City Reporter 

City Reporter

Profiting from Pain

Some tree services are making a buck off of disaster.

By Bianca Phillips

Like many Memphians, James and Mary Jane Hamlet were desperately in need of tree work after the storm of three weeks ago. Four large trees in the backyard of their River Oaks home were ripped from the ground, and the tops were broken off several others. But when they called their usual tree service for an estimate, they were shocked when they heard it would cost $48,000 to clean up.

According to Memphis City Council chairman Brent Taylor, the council has received quite a few calls reporting price gouging from out-of-town tree services. As a result, the council has posted a list of phone numbers of local tree services on its Web site. However, Mike Mabe, manager of Davey Tree & Landscape, says a few local companies are jacking up prices as well.

"They're just robbing people," said Mabe. "You've got people charging prices that are inflated 10 times what they ought to be."

Davey charges $75 per man per hour and an additional $225 an hour for a crane if it's necessary. Mabe says his company recently charged $1,800 to remove a limb from the top of a house after another local company gave the homeowner an estimate of $6,000.

Citizens who feel they are victims of price gouging can report the incident to the Better Business Bureau (BBB) of the Mid-South. James Pascover, director of marketing and communication for the BBB, recommends checking the company's record with the BBB by calling 759-1300 or visiting MidSouth.BBB.org. He also says if the amount of the work exceeds $3,000, the contractor should be licensed by the Tennessee Home Improvement Bureau.

Mabe says not to take an estimate from anyone who approaches you without having been called, and Taylor suggests getting several estimates before settling on a service.

"We're very skittish now on getting bids from people. We got one bid for $5,000, but I'm not sure if this guy was intent on doing the whole job. And we got one bid for $24,000," said Mary Hamlet. "It's not going to be cheap, but I just don't see it being $20,000 to 40,000."

The City Council has also set up a Helping Hands hotline at 576-6786 for seniors, the disabled, and fixed-income individuals who may not be able to afford tree work. The council will relay requests for assistance to volunteer groups. The city will pick up tree debris left on the curb but will not enter onto private property.

In the Red

Shelby County Head Start violates lease.

By Janel Davis

Troubles seem to be growing for Shelby County Head Start, Inc., which oversees most of the students in Head Start programs. Already in appeals after being fired by the county for mismanagement of funds and credit-card fraud, the agency can add a charge of lease violation to the list.

Pam Ali, the CEO and director of Cultural Connection, says Head Start violated its lease at her facility and owes her more than $41,000 in back taxes, lease fees, and damages stemming from its two-year rental of her facility.

Beginning July 2001, Ali rented the 10,000-square-foot facility at 2288 Dunn and Airways to one of the 16 centers operated by the agency to carry out its nationally funded early-childhood development program. The two-year lease included an option to rent the building for a third year with a written renewal decision required at least 90 days before the lease expired in July 2003.

According to Ali, Head Start wanted the monthly rent of $12,000 reduced to $7,500. When she refused the offer in January, she says the agency never responded to any correspondence. In June, Ali agreed to lower the monthly rent to $9,000 but received no acceptance or refusal of the offer. As a result, Ali requested the company vacate her facility.

While Head Start ended its operations at the Dunn location and paid the final month's required rent of $12,000, administrators offered to refund Ali only $29,000 of the amount she was asking.

A signed lease between the two entities outlines a fee structure ordering the agency to pay Ali the taxes assessed during the term of the lease, a $12,000 one-time down payment, and costs of subletting internal monitoring equipment. At odds is the $12,000 down payment which Head Start requested be used to pay back and current taxes.

Representatives of the agency, including board member Bob Hatton and facilities manager Arthur Wells, are being represented by attorney Glenwood Roane. None of the parties involved with Head Start returned calls for comment.

"Since they did not negotiate with me in good faith, I've missed the opportunity to lease the building out to someone else," said Ali. She plans to reopen the building for a nonprofit after-school program in September. "I need my money to be able to reopen. I don't have time to go to court. There's a note on the building, and if I don't pay the note, then I will lose the building."

Although Ali may not have time to go to court, she will do so if a resolution cannot be reached. She has turned her case over to Head Start headquarters in Atlanta for further assistance.

No Charge

Charges dropped in alleged newspaper extortion case.

By John Branston

Extortion charges against the former classified advertising manager of The Tri-State Defender have been dropped.

Myron Hudson was arrested in June and taken to jail in the middle of the night on a charge of extortion filed by the news-paper's editor, Marzie Thomas. She told police Hudson demanded $50,000 or he would go public with plagiarism allegations against The Tri-State Defender.

After The Memphis Flyer broke the still-uncontested plagiarism story,The Commercial Appeal reported the charge and arrest in a front-page story on June 3rd. The Associated Press picked it up and passed it along to other Tennessee newspapers.

The Flyer's reporting was based on a detailed comparison of numerous stories published in the Defender and was neither prompted nor assisted by Hudson.

The charge was "nolle prossed" -- or discontinued -- by the county prosecutor's office July 29th.

The Great Sweater Debate

Who has it in for pedal pushers? The city school board fashion police?

By Mary Cashiola

A wise man said, "Good clothes open all doors."

If you're a Memphis City Schools student or parent, you know it's not quite that simple.

At the last meeting, school board commissioner Deni Hirsh made a motion to send the district's uniform policy, just amended last month, back to committee. The new policy was criticized by Hirsh and fellow board member Wanda Halbert as being too restrictive.

Halbert said she had initially misread the policy and objected to the clause stating that light jackets, sweaters, and sweatshirts were permitted as long as they were white or in a color picked by the school. True outerwear, like heavy jackets, is not permitted to be worn during school hours.

"No one from my son's school told us a color jacket he could wear," said Halbert. "Are you saying that if a parent cannot find a white sweater, vest, or jacket [their child] will have to be cold?"

Hirsh objected to the policy changes for similar reasons when it was first amended. "I'm totally opposed to this policy as a parent," Hirsh said in a meeting last month. "Throughout the year, I saw a deterioration of niceness and attempts by good kids to get away with whatever they could. ... The biggest issue is only allowing the white shirt unless the student leadership council picks other colors."

Many schools don't have functioning leadership councils; others have hard-to-find colors, especially in the district's prescribed shirt styles, such as maroon. One school is allowing students to wear only white shirts or a school shirt they buy from the school.

"Do you want to wear navy and white all your life every day of the week?" asked Hirsh. "Maybe we could allow more basic colors."

Attempts by students to get away with what they could led to the new, more restrictive uniform rules. One of the largest loopholes was what kind of clothing students were wearing over their white shirts. Denim is also expressly not allowed, to keep students from saying blue jeans are the same as navy pants.

But as with personal style, everyone has his or her own preferences for the uniform policy. Hirsh, for instance, says she and her daughters each have a black sweater they wear when they get cold. Board president Carl Johnson doesn't agree with nixing denim. Cropped pants and capris are allowed, while their shorter cousin, pedal pushers, aren't, but walking shorts are. Similarly, boot-cut pants and cargo pants are okay, but bell bottoms are not.

Watson was asked to change the rules but he said he didn't think it would be productive to do so "at this time." Board commissioner Lora Jobe also dissented, saying that it would be "a mess" to change the policy so close to the start of school.

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