Thursday, July 25, 2013

West-side Park

Yesterday, July 24, 2013, the Daily News Journal published this article on a future west-side park. The park would encompass approx. 410 acres and cost $20.6 million over the course of several years. The main call for the park comes because of the population growth on the western side of Murfreesboro.

This $20.6 million park would be on top of the $104 million Greenway/Blueway "Master Plan" and in fact several miles of new greenways and multiple trail heads are already planned for areas west of I-24 (within the "Master Plan"). They will connect Barfield Crescent Park with Old Fort Park and the rest of the city. There is no doubt that the city's population is growing, however according to the 2013-14 budget the population growth has slowed tremendously in recent years compared to the rest of the 2000s. [pg 24]

City government seems to be under the delusion that population growth will continue at an exponential rate for years to come and based on that growth they can continue to spend more and more money. This is a fallacious defense for the spending. While Detroit is a severe example, the city experienced rapid population growth between 1900-1960, and then the good times ended and the city's population has dropped every year since. This collapse has left many a once beautiful park to become overgrown and the home of vagrants. Murfreesboro's population growth outpaces the growth of the State's population by over 40% which means in order for Murfreesboro to grow other areas must lose population. In fact, Murfreesboro is the main driver of population growth for the entire county. However, 25,000 of the people in Murfreesboro attend MTSU, a great many do not stay in the city once they graduate. This means that the City must provide services for these students (police, fire, parks, roads etc), but doesn't get the benefit of decades worth of tax revenue that a long-term resident brings in. I mention this only to further the point that while the City Council appears to plan for things based on a permanent population and continual growth, we must realize that those numbers are inflated when you consider the student population.

For the 2013-14 budget, the City expects a revenue increase of 1%. They City also makes a point of letting us know that revenues for the City are still less than those in 2009. [pg 13] The City has also conceded the issue of property taxes; 2014 will be the 15th year without a property tax increase. Yet, despite population growth, revenues from property taxes continues to fall. [pg 14] They have exchanged raising property taxes for the ever rising revenues generated from sales taxes. [pg 15]The City has hitched themselves to sales tax revenue, revenue which must depend on a growing economy (which is still anemic nationally) and a growing population (which is beginning to slow).

The following graphs shows you the trends in revenue and expenditures. Logically, they should be correlated, but spending outpaces revenue.

Revenues have grown slightly over the past few years, but not at the pace spending has increased. The City expects revenue of $113 million for 2013-14, of this slightly more than 10% is earmarked for the "recreation" budget (golf courses and parks). And while 10% may not sound like much, it amounts to the 3rd largest single expenditure (after police and fire). The most disturbing thing however, is the growth year-over-year of the recreation budget compared to other departments and the overall budget.

For 2010-11, revenues were $101.8 million, for 2013-14 they're $113.3 million - an increase of 11.2%. 
Expenditures for the same periods were $102.6 million and $118.2 million, an increase of 15.2% (and a running deficit each year). [pg 39]
Now for the fun, the recreation budget for 2010-11 was $9.44 million, and for 2013-14 it is $13.77 million - an increase of 44.5%. The Police Dept. budget only grew 13% and the Fire Dept. budget grew a mere 11%, while the Transportation Dept. budget actually decreased 10.7%. [pg 39]

The problem isn't that parks are evil or that we don't want to live in a beautiful and enjoyable city. The problem is that, when federal and county taxes continue to rise, when the incomes of citizens are barely increasing, the City deems fit to spend ever more millions on parks. The City spends more on recreation than the combined budgets of the Senior Citizens Dept., Transportation Dept., Solid Waste Dept., and Public Health & Welfare Dept. [pg 39]

It simply does not make sense. 

Source - 2014 City Budget (PDF)

Thursday, July 11, 2013

City Council Meeting for 7/11/2013

Tonight's council meeting was fairly uneventful. At the start of it there were perhaps 50 people in the audience and by the end there were less than 10.

Re-zoning (13-OZ-R-29, 13-OZ-29, application # 2013-410)

The key feature tonight was a public hearing on the re-zoning of nearly 90 acres along Memorial Blvd and Haynes Drive. It was the same property from several months ago which resulted in over a dozen people speaking against the re-zoning and letting the Council know their concerns (none-too-subtly either).
The primary concerns were: what type of business(s) would be allowed, water drainage, and who would be paying for the improvements to the property - the City or whatever business ended up moving in?

After being sent back the the Planing Commission, and further discussions and local meetings, the new plan proposed was considerably more appropriate and took into consideration many of the concerns held by those who lived in the area. This particular area consists of 11 individual properties owned by 9 families. Along most of Memorial Blvd are businesses with the exception of this area which is a long-standing residential neighborhood, especially west down Haynes Dr.

In the end, the representatives of the property owners and the Planning Commission recommended a number of changes to the original proposal. Among them, a 40 foot-wide buffer (twice the size required by regulation) between the re-zoned property and the neighborhood, re-zoning 63 acres as commercial highway but re-zoning a 250-ft wide strip of land (approx 15 acres) at the back of the property (adjacent to the private homes) as commercial fringe, which will further restrict the way that portion can be used. The commercial highway portion (the 63 acres) will be bound by a number of restrictive covenants as well, including: forbidding the construction of adult business, tattoo parlors, communication towers, mobile home parks, and much more.

Additionally, to help tackle the drainage problem that has plagued the area for decades, a small bit of land, about an acre, referred to as the "notch" will be set aside for the construction of retention ponds and other water control systems.

There are still some questions regarding who is paying for the improvements. Various improvements to the property must be constructed before any business would want to purchase the property (and to-date there are no interested parties at all), and before the land could become officially available for development. The general feeling is that, the City will spend perhaps $1 million or more in improvements on what is private property in order to attract business. In other words, the 11 property owners will be getting $1 million in free land improvements and then the land owners will sell the land to a developer for a tidy profit. Will the new owner be required to repay the City or is the City in the business of well, being in business?

Today was only the first reading (three are need for passage) and despite the remaining concerns over who pays for what the proposal was approved unanimously. My opinion is that the City really did listen to the concerns of the public and the new plan is a very good compromise. What actually ends up happening with the improvements and costs will remain to be seen.

IT Dept. Plan

Another interesting item tonight was the passage of a 5 year "master plan" for the City's IT Dept. The plan was very well thought out and the items, programs, applications etc requested made perfect sense. It also was approved unanimously. My main concern is that the plan costs $9.5 million. Granted that's over 5 years so $1.9 million/yr or about 1.6% of the budget; however, the 15 minute proposal did not include any cost-benefit analysis and I gathered that they hadn't even begun the process of figuring out how much (if anything) the IT plan would save the City. I am fairly sure that the plan will, in the end, save the City real money and energy but at the same time I am a little disappointed that they approved something without having full knowledge of the tangible benefits it would bring.

Final thoughts

At one point in the meeting Mayor Tommy Bragg said "We consider our town to be a city within a park." Murfreesboro is a beautiful city and everyone wants to live in a lovely area. Yet, when you look back at all of the problems arising from the Mayor's insistence at funding any and every matter of leisure and aesthetics I found the statement in very bad taste. The City is $230 million in debt, they approved a $105 million plan (without secured funding) that will inevitably lead to more debt for enormous Greenway expansion, the City spends $2 million a year on golf courses - golf courses which by my figures have actually ran a deficit to the tune of $721,000 since 2010, we spend over $15 million alone on recreation every single year. This includes $11,000 for freaking trophies, $6,000 for trashcans, iPads, TVs etc, and the "recreation budget" is one of the largest expenditures the City makes. We spend nearly as much on leisure as we do on our Fire Dept!

I would like to live in a beautiful city. On the other hand, I would rather go without golf if that meant we had the money to build sufficient sidewalks and enough schools without having to go deeper into debt or without needing handouts from the federal government. As it stands, without debt and federal aid we can't build schools. Perhaps the Mayor needs to get his priorities straight.

Jacob Bogle
July 11, 2013

Additional reading:

7/11/13 agenda,  pg. 157 (re-zoning)