products allowed, only company logos or minimal slogans such as "Built Ford Tough." No tobacco or alcohol ads would be permitted. I would hire an advertising agency to broker the ads for a commission.
The truth is that at some point in the future, this is going to happen. Memphis could be the leader, rather than the also-ran.
The Big Picture
by Jeremy A. Davis (Arlington)
Politicians like to talk about making government run efficiently, like a business, but nobody has offered a plan to create the one thing that distinguishes business from government: incentives.
An Efficiency Incentive Program would reward low-level managers and employees for saving the taxpayers money with pay bonuses tied to the amount of revenue returned to the city treasury. If a city department spends 10 percent less than its budgeted expenses, the employees responsible would get a bonus on their paychecks. The incentive would be there for all city employees to save money for the city.
Cutting just 10 percent in city expenses would be an enormous step forward and would provide the financial wiggle-room needed to begin a series of property-tax cuts.
High property taxes put Memphis at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to recruiting new businesses, attracting new residents, and keeping current residents. Property-tax cuts mean more businesses, which leads to more jobs, which creates more taxpayers and a healthier fiscal situation.
Also, as much as it hurts to say this, we need to raise the amount charged on fines and traffic tickets and enforce the payment. I have twice received a speeding ticket, and both times the officer told me not to worry because if I went downtown on my court date I wouldn't have to pay it. I went downtown, and my ticket was thrown out without me paying a dime. If we pay police to write tickets, we should at least make people pay them. Better yet, some people might actually slow down.
Education: The quickest and easiest way to improve the educational landscape of this city is to scrap the whole structure and start over. We don't need to spend all of our time debating the small stuff, because it is the big stuff we're getting wrong. We should create a new hybrid school board made up of a few elected representatives and a panel of experts on education, finance, sociology, etc. The number of elected school board members would be reduced to either three or five, and they would vote on policy along with the expert panel.
The expert panel would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council and would serve fixed terms. This structure would provide for independent nonpolitical decision-making and an infusion of new ideas, while maintaining the people's voice in the process.
Poverty/Welfare: The problem of poverty in this city is not a failure of government; it is a failure of the community at large and the community of faith in particular.
The reason so many put their faith in government to help the poor is that the traditional providers of poverty relief have neglected their duty. We could make a huge difference in the lives of thousands of Memphians, if people of faith spent more of their money on providing direct relief to the causes and conditions of poverty and less on building huge country-club-like complexes for themselves. The churches just need a little organization and some public prodding.
There are thousands of churches and charities in this city, and they need to get together and heal the wounds of the poor and neglected. If every house of worship gave just 10 percent of its revenues to an umbrella organization that collected and distributed the money to local relief programs, we could make a noticeable dent in the poverty statistics of Memphis. An alliance of like-minded people who are united to heal the effects and eliminate the causes of poverty could change the character of this city overnight. All it requires is that people of faith answer their calling and put their money where their mouths are.
Some Good Ideas
(and Some Slightly Wacky Ones)
by Tony Favazza (Memphis)
Memphis is sitting beside a river that I have never seen go dry. There should be a way to attach electric generators to the bridge supports and create electricity from the water passing under the bridge. It should be simple enough to sell what everyone needs and help the environment.
Get a couple of local Native-Americans to put a casino in The Pyramid.
Project movies on the outside of The Pyramid at night.
House Memphis' greatest natural asset unwed mothers in The Pyramid and call it the "Tomb of Womb."
Don't Speak the Language of Failure
by Brian Knight (Memphis)
I once paid for "business coaching" for a business I owned in New York City. The main thrust of the coaching was that if you have a losing project you can't sell for a profit, you have debt. If you concentrate on the debt, you aren't concentrating on the one thing that will get you out of debt sales!
Memphis city government too often speaks the language of failure. Getting out of debt requires proactive measures. Now, money flows to city departments, which then spend it and ask for an increase the next year, with no real accountability. That has to stop. Making our government agencies keep meaningful statistics on their progress and their failures would be a big and meaningful change.
Neighborhoods: Churches should be required to put a small percentage of their revenues back into their immediate geographical surroundings in order to keep their tax-exempt status.
Environment: Require MLGW to immediately look into the feasibility of creating a solar-powered electric grid. Put our sunny climate to good use.
Require MATA to retrofit existing mass-transit vehicles for biodiesel or other modifications that would reduce pollution and the city's dependence on increasingly expensive oil. It's only going to get more expensive.
Poverty: Anyone who volunteers to work two hours a week mentoring underprivileged or at-risk youth shall be reimbursed at his usual hourly rate by his employer.
Give all inner-city landowners of vacant or dangerously unkempt lots (including the city of Memphis) 60 days notice to get their property up to code or risk forfeiture. Use the seized land for community purposes, e.g., parks, community gardens, etc. Offer it to businesses at no cost if they agree to develop it and hire local residents.
Vouchers and Foundations
by Suzan Moskal (Memphis)
The first thing I would do is establish a borderless, voucher-based school system. All families with children of school age would receive vouchers to use for public education. The families would be able to choose any school for their children. The schools would only receive funding for each voucher they received. The schools would also have a maximum number of students they could accept. Also, ideally, different areas of study would be emphasized at different schools.
Memphis would have a group of arts-based schools, science-based, math-based, writing/literature based, etc. This system is similar to Harlem, which has one of the best public school systems in the U.S. My goal is to make the public schools compete for students and funding just like the private schools.
Secondly, I would create a foundation for neighborhood groups. Each block would have a block captain and each neighborhood would have a neighborhood captain. The neighborhood captains would then occasionally collaborate on ways to improve the entire city and county. The removal of blight would then become the shared responsibility of the neighborhood and government agencies. If each neighborhood banded together with the resolve to make their block or their neighborhood better, then the government agencies would not need to step in as often.
Hopefully, this plan would mimic the "broken window" philosophy adopted by New York City, whereby even minor offenses were addressed immediately before they could get any worse. I would also form a graffiti task force that would work on immediately removing graffiti in all parts of the city and the county.
by Sarah Barrentine (Memphis)
First, we need to know what problems Memphis has. Here is a list of those problems that seem to be predominant:
3) Family instability
4) Education (or lack thereof)
5) Lack of pride
6) High taxes
8) Lack of a sense of community
These problems are interrelated. For example, one reason our city is plagued by crime is because our children are poorly educated. Poorly educated children tend to become impoverished adults.
To help solve the education problems, I would cut some of the overpaid and unnecessary staff of the city of Memphis and their perks and use that money to pay for more good teachers.
I would also give tax breaks to anyone with the proper certification who would volunteer to counsel or mentor young people.
It is difficult to be a proud citizen when you're embarrassed by certain areas of town. Eyesores around town should be bulldozed. I would offer tax breaks to businesses that keep their landscaping, buildings, and signs looking good.
Also, I would give tax breaks to volunteer landscapers willing to work a certain number of hours to make the city look better.
Despite our issues with racism, we Memphians need each other. We would benefit from helping each other out. Let's live up to our "Volunteer State" name and work together for a peaceful, prosperous city.
by Bradley Watkins (Memphis)
What Memphis needs is a way to shield some 30,000 Memphians from the proposed TennCare cuts. We are exploring a plan in which the city of Memphis would set up a nonprofit entity called FairCare.
Membership in this organization would be open to any Memphis resident. This body could, after a period of organizing, create a central medical-records data base. It could then use the FairCare membership files to collectively bargain with large health-care providers. In this way, many more Memphians could have access to decent and affordable health-care.
If corporations can do it for employees and unions can do it for their members, then why can't the people do it for themselves?
The City Council and a board of trustees, selected by members of FairCare, would oversee FairCare's operations. This program would reduce the number of people on government aid. It also would offer some relief to the overburdened charities such as the Church Health Center.
This approach also would have a stimulative economic effect, since whichever company or group of companies that won the contract would no doubt increase its presence in the city. It would also raise Memphis' stature in the region and the nation and allow us to distance ourselves from the "backward" image we currently have.
We need leaders in local government who understand that we have to seek new solutions and explore new options to ensure the economic survival of our city. We are conducting research on a variety of models for the FairCare plan and hope to submit our findings and an outline of the plan to city leaders sometime in 2006. For more information: Brad@democracyformemphis.com.