City Reporter 

City Reporter

Rats!

Rodent-control program points to larger funding issue.

By Mary Cashiola

It all began when Memphis City Council member Barbara Swearengen Holt smelled a rat. So to speak.

"I had heard some complaints from constituents that they were having rats show up on their front porch and in their yards," Holt said. "When we contacted the health department, that's when we found out that they had discontinued the program."

After Holt brought the issue to the council, it began to look as if rodents weren't the only problem. Because of a shortfall of local funds, the health department eliminated four positions from the rodent-control program, closed two city school clinics, and cut more than 50 other positions. Some state-funded programs, including adolescent-pregnancy prevention and the Hispanic outreach arm of family planning, were also cut.

Because of an agreement that says the county and city will fund the health department equally, when the county cut its funding during the budget crunch in the summer, so did the city.

"What we're trying to do now is determine how the decision was made that this would be what was eliminated," said Holt. "They had budget cuts on the county side. We are inquiring now: A) why the county didn't feel the need to fund it at their full level? and B) what can we jointly do to correct this situation before it gets out of hand?"

Yvonne Madlock, director of the county's division of health services, said that the rodent-control program is still occurring in a limited capacity. They no longer leave poisoned bait, but they still conduct investigations and distribute information.

"We understand rats and rat control are visible problems," said Madlock. "Rats often create a very visceral reaction, but sometimes the concern is disproportionate to the actual health threat they pose."

She said the disparity comes with each government's capacity to fund the department.

"Essentially, our budget is developed locally on the county side, because we're a county agency," said Madlock. "Typically, the city budget is done earlier. When the county's budget is done some months later, they'll still fund it equally. If the county puts in less, the city proportion is reduced."

In this fair-funding formula, then, the health department will get double whatever the lower figure is.

Elsie Bailey is the principal of Booker T. Washington High School, a city school on Mississippi Blvd. Until the beginning of the year, both Booker T. and Northside High housed health department-staffed clinics.

"It's really missed out here," said Bailey. "The kids get sick. They need medical attention." Bailey said that the school unfortunately has more than a few families that are not insured. "I know when I call a parent and send a child home [with an illness], that's where they're going to be until they get better," she said.

At the clinic, students could get immunizations and basic check-ups.

"The thing that bothers me the most ... is that the clinic has caught so many cases of hypertension," said Bailey. "There was one young man with a blood pressure over 200. He looked healthy. He was an athlete. He's had to have two liver transplants since then."

The clinic saw a large number of cases of juvenile diabetes in addition to hypertension, and Bailey blames both ailments on the students' diets.

"I know nobody owes this to them," said Bailey of the clinic, "but I thought it was good to have it here in the school. I was an advocate of students from other schools using it too. I know if my students weren't going to the doctor, their little brothers and sisters who go to school across the street weren't going to the doctor, either."

Holt says this isn't the first time this situation has occurred.

"There are areas that we jointly fund and they come more and more to our table and say they've been cut on the county side and they would really like us to make up the shortfall," said Holt. "We can't afford to do that. ... Even when it's 50/50, it's not. We live in both the city and the county, so we're paying our 50 [percent] and then part of theirs."

Keith McGee, the city's interim chief administrative officer, said representatives from the city and the county expect to meet in coming weeks to discuss the situation.

"We've delayed any action concerning that funding until we have an assessment of the total cuts made by Shelby County government," he said. "Then we'll decided what funding -- if any -- we want to contribute."

E-mail: cashiola@MemphisFlyer.com

Putting Out a Fire

Allegations of fire department test fraud are unfounded.

By Janel Davis

Reports of promotional testing infractions are not true and no "breaches of security" have occurred, according to city administrators and the Division of Fire Services.

Two Memphis firefighters called the Flyer to complain that a recent Fire Services test had been compromised because another firefighter had obtained an advance copy of the test before the test date on Saturday, October 18th. That person was allegedly a Fire Services employee on the chief level, who then tore the papers into shreds in front of other firefighters after claiming they were the test questions.

The test is administered to determine which firefighters will advance to the rank of lieutenant.

The allegations were reported to the fire union, AIFF Local 1784. Union president Terry Oldham confirmed that the allegations had been made two days before the test date and then forwarded to administrators.

Arthur Vaught, manager of the city's testing and recruitment office, was responsible for assuring the confidentiality of the test. He said questions had been raised by the union but had been unsubstantiated. In fact, an outside consulting firm, Morris & McDaniels of Atlanta, had been brought in to design and administer the test. To ensure fairness, the test was given in two shifts, with the first shift detained until the second shift had begun testing.

"With this specific test, no one had seen the test besides the consultant firm," said Sarah Hall, human resources director.

An investigation by Vaught and Hall revealed that while studying for the test, a firefighter at Station 41 in East Memphis had received a fire-emergency call. While he was out, a fellow firefighter and promotion candidate found his study materials and proceeded to make copies. When the first firefighter returned, he confiscated the copied materials and ripped them into pieces.

"Other firefighters at the station then assumed that he must have had the test, or else why would he have ripped it up?" said Hall. The station chief gathered the pieces together and turned them over to Vaught. The pieces were found to be from a previous test, which is made available for study after it is administered, and from a separate study guide.

Hall is drafting a letter to the union to address the concerns and report the findings of the investigation. No disciplinary action has been taken against any firefighters involved at this time.

"There have been allegations like this made before, but that's the nature of the beast," said Hall. "Any time there is a high-profile test this can happen."

Under consent-decree requirements, the city has to hire outside testing consultants for certain city positions. Bids are submitted and city officials select a firm, with fees taken from the Fire Services operating budget. Morris & McDaniels were paid $592,000 to administer five tests. Fire Services funding includes an $11 million capital budget and an operating budget of almost $103 million.

A rank-order list developed from test scores is due to Fire Services by December 31st. Promotions are made from this list.

E-mail: jdavis@MemphisFlyer.com

The Blotter

Absurd crimes from the local police files.

Bad Grocery-Store Pickups: On October 29th, a man said he had been shopping at the Midtown Piggly Wiggly when a bald black man in his 30s "started to talk to him and got very close to him and brushed up against his left side several times." A few minutes later, he realized his wallet was missing. Unfortunately, just the day before, at the same grocery store, a suspect fitting the same description tapped another male shopper on his lower back area. The shopper told officers that when he turned around, the suspect asked him if eggs were on sale. The man then noticed that his checkbook was no longer in his back pocket.

Abuse of the Sacred Pee-Pee Dance: Officers responded to a theft call October 29th at a fast-food restaurant on Airways, where the employee who was working the cash register asked to go to the bathroom. "The suspect started hopping around as if she had to go to the bathroom and on the way out the door the suspect grabbed her purse and complainant observed the suspect appear to shove something in her right front pocket." The employee never came back to finish her shift and $137 was reported stolen.

There's a good chance we would have done the same thing: On October 28th, a man on heard a knock on his door. His neighbor told him that his car was being towed. The man "ran outside and grabbed the back of the tow truck as the truck pulled off." The man was dragged 10 feet and was later treated for numerous cuts and abrasions.

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