great_seal_of_shelby_county_200Main Street Journal
June 20, 2011
Online exclusive

The Shelby County Commission has recently been called foolish, tone deaf, heartless, brainless and “crackhead-ish,” and that’s just according to Wendi C. Thomas, the Commercial Appeal‘s marquee political assassin.

Others have called them “vampires” who are guilty of “child neglect” and putting “politics and ideology ahead of our community’s most vulnerable citizens.” They say members of the Commission “checked their consciences at the door” for a vote described in the op-ed pages as deplorable, egregious, socially regressive, economically myopic, morally repugnant and fiscally pointless.

Their offense? Cutting funding from the Office of Early Childhood and Youth (OECY), an agency formed just a few years ago for the purpose of creating “child impact statements” and providing a point of coordination for area social service organizations.

If that weren’t shocking enough, it turns out the vote to slash the department’s $400 thousand budget may also jeopardize some $6 million in private, state and federal grants, as well as an additional $2 million likely to be awarded in the next fiscal year.

Critics who’ve had the audacity to merely ask how the agency’s budget managed to quadruple in two years, or why proponents were using new justifications for its continuance, have been attacked as “too lazy or unwilling to listen,” accused of using “the Tea Party manual on character attacks,” and charged with having “twisted a legitimate policy discussion into an online soap opera.”

Other than all of these illegitimate personal attacks, however, OECY proponents have remained professional and objective.

Well, perhaps not entirely. The office used its website to call out members of the majority who voted to defund, rally the community to its defense, and link to an online petition created by supporters.

An OECY “fact sheet” also linked on the office’s official website includes praise for one member of the commission, progressive Republican Mike Carpenter, who they describe as “an enduring champion for children in every respect.”

Despite the oddity of such groveling flattery appearing in an official agency brief, the phrase additionally mirrors part of an editorial written by disgraced former Shelby County employee Tom Jones, whose Smart City Memphis blog also reports that Carpenter “has amassed a record as a champion for children.””

More disturbing, the OECY’s official social media accounts have been used to promote President Obama’s federal budget plan and generate opposition to the one drafted by House Republicans.

In an update posted to the agency’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts on the afternoon of Thursday, April 7th, the OECY directed followers to a petition to the U.S. Congress, urging members to “vote against the Budget Resolution put forward by Representative Paul Ryan and approved by the House Budget Committee for FY 2012.”

Whether or not such activity violates the Hatch Act, Shelby County residents will be outraged to discover that county resources are being used for partisan political purposes.

Perhaps that helps explain why all of the usual suspects on the far Left have rushed to the OECY’s defense, including the editors of the Commercial Appeal and the Memphis Flyer, Congressman Steve Cohen, and a corporation of activist groups meeting last Sunday at First Congregational Church, assembled by the Tennessee Equality Project. TEP said the purpose of the rally was to “build a permanent coalition of progressive organizations” in opposition to the new conservative majority in Nashville.

Aside from all the questionable associations and ethically-suspect political activities, it’s worth investigating the larger questions at stake.

First, is there a legitimate purpose for the office to exist in the first place?

Obviously, there is an abundance of need in our community, which suffers from high levels of poverty, addiction, violence, corruption, ignorance, and medical challenges.

It’s not enough, however, to show there’s a need in order to justify any one particular course of action. You’ve also got to demonstrate that you’re offering the right solution, in the right way.

It’s unclear how effective at addressing these problems is a county office whose primary mission was to produce child impact statements, statements the Commercial Appeal reports are quoted “rarely, if ever” by officials and commissioners in policy debates.

Second, are the grants being obtained by the office effective, efficient and affordable?

Only the government could justify some spending with more spending, but that’s exactly what this office and its posse have attempted.

OECY Administrator Julie Coffey has even written that the commission’s vote “jeopardizes more than $6 million dollars in free grant dollars.”

Free grant dollars?

This illustrates an all-to-common attitude in government that any expense is appropriate if it comes out of someone else’s pocket.

Take, for example, the $160,000 grant awarded to OECY by the Department of Justice. Shelby County was one of eight demonstration sites selected for a FY2010 discretionary grant offered by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. A total of $5.5 million in grants was awarded under the “Attorney General’s Children Exposed to Violence Demonstration Program: Phase 1.”

Despite talking points recited by Commissioner Carpenter and others that non-profit groups are incapable of delivering services the OECY has been charged with providing, the office was not a necessary requirement to receive the grant. In fact, other communities receiving the grant have no such office. On the contrary, creating partnerships with other government agencies and non-profit groups in fact was a necessary requirement.

Next fiscal year, Shelby County expects to receive an additional $2 million to implement the plan it devised under Phase I, part of the $37 million the Justice Department plans to spend on the Defending Childhood Initiative (which comes complete with a slick website, logo and YouTube video glorifying Attorney General Holder). The Justice Department will also spend another $2 billion in other grants, about $50 million to organizations in the State of Tennessee alone.

Commissioner Carpenter argues that one of the benefits of the OECY is that it “fosters collaboration between agencies to limit competition for grant dollars.” If we must be beholden to federal spending, shouldn’t we at least demand a competitive bid process? How else will we know a grant is being used in the most efficient and effective way possible, by the agency or organization best prepared to perform that service?

The problem is, the Federal Government is already spending $1.4 trillion more than it takes in, on top of its existing $14 trillion debt. So where is Justice getting the $2 billion? Don’t these so-called free dollars come from the same place as the $4.2 million Health and Human Services grant?

Who’s going to pay for all of that deficit spending? Most likely, our children.

So when will the OECY issue a child impact statement for all of the debt we’re leaving for the next generation?

Perhaps we should have our “enduring champion for children in every respect” hand a bill for $176,390 to every boy and girl we welcome into the world, representing the share of the total U.S. debt each individual child will owe just for the privilege of being born in the United States.

But of course they would never do that. Instead, the officials who create these programs and make these awards will take all of the credit for handing us these wonderful government programs, showing us how big their hearts are, but will accept none of the blame for loading our children with hundreds of thousands of debt before they take their first breath.

And they’ll do this while simultaneously arguing that local churches and non-profit organizations can’t possibly bear the load, despite the fact that they’re already providing food, housing, clothing, counseling and medical care, and could do even more if the government weren’t sucking all of the oxygen out of the room.

So, two cheers for the Shelby County Commission. You would have earned all three if you had picked a more politically-correct target, and if you weren’t expected to reverse yourself today. It seems the government can only eliminate an unnecessary department by mistake.

At least it will be entertaining to hear your reasons for reconsideration; will you blame your earlier decision on ignorance, spinelessness or just general incompetence?

But if you do the impossible and you stay strong, you’ll have not only our thanks, but also the appreciation of the children who’ll eventually have to find a way to clean up your mess.