I am a fourth-generation Memphian, and I love this city. My brother and I ran a manufacturing business here for 40 years, employing up to 60 people. I spent most of my life building the business and helping raise four children. I served six years on the Memphis Light, Gas and Water board, so I'm not a complete neophyte when it comes to local government and politics.
Most people don't completely understand or keep up with the details of local government, because they don't have the time, energy, or interest. I didn't.
After I retired I had the time, and I have devoted the last seven years to studying our local governments. My commitment was stimulated in 2004 when I became involved with John Lunt to try to overturn a disastrous pension resolution that allowed elected and appointed city of Memphis employees to retire after 12 years' service and begin collecting retirement benefits, regardless of age. We were unable to influence even two city council members to propose revocation of the resolution.
Lunt's group, Concerned Citizens of Memphis, finally achieved revocation but only for future potential recipients. Then-existing elected city officials, including, of course, sitting city council members and appointees were "grandfathered" to receive the most generous retirement benefits in city history. Many collect city retirement today while working full-time in other jobs.
That began my new career as an advocate of open records and transparency in government. I have filed seven lawsuits for open-records access and won six of them. I have studied local government through more than 200 open-records requests and have posted much of this information on two websites.
What I have learned are facts that have been available for years, but no one was investing the time and study to assemble and clarify the data for the public.
I have learned two important fundamentals:
First, it makes a big difference who we elect to public office. I believe they must be people of good character, honest, and exhibit stable personal lives. They should be successful enough outside government to indicate the capacity and experience to deal with complex matters. They should have the analytical ability to study complicated issues and exercise good judgment. They must be willing to give the time and effort necessary for public service without benefit of public pensions or lifetime health-care supplements for themselves.
I believe strongly that they must be part-time public servants, serve a maximum of two terms, and then return to their private lives. We've seen what happens when people strive for lifetime political careers.
Second, local government units should be as small as possible, consistent with economy of scale. Small government is closer — and more responsive — to the people it serves. I believe the same is true for public education organizations.
Comparing city of Memphis government with Shelby County government over the past 30 to 40 years, county government has been measurably more fiscally responsible. The county pension system, while still too generous, is almost fully funded, whereas the city pension system is underfunded by almost $500 million. In addition, the county reformed their pension system for future employees.
The retiree health-care fund of Memphis is underfunded by nearly $1 billion more than the Shelby County fund. The city has allowed line-of-duty disability retirement costs to reach a figure nearly 10 times that of the county. Memphis pays $11 million a year compared to less than $1 million in Shelby County.
I have assembled data on private-sector pensions and benefits versus local public-sector pensions and benefits. The public sector is far more generous and costly than are those in the private sector. Consider that public-sector pensions can guarantee a range from 72 percent to 82 percent of a retiree's final salary. The vast majority of private-sector employees have, at best, Social Security, what they can save, and what their employers are willing to contribute into a 401(k) retirement savings plans.
Yet, despite all this potential for large and justifiable savings in city spending, the mayor and Memphis City Council still talk of cutting senior centers and summer park programs, of selling future parking-meter revenues and delinquent tax collections for one-time cash infusions. If our leaders can't see what's in front of their noses, and if they lack the wisdom and willingness to make the necessary reforms, we have elected the wrong people. We have certain elected individuals who do not possess the wisdom, judgment, and fortitude to deserve the right to continue to govern the city of Memphis.
Joe Saino, a retired businessman and full-time activist, is proprietor of memphisshelbyinform.com.