MLGW president Jerry Collins said Memphis City Council member Janis Fullilove was "unprofessional" when she called him a “liar” in a meeting two weeks ago.
Fullilove and council member Wanda Halbert said they were not invited to meet with Collins before a recent vote on a big MLG&W contract. Collins said at the time that he tried to meet with all 13 council members.
This drew the ire of Fullilove who “called me a liar in front of everyone attending and watching the city council meeting,” Collins said in a Monday letter to city council chairman Jim Strickland and council member Myron Lowery.
Collins presented older emails that show he did try to set up meetings with Fullilove, Halbert, and council member Lee Harris on two separate occasions. Collins said he never received a response to his invitations.
“As you can see, there were four attempts to schedule meetings with these three city council members and there was no response to any one of the four emails,” Collins said in his Monday email. “Therefore, you can understand that I was surprised and disappointed by Councilwoman Fullilove's accusation. Her accusation was, in my opinion, unprofessional and untrue.”
Collins’ letter was forwarded by Lowery to city council members and city hall staffers with an apology.
“On behalf of the council, please accept our apology,” Lowery wrote to Collins Monday. “Everyone who comes before the council should be treated with dignity and respect. We have discussed this in the past and will try to ensure that it does not occur again.”
The Memphis City Council approved a measure Tuesday afternoon that will allow some retirees and their spouses to keep their city-funded health insurance for another year.
The deal will cover city retirees who are younger than 65 (which makes them ineligible for Medicare), and have no other access to health care insurance. Also, those in that group who have been identified as having a permanent disability, would remain on the city’s health insurance in the future. Also, the surviving spouses of those in this group will be included in the insurance coverage.
The resolution came from council member Shea Flinn and was co-sponsored by council chairman Jim Strickland. It was approved unanimously with Harold Collins abstaining from the vote.
“This is not a full solution but it does get that most vulnerable category of employee that people have told us very emotional stories about (in full council meetings), it will get them covered for a calendar year while we can continue to address this issue and potential savings that have come up because, frankly, we’re running out of time,” Flinn said.
Many believed Tuesday’s meeting was going to be the final vote on what has now been a three-month showdown between the council, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton’s administration, city employees, and the unions that represent city employees and retirees.
The council cut health care benefits for employees and retirees on June 17 when they passed their version of Wharton’s budget for the next 12 months. Protests have followed since, keeping the issue in the spotlight.
A specially called meeting at City Hall last week yielded a formal plan from some employees to hold the cuts for a year. That plan basically asked for the Wharton administration to go back to the budget and find $23 million for the health care fund to avoid many of the cuts to the health insurance benefits.
A version of some of those ideas were presented to the council by council member Janis Fullilove during its executive session right before Tuesday’s full council meeting.
The council approved the plan that only asks - not directs - the Wharton administration to try find the funds to avoid the cuts. It's approval was met with hail of applause from angry city employees who packed the council chambers Tuesday.
Many also believed that others were at work on plans that would greatly reduce the benefit cuts and that they would present those plans to the full council Tuesday. The proposal from Flinn and Strickland was the only one that came forth.
Council member Joe Brown called the plan a “shot in the dark” and Flinn said he was trying to “move forward.” Council member Wanda Halbert complained that the plan was delivered to council only hours before a vote later that afternoon and wanted the vote delayed for two weeks.
“If we wait that long, these folks are not going to be heard,” Strickland said. “My impression is that we need to act now. This isn’t the end of anything. The work can continue.”
That last statement seems to hold open the door on the issue that has dragged on during a long, tense summer at city hall. The summer has been filled with protests, of course, but also a mind-numbing truck load of conflicting budget figures from employees, actuaries, benefits consultants, and administration officials.
It was not immediately clear Tuesday what the next move in that debate will be.
There was plenty of anger from the public for council members and administration officials Tuesday evening. Most weren't angered about the new changes but were mad about the benefit cuts in general.
"We have individuals who are probably going to die out here and you (make the cuts) without regard to life or limb," said Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams. "You guys have the power to change this. You may not pay for it today but you’re going to pay for it."
Many on the council criticized other council members for approving the original benefit cuts. Flinn said his proposal did not go as far as some on the council would have liked but he did the best with the money he could find.
"If you can, I urge you to come up with something else," Flinn said. "It's hard to do and not as simple as people think. I wish we could have done more but the finances are what the finances are. It was the best I could do. If you can do better, God bless you, and please go for it."
The council also passed a $2 million safety net plan to help some of those who are under 65 who will suffer significant financial hardships due to the cuts.
The newly found kits date back to 1976, according to MPD Deputy Chief Jim Harvey. They were not listed in any evidence inventory that would have revealed their location. They were found at the police evidence facility at the old International Harvester plant in Frayser.
MPD director Toney Armstrong said the facility is “massive” and “about two or three football fields long.” But neither the size of the place nor the task will not deter the efforts to find more kits, he said.
“I want every piece of evidence in our possession to searched and re-searched to make sure we are doing our due diligence to clear up this rape kit backlog,” Armstrong told council members in a committee meeting Tuesday. “The first time I came forward (with the untested rape kit backlog), I said the number will change and that we would not stop until we are satisfied that every kit in the MPD’s possession has been located. We have been going through that process for those victims that they get the investigation they deserve.”
"What we take from this is that it’s a blessing to us that we had the first Rape Crisis Center in Memphis but it’s also a curse,” Harvey said. “We don’t destroy any evidence. We’ve maintained it through the years from (former police headquarters at) 128 Adams and to 201 Poplar and then to International Harvester. We were able to keep that evidence and at the time they were not computerized and we have no computer log of where that evidence was.”
So far, more than 2,000 kits have been tested and about 7,800 may be in need of further analysis, Harvey said. MPD has won some grants to help it test the kits and clear the backlog. In the meantime, he said officers will continue to comb through storage facilities for more evidence.
“They are inventorying items that range from the back seat of a car to toenail clippings stored in multiple locations with previously inadequate tracking or no tracking,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said in a statement after tuesday’s meeting. “It’s a daunting task but we are committed to testing every kit and getting any DNA evidence found into (the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System). Rape survivors deserve no less.”
Council member Kemp Conrad brought an ordinance to the council Tuesday that would levy registration fees on the companies and the cars, require drivers to carry insurance, and require the companies to conduct background checks on their drivers.
But Ham Smythe IV, CEO of Premiere Transportation Services, told council members Tuesday that the companies are attempting an “end run” around the traditional rules and agencies (like the Memphis Transportation Commission) that govern the rest of the transportation industry in Memphis.
“They have set up shop without trying to comply with city ordinances; they choose to willfully disregard that,” Smythe said during Tuesday morning’s meeting of the council’s public works, transportation, and general services committee. "When they city sent them a letter to cease and desist, they continued to operate. I’m not sure why the city and this council put up with that.”
Smythe likened the companies’ operation here so far to someone selling liquor out of their home, saying the city would shut that operation down “in a red, hot minute.” He said Uber and Lyft are “billion-dollar companies” but are getting special treatment over homegrown companies like his.
“We’re not saying that these companies should not have an opportunity to do business here but they are skipping a lot of key provisions (of current laws that stand for taxis),” Smythe said.
Council member Harold Collins said the new rules should have been vetted by the lawyers and permits administrator of the Memphis Transportation Commission. He said his father raised 11 children driving a taxi for 51 years and said the council’s top priority in dealing with Uber and Lyft should be the safety of the citizens.
“It is incumbent on us as the fiduciary stakeholders of the city to maintain some responsibleness for those who carry out the service,” Collins said.
C. Barry Ward, a partner in the Memphis law firm Ballin, Ballin & Fishman, said he represents Lyft in the matter. He reminded council members of President John F. Kennedy’s charge to put a man on the moon and that he said we are defined by our challenges.
“I challenge the city of Memphis to come into this new situation and overcome the recession of (2008) and this is a means to do that,” Ward said.
Council member Reid Hedgepeth answered Ward in plain terms.
“I would like for you to hear loudly the comments about one company having a disadvantage over another,” Hedgepeth said. “We like competitiveness in this city, but we don’t want to kill the taxi industry in this city by bringing in someone else at a much lower rate.”
Conrad and Aubrey Howard, the permit administrator for the Memphis Transportation Commission, said the ordinance was changed Monday to ensure that Uber, Lyft, and companies like them will be regulated by the transportation commission.
This appeased Collins on the matter but he said he still wants to hear from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton’s administration on the issue.
The council will have to approve the new regulations in three readings over the next six weeks. Conrad said he will continue to facilitate the conversation on the rules between the Uber, Lyft, and the taxi companies.
From the mob of teens that beat down three people at the Poplar Plaza Kroger to the woman who was shot by her ex-boyfriend in the Colonial Target parking lot, gangs and domestic violence have been making headlines lately.
But two grants awarded by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which collectively exceed $1 million, will be used to combat both of the aforementioned issues.
In a DOJ press release, Edward Stanton, United States Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, disclosed on Wednesday, September 10th, that the City of Memphis had been awarded the “Grant to Encourage Arrest Policies and Enforcement of Protection Orders.” Totaling $900,000, the grant will help enforce protection orders and protect victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
The City of Memphis, along with the Shelby County Rape Crisis Center, will collaboratively use the grant to “improve post-testing requirements for victim notifications, investigations, and prosecution of increased sexual assault cases resulting from the processing of the backlog of sexual assault kits,” according to the press release.
The city also received a $148,885 “Project Safe Neighborhoods Grant,” which will be used to reduce gang and gun violence locally. In collaboration with the Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) task force, a collective comprised of federal, state, and local law enforcement committed to lowering violent crime, the city will use the grant to "expand its data analysis and tracking capabilities, in order to ensure more efficient and targeted law enforcement efforts against gang and gun violence."
The grant will also enable the PSN task force and city to collaboratively deter more youth away from the criminal justice system, develop more effective community outreach efforts, and also implement more aggressive prosecutions.
“Events of recent weeks have served as a tragic reminder of the need to protect victims of domestic violence and hold accountable those who commit violent crimes,” Stanton said in a statement. “The new $900,000 grant from the DOJ Office on Violence Against Women will help local authorities process the backlog in sexual assault kits and prosecute those who commit such heinous acts to the fullest extent the law allows. And the Project Safe Neighborhoods grant will bolster our ongoing efforts to track down and bring to justice those who illegally possess and use firearms. Together, these grants total over a million dollars, and they underscore the Department of Justice’s commitment to keeping our citizens safe and protecting victims — especially victims of domestic violence.”
The beatings of three people in a Kroger parking lot Saturday night will not be investigated as a hate crime, according to police officials.
Memphis Police Department director Toney Armstrong said he’s had lots of calls asking how the investigation would proceed but said there is “not sufficient enough evidence to investigate this as a hate crime.”
“I know this has a lot of racial undertones,” Armstrong said during a news conference Monday at Memphis City Hall. “I’ve gotten a lot of calls and I know (Memphis Mayor A C Wharton) has as well. We acknowledge that the majority of the suspects and the majority of the juveniles involved in this were African Americans. But you have to also understand that there was an African American victim in this as well, as well as a non-African American male.”
Armstrong said one 15-year-old suspect has been charged for aggravated assault and aggravated rioting. The suspect also has previous drug and firearm charges. He is not enrolled in school this year and his mother has been charged in the past with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, Armstrong said.
Charges on three other suspects were pending but expected Monday, Armstrong said.
“I am pleased to say that the three young men are in custody because two parents did the right thing,” Armstrong said. "Two parents contacted us and notified us because they felt their kids had taken part in this.”
Wharton said he’d talked with the business owners around the shopping center at Highland and Poplar and would be soon talking with the victims.
“Again, for those who were wondering why this case is getting so much attention, and I think everybody understands and properly so, that it is just so reprehensible that it damages our community and not to mention the harm done to the victims,” Wharton said. “It cast the city in horribly bad light. We want to make clear that we’re not going to tolerate it.”
Shelby County Schools has launched "My SCS," a mobile app for Apple and Android smartphones.
The app is designed for parents, students, and staff and contains district news updates, athletic schedules, lunch menus, district meeting and event calendars, and school contact information. Users can also opt to receive push notifications from the district through the app.
More than 10 protesters were arrested earlier today for blocking traffic on Poplar just east of White Station. In one of the largest fast-food strikes that the city has seen, workers from St. Louis and Little Rock joined fast-food and restaurant workers from Memphis to protest low wages. The group met at multiple fast-food restaurants before ending the rally at the McDonald's on Poplar in East Memphis. Wearing shirts that read "Memphis 15," "Little Rock 15" and "St. Louis 15," the protesters called for the wages of fast-food workers to be raised to $15 dollars an hour and for the right of fast-food workers to form a union.
After a series of chants of "We've got the Blue Flu, too" and "We can't survive on $7.25," a group of protesters marched into the street, causing the eastbound lanes of Poplar to be blocked for a few minutes. Police then confronted the protesters in the street, where more than 10 were arrested and loaded into a Blue Crush police vehicle. Following the arrests, police slowly advanced on the crowd, backing people up through the parking lots of local businesses before ultimately leading the crowd to the parking lot of Bed Bath and Beyond, where buses and vans were waiting for them.
Changes made to the health care benefits of Memphis city employees are officially back on the table after an outside review of an alternative health plan devised by employee labor unions.
The plan will get further review next week in a specially called meeting of the Memphis City Council’s personnel committee. On Tuesday, council members heard from consultants from Mercer and Cigna about the potential savings involved in the implementation of a high-deductible health plan proposed by the public labor unions.
The consultants could not agree on some key figures Tuesday and will spend the week communicating and sharing information ahead of next week’s meeting. Should their calculations agree and council members like what they hear, a new health insurance plan could be voted on by the full council in two weeks.
Since they passed the budget back in June, the council has continued to grapple with the fallout of the health plan changes included in the budget. The changes include increasing insurance premiums by 24 percent, cutting some spouses from the health insurance plan altogether, and cutting a 70 percent health insurance subsidy for some retirees.
Backlash to the cuts has been severe at times with public protests at Memphis City Hall and a massive work action that saw more than 500 police officers and 80 fire fighters collectively call in sick around the Independence Day holiday.
But as those protests were raging, union officials were busy crafting an alternative benefits proposal that would eliminate the premium increases, halt the cuts to retirees, and allow spouses to stay in the city plan.
The topic dominated much of the council’s committee debate Tuesday with a pair of two-hour sessions. but the constant talk of health care began to frustrate some council members. Council member Wanda Halbert said the council has already passed the changes and wondered why discussion continued.
“I know we already made a vote in the budget,” said council member Harold Collins. “But we owe it to the citizens and employees who work for us down to the last minute if we have to to come up with a plan that everyone can live with.”
Brand new signs could light up the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts and the Cook Convention Center after leaders get permission to install them from the Downtown Memphis Commission [DMC].
Kevin Kane, president of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Pierre Landaich, the general manager of the Cook Convention Center, will present the new signs to the DMC's Design Review Board on Wednesday, Sept. 3 at 4 p.m.
Take a look:
Memphis-area organizations got around $3.5 million in clean-air grants from the Tennessee Department of Transportation Thursday.
The grants are part of the state’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program [CMAC]. The oversized checks TDOT officials were handing out in Memphis Thursday were part of 31 CMAC grants going to 11 Tennessee communities that total $27 million.
Here are the projects funded in Memphis:
MLGW, $500,000 - Purchase 20 heavy-duty trucks that run on compressed natural gas.
City of Memphis, $600,000: Upgrade traffic signal equipment on Walnut Grove (west of I-240) to inter-connect signals, reduce congestion, and improve traffic efficiency.
Main to Main Multi-Modal Connector Project, $1.6 million: construction funding.
“This means the project can forward; it’s critical,” said Downtown Memphis Commission president Paul Morris.
Morris said the project should be under contract in November and if construction runs on schedule, the project should be complete by spring or summer 2016.
Greenline Park and Ride, $20,000: 100 parking spaces to be built next to Shelby Farms Greenline and Shelby County Government Complex.
Route 34 Express, $212,001: New, direct bus route from Cordova to Downtown Memphis. Four round trips daily.
Shelby Farms Shuttle, $180,000 - Will initially run only on the weekends between Southwest Tennessee Community College and Shelby Farms Park.
MATA bus transit expansion, $408,000: Expand existing service between proposed Greenline Park and Ride facility and major centers in the i-40 corridor.
The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) board of directors voted to retire Memphis' Allen Fossil Plant in Frank C. Pidgeon Industrial Park and replace it with a 1,000 megawatt natural gas plant by December 31st, 2018 at their regular meeting on Thursday morning in Knoxville. The new plant is expected to cost $975 million.
The TVA is under a consent decree from the Environmental Protection Agency to either close the Allen coal plant or install emission controls by that 2018 deadline. Over the past few months, the TVA has been taking public comments on the decision. An Environmental Assessment report studied various options, including replacing Allen's generation capacity with renewable power sources, such as wind, solar, and biomass.
At the board's public listening session, several environmentalists spoke about their wishes for the TVA to focus more on wind and solar power.
But TVA president Bill Johnson said, while the TVA hopes to work more with renewables in the future, "we need utility-scale support." In other words, the TVA wants a more reliable source of generation now, but it may add more renewable generation sources later on.
"If we ever hope to do work with Clean Line, we need to have this plant behind it," Johnson said.
Houston-based Clean Line Energy Partners has proposed the Plains and Eastern Clean Line, a 700-mile overhead direct-current transmission line that would deliver 3,500 megawatts of low-cost wind power from the Great Plains to Tennessee and other areas in the Southeast. It wants to build its energy delivery station in northeast Shelby County. Clean Line is working under a memorandum of understanding with the TVA to study the benefits of how it could be used as a power supply source for its overall grid.
The TVA's Environmental Assessment suggested a natural gas plant ranging in capacity from 600 to 1,400 megawatts, but the board chose the 1,000 megawatt option.
Scott Banbury, conservation program coordinator for the statewide Sierra Club, is calling the move a win because the smaller generation capacity for the gas plant leaves more room for the TVA to work with solar and wind options. Johnson said at the meeting that they plan to diversify their generation portfolio with more renewable options as they become more reliable and cost-effective.
“We can save money, decrease pollution and ensure that the proposed gas plant is used sparingly with strategic investment in key renewable resources, like wind, solar and energy efficiency," Banbury said. "These twenty-first century solutions to our energy needs will save consumers money while creating good-paying jobs right here in Tennessee.”
The closure will mean a reduction in jobs at the site. The Allen coal plant requires more workers than a natural gas plant will, but TVA's Ashley Farless has stated that the company will work to shift displaced workers into other jobs with TVA or try to help them find new jobs using the skills they have gained at the TVA. Banbury has previously stated that if the TVA adds more renewable capacity, those displaced workers could take jobs in the wind and solar sectors.
To read more about the TVA's decision, check out last week's Memphis Flyer cover story.
During his visit, Perez toured the Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks Job Corps Center close to Stateline Road. He spoke with students, educators, and local leaders about their experience with the program, which gives free education and training to young people to learn a skill, get a GED, or find a job.
After the tour, he gave a speech that was less about posturing on policy than it was a rousing sermon to inspire the students in the room.
“Every single person in this room — every single person who comes through a Job Corps center — is gifted and talented,” Perez said. “It is up to us to draw out those gifts and talents.”
Perez spoke of learning from bad days and of second chances, telling the students that his boss, President Barack Obama, “got his butt kicked” in his first run for Congress.
The Hooks Center in Memphis is one of Job Corps’ highest performing centers in terms of job placement, and other metrics, according to Perez.
Indictments are ready on 22 Memphis rape cases that were part of the city’s backlog of untested sexual assault kits.
Harvey delivered the news Tuesday during the monthly update on the sexual assault kit backlog to the Memphis City Council’s public safety committee. Committee chairman Kemp Conrad said he’d like to see more than 22 indictments in these cases. Harvey said, “believe me you’re going to start seeing these numbers grow,” but did not elaborate on a process or a specific timeline.
MPD Director Toney Armstrong added seven investigators to the DNA unit this month, Harvey told the committee. Sixteen permanent investigators are dedicated to the sexual assault backlog project, he said.
So far, 162 sexual assault kit cases have been investigated, Harvey said. Of those, 10 victims and suspects are deceased, eight cases have passed the statue of limitations, two kits yielded insufficient or degraded DNA samples, and in 13 of those cases the victims declined to participate in the investigation.
When council member Janis Fullilove asked Harvey why a victim would refuse to participate, he said he didn’t have the exact information on the 13 victims associated with this investigation.
“I can tell you that normally when they decline to participate, they’ve moved on with their lives,” Harvey said. “They’ve married or it’s just not something they want to go back into or they may have moved to another state.”
Training has also been a big part of the push to investigate the sexual assault kits, Harvey said. The city’s cross functional team, a group assembled to eliminate the backlog, hosted a training day session attended by more than 100 local law enforcement officers. The sessions focused on victim behavior, DNA, forensic analysis, and more.
More training all be offered in the future, Harvey said, on using the Rape Crisis Center and on human sex trafficking.
“We’re at a point now where we’re not so swamped with work that we can’t send our investigators to training,” he said. “And we’re trying to the training in place as soon as possible.”
The new health insurance plan proposed by unions representing city employees will not fix the city’s long-term problems or even be ready in time for employees next year, according to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton.
The plan increased employees’ premiums by 24 percent, cut some of their spouses from the program, cut a 70 percent subsidy the city paid toward retirees’ health care insurance, and more.
Employees’ unions proposed a high-deductible insurance plan to the city’s health oversight committee a few weeks ago. The unions said that plan would save about $24 million, keep retirees’ subsidies, keep premiums where they are now, and keep spouses on the city’s health plan.
Wharton administration officials asked Mercer, a benefits consulting firm, to run the numbers on that plan. The company said the plan would not save enough money and could not be implemented by a January deadline.
The results of the study were delivered to the council’s Personnel & Intergovernmental Committee Tuesday.
Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams said he didn’t necessarily like the plan proposed by his organization and the Memphis Fire Fighters Association. But he said coming back to the table shows the groups are willing to compromise, something he said the Wharton administration is not willing to do.
“They made no effort whatsoever to help us change our plan or even meet us halfway,” Williams said.
Williams then suggested the council bring in an independent consultant to review the unions’ health insurance proposal, much in the way the council sought independent counsel on the city’s pension system
The proposal will come back to council for a further review in two weeks.