This past Thursday I conducted a phone interview with Alderman Scott Sanders. We discussed several topics, including his vision for the future of the City; school funding and capital expenditure issues post COVID 19; and the final vote on the cell tower at Dogwood School. I used my notes to create a Q and A format. I also note that, for the sake of brevity, I have summarized his answers.
Germantown 2030 Plan, Dense Development, Citizen Commissions, and the Future of the City
Shining a Light: Do you believe that the citizens of Germantown support the Germantown Forward 2030 plan? I ask that because three of us conducted a poll of Germantown NextDoor neighborhoods, and over seventy percent of nearly 1000 respondents want no new apartments in the City. Only seven percent want the full build-out of apartments referenced in a study by City staff members-- that study notes a possibility of adding over 2000 new apartment units. The balance of the respondents on our survey want to keep more or less the same ratio of apartments to single-family homes that the City now has. There seems to be a disconnect between the results of our poll and the “citizen led” Forward 2030 plan.
Alderman Sanders: I stated in my campaign that we need to revisit the 2030 plan. It is not representative of the way citizens feel. In my opinion, the City Administrator and Mayor appoint to the commissions and long range planning committees only those who have the same pro-development mindset that they have. Most citizens do not share that same viewpoint. Also, I've seen many of the candidates that lose elections receive consolation prizes-- appointments to important commissions or committees. Brian White, who is now on the design review commission, Dave Klevan, who was appointed to the Industrial Development Board, and Greg Marcom, who was a member of the Germantown 2030 Forward planning committee are some examples of that. All of these commissions guide how the city moves forward. The City purports that these commissions represent the views of the greater community, but they actually do not. City departments were highly involved in the Forward 2030 plan, and the members were largely administration supporters. The process was fashioned in a way that insured that the result would be consistent with the administration’s viewpoint.
Shining a Light: Why are people attracted to Germantown as a place to live?
Alderman Sanders: Traditionally, people have been attracted to the City because of the tight knit neighborhoods, mature trees, strict zoning restrictions on signs and building height, aesthetics, and the peace and quiet away from the hustle and bustle of Memphis. One hundred percent the two most important factors are great schools and public safety.
Having said that, although Germantown has always been the premier city in West Tennessee, we are losing our edge, and we may be losing our desirability because of the way we have changed. There is a lot of jockeying going on between Germantown and Collierville now. Their new state-of-the-art high school is attracting a number of families who see concrete evidence of that City’s support of the new school system. Also there is now a commitment there to limit dense development. The aldermen that I have talked to from Collierville regret the number of apartment units that they have approved in the past, and they pledge not to approve any more other than those in the pipeline. In Collierville, the aldermen are all respected by the administration. There is not any infighting. The board there holds regular work sessions, open to the public. Heck I just saw an article in the Daily Memphian and saw even with their hiring of their new police chief that they held open interviews of the candidates where the public and press could attend. Here there seems to be a great lack of trust in the government by our residents, and I feel it is because the administration does not seem to value the opinions of all the aldermen and the residents can see that. Instead of listening, our viewpoints are suppressed.
School Funding Issues
Shining a Light: I want to talk a little bit about the school system since you brought that up. At a recent School Board meeting, it was announced that the annual $355,000 payment pledged to Shelby County Schools would no longer be paid by the City because of budget concerns arising as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. In the future it will be paid by the school system. This is at a time when GMSD is facing its own funding problems. How did this decision come about?
Alderman Sanders: I have no idea. I was not consulted in any way about that. The aldermen vote on the budget, and that payment was always included. The first time I heard about it was when I listened to the school board meeting. I'd like to see the original settlement agreement to see who the parties were, was it the City of Germantown or the Germantown Board of Education? Perhaps it was their responsibility all along and the City chose to handle the payments for them in the early years due to lack of funding and starting a new district. I don't know at this point. This is not the only time we have not been consulted on something regarding GMSD. As you likely recall, the administration required GMSD to pay $232,000 extra for a utility sized pipe for a potential water tower when the new elementary school was built. All utility fund expenditures must be approved by the BMA, but the administration totally skipped that step. We never even heard about a water tower until after GMSD incurred the expense, and sought to be reimbursed. Because the water tower location has since been moved, the extra $232,000 spent for the pipe was wasted. The City had to reimburse GMSD for the funds by retroactively approving the expenditure. Yet there is no state statute allowing for a retroactive approval from the utility fund since GMSD has no authority to spend funds from that account. The end result of this mismanagement was $232,000 of taxpayer money down the drain.
As for the payment to SCS, I prefer that the GMSD spend its budget on educating the students rather than making payments to Shelby County. I have always been supportive of everything the school system needs, whether it is money for increased security or for renovations at the middle school. I also heard for the first time that the City has taken the middle school addition off the capital improvements budget for next year. The capital improvements portion of the budget approved issuing a bond in the amount of $5 million this year and has already passed the BMA. The City Administrator apparently contacted Superintendent Manuel and said that was off the table now due to budget concerns. I am not sure the City has the authority to make this decision without a BMA vote. And I was neither consulted nor informed about the decision. We should have had a work session about all this to hear from the City the reasoning for their decision. The board may have agreed to delay or postpone this capital project due to the potential for lost revenues from the pandemic, I don't know.
All of these things are typical. Often I am the last to find out about things, as I am not kept in the loop at all. I often read about something in the newspaper, and then see another alderman quoted. I wonder of course, about the lack of communication between the administration and at least some of the aldermen.
The City Budget
Shining a Light: As a result of COVID 19, the City's sales tax revenue has been severely reduced, and GAC and GPAC are receiving no revenues at all. The City obviously must make some budget cuts somewhere. The Planning Commission gave the administration a pass on presenting a budget for next year. How do you feel about all this?
Alderman Sanders: Memphis is submitting a budget on time, and the County is submitting a budget on time. These budgets are much more complex than ours, so why can't we approve a budget for the coming year? I have written an email to Patrick Lawton saying, among other things, that there should not be an open ended time extension on submitting a budget. When will we see it? I also asked him some additional questions about possible cuts to the budget.
Shining a Light: Do you mind sending me a copy of that email?
Alderman Sanders: I would be happy to send you a copy. [The copy is included at the end of the interview.]
Capital Expenditures- Road Projects
Shining a Light: Since you brought up the issue of the school renovation, let’s talk a bit about some of the other capital expenditures that have been planned. I noticed on the agenda sheet for the meeting Monday that some previously approved capital expenditures for various road projects are being cut. Do you have any feelings about those?
[Alderman Sanders expressed regret about losing the 80% of state funding on the Wolf River/Germantown Road intersection project, but he was unsure as to whether or not the project had been dropped by the state. After the interview Alderman Sanders let me know that he got a response from the city administrator about this project. Alderman Sanders was told that the bids came in over the state budget. The budget was $4 million and bids came in at $8 million so the state agrees that the bids on the agenda for Monday should be rejected. At this point Germantown is not sure how the state will proceed.]
Shining a Light: How much have we spent on that project to date?
Alderman Sanders: There are so many different parts to it that I can’t even estimate. I would probably have to submit an open records request to find out.
Capital Expenditures, Water Tower, Sports Complex, School Expansion
Shining a Light: What about other capital expenditures planned for next year? Besides the school expansion, there are plans to buy a property south of Winchester for a sports complex, and of course there is the water tower. Do you know anything about those?
Alderman Sanders: No, I don’t. They do not keep me informed. I expect the administration will try to go forward with those at some point.
Shining a Light: Citizens may push back if the City goes forward with the sports complex while at the same time postponing the expansion of the middle school. The sports complex would be the third major enterprise the City supports, the other two being GPAC and GAC. That may be a bit unusual for a City our size. And we can all see now that City-supported enterprises, while they can provide great benefit for the citizens, may also present financial risk for the taxpayers during an economic downturn. I also have never seen a real cost/benefit analysis for the sports complex, which I believe is essential before undertaking a project like this.
Alderman Sanders: Well, I think the sports complex is a priority for the administration, so I expect it to come up at some point. Let me tell you a story to demonstrate the way things are done. I have had to start a spreadsheet on projects that we pass so that I can keep up with them. We vote on something and then we don’t know what happens. I happen to live near Cameron Brown Park, and one day recently I saw a number of cars parked on Farmington. I remembered that the BMA passed a measure to add sixty parking spaces at the park for the events that are held there, specifically so there would not be overflow parking on Farmington. The next time I saw Pam Beasley (Parks Director) I asked her what happened to the parking places the BMA voted for. She said that she placed the project on hold after talking to the city administrator because she may need that money for the sports complex if the land comes in over budget. That is not right. That should be a BMA decision. We had already voted on the funds for the parking places. Those funds are committed That leads me to believe they are determined to purchase the land for a sports complex. We’ll see.
GPAC Cost Overruns
Shining a Light: What is your take on all the GPAC cost overruns? I remember listening to a person speak at a BMA meeting in “Citizens to be Heard”. He said he was a supporter of GPAC who donated his time as an usher. He supported public funding for the arts, but he was concerned about the cost overruns. He concluded with this: “GPAC is not DaVinci and Germantown is not the Medicis.”
Alderman Sanders: Yes, Holy cow! The City leaders had to talk State Senator Brian Kelsey into extracting $2.5 million dollars grant money from the state to take care of some of the cost overruns. I kept voting for more funds for the overruns since the state provided the additional funding, and then finally for the last $900,000 requested, I had enough and voted against approval of the additional expenditure. That vote against the final funding was mostly because some of the work had already begun before the proper approvals had been sought from the BMA.
Cell Tower at Dogwood
Shining a Light: The vote for the final approval of the cell tower is scheduled for a vote on Monday. Some citizens feel there should be a public meeting so their feelings can be heard. How do you feel about this?
Alderman Sanders: I hate that it is on the agenda during this time when we are meeting on-line, and city hall is closed. However, this has been going on for 18 months, and after the last hearing (design review) it's been known that the issue would be presented to the BMA in April (tentative date) even before the virus. Everyone has been expressing their viewpoints by email and telephone calls. I've already received hundreds of pages of information over the last 9 months to a year, and read every single page of what has been sent. I continue to conduct my own research, and have answered every citizen email (except those received in the last 48 hours) and will do so up until Monday afternoon.
You know I campaigned on improving our poor cell service, and no matter how I vote I am going to make a large number of citizens unhappy, yes or no. I'm just going to have to do what I figure is best for the overall population, our businesses, and visitors to the city. I will get criticism on social media either way, but I think the majority of citizens realize I evaluate each agenda item independently and vote my conscience.
Shining a Light: Thank you for your time. Don’t forget to send me your email to Mr. Lawton.
Alderman Sanders: No.problem. I will do that.