A Proposed Memphis 5-Year Fiscal Plan — 799 Days Later

In January, 2012, Mayor A C Wharton said that within 100 days his administration would develop a five-year strategic management and fiscal program for Memphis. It has been 799 days [as of March 31, 2014] and the five-year plan has yet to be presented.

In July of 2012, the City Council adopted an ordinance requiring the annual presentation of a consolidated budget including a six year operating plan and a six year capital plan, which together shall serve as a strategic business plan for the city. The wait continues.

On several occasions, the administration has said the 5-year plan would be presented to council members at a following month’s meeting. The wait continues.

On numerous occasions in recent months council member Wanda Halbert has decried the lack of an overall strategy to guide the council in its decision making saying that it appears the administration picks, in ways not understood by the council, new projects to fund while continuing to repeat that the city is in a fiscally tight situation.

In February, Mayor A C Wharton said that the 5 year plan would be presented after the budget decisions for the upcoming year have been made.

Among the reasons for a 5 year strategic plan, according to the Mayor, were looming fiscal problems. It appears the Mayor’s perception was accurate, as recent presentations by the administration indicate an $80-million gap between the annual required contribution to keep the city’s pension plan in the black and what the city is actually paying into that program. The administration and council have begun discussion about possibly increasing those contributions by $15-million a year over five years to reach the goal of funding the pension plan at the needed $100-million a year. Needless to say, the city does not seem to have an extra $80-million available, so, as the administration says, “everything is on the table.” Despite that, the administration has said more than when discussing its proposals for next years budget it does not anticipate proposing a property tax increase this year.

Earlier this year “A Strategic Fiscal and Management Plan for
the City of Memphis, FY2015-FY2019″ produced by the national firm Public Financial Management, Inc., also known as the PFM Group, along with three local consultants, has been made public. While this document by a consulting firm engaged by the city underwent revisions during its draft status to emphasize recommendations which the city administration thought were higher priorities, it is not the city’s five year plan. Not only did Mayor Wharton say at the time of the public release of the consultants’ report that the city’s five year plan is still in the works, the consultants’ document does not meet the criteria outlined in the city ordinance. It is a report which addresses in rather broad concepts rather than the more focused approach expected in a city plan.

Given the city’s financial commitments and revenues, it may be fair to suggest developing a practical five year fiscal plan which honestly reflects proper funding for pensions, health benefits, payroll, and city services and a reasonable tax rate is an extremely difficult task. The original 100 day time line outlined in January, 2012, may have been overly optimistic. A judgment as to whether taking considerably nearly 800 days to develop the plan is reasonable and worthwhile is both subjective and dependent upon the eventual value of the plan.

Yet if the Mayor’s analysis two years ago was right, that a long range plan was needed to guide the city in its endeavors for the years 2013 and beyond but today as the fiscal year 2015 budget is crafted the five year plan does not yet exist. One might wonder if the city has lost a lot of valuable time to acquire the stated opportunity to come to grips with the economic realities.


Detecting Natural Gas Leaks, Preventing Disasters

Memphis Area Has About 1600 Serious Gas Leaks A Year

The explosion March 12, 2014, in New York City killed eight people, injured dozens, and destroyed two apartment buildings. The blast occurred moments after a resident in one of the apartment buildings called the gas company to complain about the smell of natural gas. After the explosion, the National Transportation Safety Board investigators found a high concentration of gas in the soil around the building locations when normally no gas would be expected to be found in the soil. These factors lead experts to believe the explosion very well could have been the result of a natural gas leak.

In 2010, a gas line leak caused an explosion in a single family residential area of San Bruno, California, killing eight people there, seriously injuring dozens more, destroying 38 homes and damaging 70 others.

“Too often, the investigations into events like today’s reveal the cause to be old, outdated pipes, misplaced pipes, poor pipe locating technology and/or inaccurate system maps, or unsafe construction practices,” says Brigham McCown, the former head of the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, as quoted on Forbes.com.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Memphis Light, Gas, and Water Division of the City of Memphis responded to questions from Memphis City Council member Kemp Conrad in connection with a contract with a private company to survey for natural gas leaks. Jerry Collins, President of MLGW and Craig Powers, Manager of the MLGW Gas Matrix Department, explained that about 7,800 gas leaks were reported to the utility last year. About 20 percent, or about 1,600, were considered “grade one,” calling for fixing the leak within 24 hours. The utility recognizes two other grades for gas leaks, categorized by the concentration of gas detected, which call for repair within 30 days or within a year of detection.

Both motorized vehicles and handheld devices are used to detect leaks. Those on vehicles primarily detect leaks from the mains that are under the streets while the handheld devices are used to check for leaks in the pipes under the customer’s property going from the main to the customer’s gas meters.

MLGW was asking for an extension of the current contract to cover from March 1 of this year to February 28, 2015, with Heath Consultants, Inc. In the amount of $1,615,140.40. The City Council voted to approve the contract at its February 18, 2014, meeting.

The reports about the New York City explosions do not indicate from where the resident was calling when he/she reported the smell of natural gas in the building. However, it should be noted that if a strong smell of gas is detected, it is highly recommended no electronic devices, including landline or cellular telephone be used, and, of course, no open flame or spark generating device be used in the area. It is best if one exists the area and calls from a nearby location where there is not the smell of gas. More safety suggestions are below from MLGW.

Just to be technically correct, natural gas itself does not have an odor, gas companies inject it with an additive to give it the distinctive smell specifically to alert people should there be a hazardous situation.

If you smell a strong odor of natural gas in or near your home or office, you should immediately call MLGW’s 24-hour Emergency Line, (901) 528-4465. If possible, call from another location, such as a neighbor’s home, and do not re-enter your home until an MLGW representative has advised you that you can do so safely. Also remember: do not turn lights or other electrical appliances on or off, or use matches.

It should also be noted that the law requires people to call before digging in the ground, even with a post hole digger, so that it can be determined if there are any utility facilities that might be affected by the digging. It’s a free call, dial 811.

Check MLGW’s web site for additional safety information: www.mlgw.com