Burning Questions 

Are MLGW bills too high? Are voter rolls stuffed? Is Herenton getting shafted?

Winter finally arrived in Memphis, along with these headlines on natural-gas prices: From The Wall Street Journal last week, "Warm Winter Eases Natural-Gas Heating Bills" over a story about a price decline of 50 percent from $15.40 per million BTUs in December to $7.48 per million BTUs last Friday. A separate Journal story headlined "Natural-Gas Prices Feel a Chill As Report Sparks Fear of a Glut" said total gas in storage "is in danger of ending the heating season at its highest level ever."

Some danger. Meanwhile, the only relief for customers of Memphis Light, Gas & Water is a return to 50-degree temperatures this week and a warm January that kept complaints in check. City councilman Dedrick Brittenum, one of the council's toughest questioners of MLGW during a recent session with utility executives, said he has received only a few calls from constituents. Wait until they get those February bills.

MLGW bills include the purchased gas adjustment calculated to seven decimal places and a footnote that says increases and decreases are passed through to consumers. But the "hometown utility" that touts its supposedly streamlined operation under CEO Joseph Lee fails to tell customers the one thing they want to know: Why haven't gas bills come down as they have in other cities?

Is it possible that virtually every adult in Memphis is a registered voter? Or are the voter rolls badly in need of a purge?

The population of Memphis, according to the U.S. Census estimate for 2004, is 671,929. The number of registered voters, according to the Shelby County Election Commission, is 436,345. There are 118,000 students in the Memphis City Schools, most of whom are too young to register to vote. The dropout rate is around 30 percent, so there are at least a few thousand more minors who don't go to school. There were 14,155 births in Memphis in 2003, the most recent year for which the Shelby County Health Department has records. Let's estimate, then, that there are some 70,000 Memphis children under the age of 5 and not in school. After doing the math, let's say there are 190,000 Memphians under the age of 18 and 482,000 Memphians 18 and over.

If the election commission's records are accurate, 90 percent of adult Memphians are registered voters. It takes as much effort to register to vote (admittedly, a one-time event) as it does to vote, but apparently three out of four Memphians do one and not the other. Voter turnout in Memphis in recent elections has ranged from low single-digits in primaries and school board races to 23 percent in the 2003 mayoral election.

Fair play for Mayor Herenton? The Commercial Appeal's editorial page says it was unfair of a Memphis television station to use the Super Bowl to hype an unflattering and ambiguous Herenton story. A week later, the newspaper gave page-one coverage to Herenton recall proponent Thadeus Matthews, before the first recall petitions have been filed.

Herenton wrote an op-ed column last week about media coverage for the CA, which declined to publish it in the dead-tree paper but did put it online. Anti-Herenton letter writers and Memphis bashers have no trouble getting their missives published nearly every day.

The daily seems to have increasingly taken to branding its reporting, which is fair enough. What's annoying is that the CA rarely credits anyone else, even when it is late to the party. Tuesday's front-page story about panda underperformance at the Memphis Zoo and other zoos followed a similar story in Sunday's New York Times. It was reported last summer by the Flyer, among others. The CA was a major booster of panda-mania in 2003 and managed to put a positive spin on Tuesday's story and photo ("No panda panic"). It failed to mention that although the pandas have increased attendance, the increase fell short of projections by more than 50 percent in the first year, and the shortfall has continued.

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