Friday, February 21, 2020

The End Game- Water Tower, Athletic Fields, Land Swap, Campaign Donors

Corinne Kennedy of the Commercial Appeal, reported yesterday afternoon that the City revealed an agreement on a proposal for a far less onerous location for the water tower  than the one discussed by the BMA. Now the tower would be on Poplar Pike rather than by Forest Hill Elementary School, a move that I actually suggested in my last blog post on this subject

The City seems to be favoring the Commercial Appeal lately, as Germantown's controversial (prestigious, or pay-to-play?) Baldrige award was also first reported by her. I have no problem with Ms. Kennedy. Both she and Abigail Warren of the Daily Memphian are doing excellent reporting. In particular, Ms. Warren's in-depth reporting on school system issues and this land swap deal is appreciated. Again, I urge readers to support both news sources by subscribing to their publications, as both make my job so much easier, and you will benefit from reading about the City from their articles. 

Having said that, the release of this "deal" to the Commercial Appeal ignores the BMA. Apparently at least some of the aldermen had not been told about these dealings, and had to find out about the new proposed location of the water tower from the newspaper. That is emblematic of the dysfunctional nature of our City government. I will leave it at that.

Here is a link to the story:

Water Tower Would Have New Location in Revised Land Exchange  

After the story came out, the City released the packet for the aldermen for BMA meeting on Monday.

Abigail Warren of the Daily Memphian reported on the story last night: 
Germantown to Vote on Revised Land Swap

Graphic from the Facebook Group Developments in Germantown, TN-DIG
From what I understand, Mr. John Duke, who owns property by Forest Hill Elementary, approached the City and suggested a land swap after the original proposal passed the BMA. He would give up five acres of land on Poplar Pike in exchange for three acres of land owned by GMSD adjacent to his planned upscale home development. Twelve acres of GMSD land by Forest Hill Elementary would be transferred to the City for a "nature preserve." The other part of the deal, the transfer of land to GMSD for the high school athletic fields, would remain the same as reported here. Therein lies the rub. 

First of all, the new location of the water tower is exactly what I was hoping for at this point. Keep in mind, though, that the administration has screwed up just about everything that led up to this.The original insistence by the City was that the new elementary school property be on Winchester. There was no formal land search, no public input, and only three days notice before a BMA vote. And at no time did the City reveal publicly that there was to be a water tower by the school. When asked why 30 acres was needed for a school site, Mayor Palazzolo simply said it was traditional to have a public park by our schools. Because of citizen pushback against the Winchester School site, a task force was appointed to conduct a formal property search. The Winchester site that had been touted as the only site available by Mayor Palazzolo did not even make it into the top three sites selected by the task force.

It was only a deep dive into open records requests by citizens that first revealed that a water tower by the elementary school was planned by the City.-- again, there was no public announcement, and certainly there were no public meetings, only private conversations between GMSD and the City (no surprise, the City leaders live and breathe secrecy). 

A water tower in the midst of an upscale, settled neighborhood and directly by a school is and was completely unacceptable and never should have been an option. Nevertheless, without appropriate authorization, the City built now useless infrastructure for the water tower. This industrial-sized water pipe cost citizens over $232,000. The payment for the pipe was all so underhanded that the Comptroller of the State had to be contacted to figure out how correct the fiscal mess that was created. This is all discussed BMA Meeting Reveals City Illegally Ordered GMSD Utility Pipe. Given all that, I am happy and relieved about the new proposed water tower site. Yes, it would have been far less costly and caused less angst to be upfront about the water tower from the get go, but, the City only knows how to operate behind the veil. 

But is a water tower needed at all? Taxpayers are funding it, but the need for a water tower is due to land development in the Forest Hill area, not for current taxpayers. In his election campaign, Mayor Palazzolo promised to look into fiscal impact fees for developers, but of course nothing has been done on this front. Furthermore, no studies were undertaken to determine if water pumps would be a more viable and palatable option than a tower.

The Athletic Fields by HHS and a Taxpayer Squeeze

Although I laud the new proposed water tower location, GMSD should not allow itself to be bamboozled into accepting the  offer for the transfer of land. It is offered exclusive use only one field by HHS for Girl's softball in exchange for a total of 15 acres of GMSD land by Forest Hill Elementary School.  GMSD would only be able to use other fields when the City is not using them. GMSD will likely need another field for lacrosse in the near future. Yes, the plan includes an eventual transfer of all the property involved by HHS to GMSD, but the school system will likely need more fields sooner rather than later.  

This proposed contract is so lopsided that GMSD should not even consider it. The City is forcing on GMSD a shortage of fields. Why? BECAUSE THAT IS PROBABLY THE ONLY WAY THE CITY PLAN FOR AN ATHLETIC COMPLEX COULD BE PASSED! All of this has to do with the Parks Plan proposal for a tournament level athletic complex south of Winchester. This was likely a promise to various large campaign donors that own property in the area. Please see Candidate Financial Disclosures in the 2018 election.
 That part of the City has been slow to develop--hence a few years ago the City created a "Smart Growth" zoning district in the area, so that apartment complexes could be built. Viridian, a proposal on the border with Collierville, is exempt from recent zoning changes that ban "stand-alone" apartment complexes. Of course, a water tower was needed for all the planned developments! Since the City has no fiscal impact fees for developers, the taxpayers foot the bill.   

AND the City wants to buy land for an athletic complex, likely from Forest Hill Associates, an LLC. Most citizens are skeptical about the financial viability of such a complex, particularly because the much larger Mike Rose complex is so near. The easiest way to get the athletic complex passed is to put the squeeze on GMSD athletic space. There will thus be public pressure from GMSD supporters for the athletic complex, so that HHS will no longer have to share fields with the City. The taxpayer cost for all the plans to benefit landowners in southeast Germantown is enormous-- the water tower, the unneeded pipe, the land for the athletic complex, plus all the the ongoing expenses of development and the complex. Please keep in mind that the citizens have not been shown a cost/benefit analysis for the athletic complex. Please also keep in mind that the planned $2.5 million dollar outdoor addition to GPAC has burgeoned to $7.5 million dollars, so I  would NOT trust City estimates in any case. The City has a very poor record in containing costs.

As a confirmation that the City is forcing GMSD into a shortage of fields, astonishingly, the new plans for Riverdale Park actually include removal of the softball field located there!  Why can't there be continued use of that field, so that the use of more fields by HHS is available for the schools?

Plans for Riverdale Park Remove the Softball Field

Our City leaders are putting the squeeze on GMSD athletics and City taxpayers by trying to force upon us a tournament level athletic complex in order to benefit landowner campaign donors in southeast Germantown. 


Thursday, February 13, 2020

Shelby County May Get New Voting System in November After All

Election reform advocates were disheartened earlier this week when there was an announcement at the 
Shelby County Commission that a referendum is needed for the purchase of a new voting system from bond funds. It was thought that there would thus be no new voting system for the November election, as had been promised. Here is a news article about the legal issues around the referendum requirement: 

County Attorney: Funding for new voting machines only through referendum 

That announcement already is out of date, because we were told yesterday at a Shelby County Election Commission meeting that a voting system can be purchased without a referendum because sources of funding are available that will not require the issuance of bonds. It is likely that the new system could be in place by the November Election.

Please see Steve Mulroy, law professor, at Citizens to be Heard at the Shelby County Election Commission yesterday.

What type of Voting System will Shelby County Purchase?  

Will New Voting Machines that include hand-marked ballots be bought this year for Shelby County?    

The current system is outdated, and insecure, because it has no "paper trail" for audits and recounts. In a divided vote earlier this year, the Shelby County Election Commission requested funding for a computerized system that spits out a paper receipt. Detractors of this type of system believe that this system can still be hacked by a quick insertion of a flash drive, and that studies show that most voters do not check their paper receipt for accuracy. It is also considerably more expensive than a hand-marked, scanned ballot system.

The County Commission meeting on Monday, in a 7-6 vote, approved only enough funding for a hand-marked paper ballot system that can be immediately scanned and tabulated at each election site. The ballots would then go into a secured box which could be hand-counted for recounts. The system is in use in Chattanooga, and is the system that is the consensus choice among election security experts. A grass roots group which includes Republicans, Democrats, and independent voters has been vocal in pushing the hand-marked system in Shelby County. See Hand-marked Paper Ballots are Cheap and Secure  

So where does this leave us? Rinse and repeat. The Election Commission is seeking new bids on voting systems, and will have to approve another request after staff finishes analyzing the new bids and submitting their request to the Election Commissioners. 

It is pretty much guaranteed that Linda Phillips, administrative leader of the Election Commission, will still not recommend approval of the hand-marked paper ballot system, as she has refused to accept the consensus view of election experts that the scanned, hand marked ballots are more secure. She did not even entertain any bids on hand-marked systems in the first set of bidding. In fact, according to Mulroy (see above), she announced after this week's Shelby County Commission vote for funding of the hand-marked system that she intended to sue the Shelby County Commission over the decision.

To top it all off, citizens who attended the Election Commission meeting Wednesday accused the Linda Phillips of still excluding hand-marked ballot systems in the language of the request for bid proposals. She immediately denied this. When citizens were not satisfied with this answer, Election Commissioner Bennie Smith, an advocate of the hand-marked system promised to read the document and confer with Ms. Phillips about the matter if it does not include hand-marked systems.

The bottom line? Expect more drama. I urge everyone to continue to contact the Shelby County Election Commissioners and the Shelby County Commissioners, and urge them to accept the consensus-choice of election security experts- scanned, hand-marked paper ballots that provide an accurate paper trail for recounts. Here is a screenshot from a Fox 13 video on the Shelby County Commission vote which urged a hand-marked voting system.