Thursday, June 30, 2011

City to Layoff 125 Employees on Friday

Posted By on Thu, Jun 30, 2011 at 12:04 PM

Friday may be the last day at work for 125 city employees from nearly all divisions of city government, according to a memo from city human resources director Quinton Robinson.

"The bulk of the [laid-off] employees will get notice tomorrow," said chief administrative officer George Little. "Some have bumping and retreating rights, and they could stay on past Friday."

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Bumping is an employee's right of assignment to a position occupied by another employee in a lower position, and retreating happens when an employee takes over a position identical to one previously held that may be held by a lower-ranking employee.

The layoffs, estimated to save the city $9.9 million, are one of several budget-cutting measures approved by the Memphis City Council last week. City employees will also see a 4.6 percent pay reduction beginning Friday. The reduction is being instituted as an alternative to the previously approved furlough strategy of eliminating holiday pay for city employees. The 4.6 percent reduction is equivalent to 12 paid holidays.

"In the latter part of the year, when you're off two days for Thanksgiving and three days for Christmas, it's hard to lose 20 to 30 percent of your paycheck," Little said. "This is an effort to smooth out the pay reduction."

When the city begins to accrue savings from the pay cuts, Little said they'll eventually reduce the amount of the pay reduction. The furlough pay reduction is expected to save the city $16.7 million.

Death benefits paid to families of retired city workers were also eliminated. In his memo, Robinson said the city could no longer afford the $5,000 payment made upon a retired employee's death.

"The city is, however, working to provide an optional, low-cost death benefit that employees may purchase," Robinson's letter stated.

The city will eliminate 248 vacant positions in order to save another $9 million. Those include a traffic crash investigator, secretaries from several divisions, a code enforcement officer, a fire department lieutenant, a carpenter, a painter, and other positions from across city divisions.

Little said a thorough analysis was done in each division to determine whether or not the vacant positions were needed. Some positions had not been filled due to a hiring freeze that has been in place since January of this year.

"For example, we looked at some vacant mechanics positions in General Services, and we found that it would be more cost-effective to retain those positions than having to send our cars out for repair," Little said.

"In regard to other positions, if we were able to live without them being filled for an extended period of time, we have to question the need for them," Little said.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Madison Avenue Meeting Tonight

Posted By on Wed, Jun 29, 2011 at 1:52 PM

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Although the Madison Avenue bike lane debate has been raging for several months, the city has yet to make a decision on whether to add dedicated bike lanes or "share the road" signage.

"We continue to receive letters of support and letters of opposition. But the mayor has not made a decision on the matter yet," said city bike and pedestrian coordinator Kyle Wagenschutz before Bike-to-Work Day last month.

Tonight (June 29th), the city will hold the first of three public meetings to discuss bike lanes and other Madison Avenue infrastructure improvements. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. at Minglewood Hall. For more info contact madisonavenue@memphistn.gov or visit the event's Facebook page.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

West Nile Found In Memphis; Flooding Not a Factor

Posted By on Sun, Jun 26, 2011 at 10:00 AM

Earlier this week, the Shelby County Health Department reported the first West Nile virus-infected mosquitoes were found in the 38126 zip code, which encompasses the southern part of downtown.

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But despite fears that last month's flooding would lead to more potentially-infected mosquitoes, Dan Springer of Shelby County Vector Control said the first West Nile identified likely had nothing to do with the flooding.

"The event of the flooding is too far in the past," Springer said. "A mosquito only lives for a week or two."

In fact, Springer said the massive flooding event may have worked against mosquitoes this year. Mosquitoes typically lay eggs just below the water line of a small temporary water source, like a puddle. The puddle evaporates, and on the next successive rain event, the eggs will hatch.

"When there's flooding, it goes over those habitats, and they're not accessible for mosquitoes to lay their eggs anymore," Springer said. "The water was already high back in March when the first mosquito eggs hatched, so the floodplains were flooded at that time. We didn't generate mosquitoes."

So far, this has resulted in lower numbers of mosquitoes than usual. Springer said numbers are lower than in 2009, when the city had its last high water event.

As for West Nile, Springer said it's been detected in Shelby County every year since 2002, but the detection came later than usual this year. No humans have been infected. Those cases are more likely to begin showing up in August. The West Nile outbreak is expected to last through October, and Vector Control is focusing on truck-spraying zip code 38126 and surrounding areas this week. Vector Control has been larviciding every area in the county.

"The mosquito that spreads the West Nile virus is only active at night, and it primarily takes blood from birds," Springer said. "It rarely bites people, but those who sit outdoors at night and don't wear repellent and turn lights on right next to them are more prone to be bitten."

To combat both infected and non-infected mosquitoes, the health department gives away free Gambusia fish, known to eat mosquitoes, for ornamental outdoor ponds.

"We collect them in ditches and sloughs, and they're wonderful," Springer said. "They're a little minnow, and they love to eat mosquito larvae."

Contact Vector Control at 901-324-5547 to request free fish or to request NOT to have the area in front of your home sprayed by mosquito trucks.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Dixon opens a landmark exhibit of work by Jean-Louis Forain

Posted By on Fri, Jun 24, 2011 at 2:59 PM

A copy of Psst! (Not in the exhibit)
  • A copy of "Psst!" (Not in the exhibit)
Memphis's Dixon Gallery and Gardens, an institution committed to collecting and exhibiting works from the Impressionist period, is the only American stop for an extraordinary retrospective of work by Jean-Louis Forain, a notable painter and influential illustrator with a gift for narrative and satire.

The Dixon is a major international collector of Forain's work and 18 pieces from Le Comedie parisienne, which opened in Paris to rave reviews, are from the Memphis museum's permanent collection. That makes the Dixon the second largest contributor to the exhibition after the Forain family, and that helped Memphis to land exclusive rights to this significant cultural event.

Souvenir of Chantilly
  • Souvenir of Chantilly

On Friday, June 24, two days before the exhibit's official opening Florence Valdez-Forain, the artist's great granddaughter conducted a private tour for Memphis mayor A.C. Wharton and members of the media. "This is a painting of a horse race, but do you see a horse?" she asked, referencing a piece titled Souvenir of Chantilly. "It's very small," she continued, identifying the horse in order to emphasize the importance given to the spectators, her great grandfather's love of people, and his proclivity for painting heavily populated social activities. This love of human interaction is on display in almost every piece.

Forain, the son of a house and sign painter, is generally identified as the youngest of the impressionists. In spite of any social disadvantages he may have faced he had an extraordinary career that included working as a war correspondant and founding journals like "Psst!." He studied with Degas and mentored Toulouse Lautrec. His busy, nearly narrative group scenes, and images of dancers reflect the former while his sharp visual wit and gift for exaggeration are carried on in so much Lautrec's print work.

Le Comedie parisienne opens at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens on Sunday, June 26, 2011 and runs through October 9.

Overton Park Advocates Host Public Meetings

Posted By on Fri, Jun 24, 2011 at 11:51 AM

A group of park preservationists, ecologists, business leaders, and others have launched a Speak Up for Overton Park campaign to gauge interest in forming a nonprofit conservancy to fund and manage Midtown's largest park.

The conservancy would be similar to the ones that manage Shelby Farms Park and the Memphis Botanic Gardens. The group's website — OvertonPark.org — says the park "is threatened by inadequate funding and haphazard planning," and the advocates claim that a conservancy might be the answer. If approved, a conservancy would maintain the city's ownership of the park, while decreasing its obligation to maintenance and upkeep.

Speak Up is hosting two public meetings this week to gauge interest in the conservancy model. One will be held on Saturday, June 25th from 10 a.m. to noon and the other on Tuesday, June 28th from 5 to 7 p.m. Both will be held inside the Memphis College of Art. The public survey is also available online.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Police Director Says Undercover Unit Not Being Eliminated

Posted By on Wed, Jun 22, 2011 at 2:07 PM

Director Toney Armstrong
  • Director Toney Armstrong

Memphis Police director Toney Armstrong responded to the Flyer today about a rumor that the MPD's undercover unit is being eliminated. Other news organizations had reported that anonymous sources were told in an undercover unit meeting on Monday that the new director was doing away with the unit.

But Armstrong said the unit is simply being restructured, and some undercover officers are being shifted around because those officers have reached the end of their assignment. Since taking office, Armstrong has relocated former director Larry Godwin's son Anthony to Union Station, undercover officer April Leatherwood to Raines Station, among other staff changes. Here's what Armstrong had to say today:

What's really going on with the undercover unit?

We are doing some restructuring. Some of the undercover operatives have come to the end of their assignments, and it's time for them to be re-assigned.

How long is a typical undercover assignment?

It varies from one to two years. It could also depend on what investigation he or she is involved in. The operatives being transferred out of Organized Crime weren't in any investigations [that were underway].

Where are those officers going?

They're going back to uniform patrol. None of them have actually been in a squad car or worked in a uniform patrol capacity. We felt that it would be best for them to go and get some remedial training before we went and put them on the street.

Will the restructured undercover unit be smaller than it was before?
We never release any numbers in regard to our undercover unit because of the confidentiality of it. We've never made it public as to how many officers are located there, and we won't make it public as to how many officers are going to replace uniform patrol. Most importantly, Organized Crime is still up and running, and we still have an undercover program, but it's just that some of the officers we had over there have reached the end of their assignment.

Will the council's decision to cut funding from the budget for police hiring have any effect on hiring new undercover officers?

We have just been delaying hiring for awhile, but that won't have an adverse impact on what we're attempting to do.

Is the restructuring related to the ongoing FBI audit of the Organized Crime Unit?
No, the audit has nothing to do with the restructuring.

Final words?
This is part of what we do. We get new officers in, preferably young officers that we put into an undercover capacity. At the conclusion of that assignment, they are mandated to go back to uniform patrol because they have never worked in that capacity at all. I know some people are looking at this as a negative thing, like he's doing this and he's sending them there. They had to go back to uniform patrol.

Because of all the stresses that go along with undercover, there is a recommended time of one to two years of keeping someone in that capacity. It's hard on the family and the officers. It's stressful, but they are getting all the psychological counseling that they need prior to going back to uniform patrol.

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Previously Flooded Church Burned to the Ground

Posted By on Wed, Jun 22, 2011 at 10:56 AM

Come hell and high water: St. Paul AME Church is destroyed by flood and fire.
  • Come hell and high water: St. Paul AME Church is destroyed by flood and fire.

Last month, Memphis Flyer reporter Hannah Sayle interviewed the Rev. George Turks after his North Memphis church was filled with floodwater.

Last night, Turks' St. Paul AME Church was destroyed by fire. The church had already been abandoned after damage caused by flooding. Fire broke out at the church on McNeil just after 1 a.m., and though Memphis firefighters responded quickly, the church is not salvageable.

After the flood, Turks told the Flyer he was going to the Small Business Administration to take out a loan because the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn't provide funds for churches to rebuild. Turks planned to use the loan to build in a new location.

"We'll never be able to go back in the church that's been under water because there's too much damage," Turks told the Flyer after the floodwaters had begun to recede in mid-May. "And we will not build in a flood zone again. It may never flood again, but we will not take that chance."

Monday, June 20, 2011

PETA Proposes Ad for Memphis Garbage Trucks

Posted By on Mon, Jun 20, 2011 at 12:41 PM

Last week, Memphis was named the fourth dirtiest city in the country by Travel+Leisure Magazine, but staffers at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) think they have the solution.

The animal rights organization will offer to pay the city's sanitation department for advertising space on garbage trucks. The ads would feature a lady wearing a lettuce leaf bikini with the message, "Meat Trashes the Planet. Go Vegan. Free Starter Recipes: PETA.org."

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They may have a point. Factory farming is one of the largest contributors of greenhouse gases. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

"Our proposal is a win-win solution. Memphis will be better able to keep clean, and people will be encouraged to adopt a healthy and humane vegan diet that won't dirty the environment," said PETA executive vice president Tracy Reiman. "The meat and dairy industries are among the leading causes of environmental devastation, so the easiest way for Memphis residents to go 'green' is to go vegan."

PETA said in a statement today that the organization sent a letter to Public Works director Dwan Gilliom. A city spokesperson said Gilliom hasn't received the letter yet, but Gilliom did offer this response:

"Although we have received several media calls from various local outlets regarding this matter, I take the position that we will not aggressively pursue this proposal unless directed to do so. Not that we opposed accepting this offer, [but] it would be a unique situation for us to sell advertisement space on the side of our trucks, although it is not unheard of in the solid waste business or in other cities. If we were to consider selling such advertisement [space], it would be like other purchases, by bid and based upon our specifications. Anything inappropriate or of a controversial nature would not be considered. As a courtesy, we will reach out to the representative from PETA today in order to properly here their proposal."

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Odessa Exceeds Fundraising Goal

Posted By on Wed, Jun 15, 2011 at 2:10 PM

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Last month, things weren't looking too hot for Broad Avenue's progressive art gallery for emerging artists. Odessa's owners were struggling to pay the bills for the small space on the arts district's eastern end.

But an online fundraising campaign was successful in raising more than enough money to keep Odessa open for several months. Co-owner Ashle Bailey told the Flyer in May that she needed to raise $3,000, enough funds to cover rent, utilities, cleaning supplies, and gallery essentials through July. However, the campaign raised $3,340.

Odessa produces three one-night shows per month, including group and solo art exhibitions, installations, movie screenings, and musical showcases.

To learn more about Odessa's financial struggle, read Andrew Caldwell's Flyer story.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Shelby County Commission Votes to Defund Office of Early Childhood and Youth

OECY advocates hold out for reconsideration

Posted By on Wed, Jun 8, 2011 at 3:51 PM

On Monday, the Shelby County Commission voted 8-3 to defund the county’s Office of Early Childhood and Youth (OECY). Commissioners Brooks, Bunker, Ritz, Shafer, Thomas, Roland, Ford, Chism voted to defund the Office. Mike Carpenter, Melvin Burgess, Walter Bailey voted against.

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The Shelby County Office of Early Childhood and Youth leverages about $400,000 in county funding each year to bring in millions of dollars — primarily from the state and federal governments. These funds are then directed toward programs that aid children and families.

According to a press release sent shortly after the vote, current funding is directed toward evidence-based pre-natal programs at the Med and Hollywood Health Loop clinic; providing hard-to-find resources like diapers, breast pumps, cribs, and car seats; and community-wide, multi agency, case management tracking software to follow families and improve the service delivery system.

Also hanging in the balance is $4.2 million awarded by the state, which would allow for six master-level social workers to recruit and follow pregnant and parenting teens in Memphis high schools and link them to quality pre-natal care, case management, home visitation services, Head Start, and Pre-K.

Dottie Jones, head of the Community Services Division for the county, says she’s not sure the commissioners were clear on the implications of the vote — or even that a “Yes” vote was a vote to defund the office.

“I personally believe the commissioners may have been confused about what a ‘Yes’ vote meant versus what a ‘No’ vote meant,” said Jones. “Literally by pushing the ‘Yes’ vote they might have thought they were voting ‘yes, I support the office’ rather than ‘yes, I want to defund the office.’”

“There is a lot of confusion about the office and what it does,” she added. “I don’t think there’s a good understanding of how we bring in money [and] leverage our general fund dollars. And there are some commissioners who believe that what they deem a ‘social program’ is not what the county government should be doing.”

The budget has not yet passed, leaving time for the defunding of OECY to be revisited. The rules of the commission allow anyone who voted on the prevailing side of the resolution — in this case, defunding OECY — to bring the issue up for reconsideration at the next meeting.

“Any one of those 8 people who voted to defund the office can bring the issue up and we could have another vote,” said Jones. “I think it’s likely. I’m hopeful that we’ve gotten the message out to enough commissioners over the last day and a half. It’s very hard to understand why someone would vote against an office whose entire purpose is to make sure that the welfare of children is an important aspect of Shelby County government.”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Council Approves Pension Increase for Retirees

Posted By on Tue, Jun 7, 2011 at 4:25 PM

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Before the Memphis City Council got to the meat of the city operating budget on Tuesday, they debated whether or not to increase pension benefits for city government retirees.

City administration recommended a one percent pension benefit increase for people who have already retired, an increase of $740,000. City finance director Roland McElrath said that money would not come from the controversial operating budget, but rather, the city is looking at investment gains to cover the increase. Currently, there is $2 million in the city pension fund.

City councilman Kemp Conrad was the only council member to vote against the proposal because he didn't feel comfortable voting on an increase that depends on an unreliable stock market.

"When are politicians going to stop making promises they can't keep?" Conrad said.

McElrath said, if the investment gains didn't cover the increase, the city would not turn to the operating budget to fund the difference. Instead, the city would either propose a reduction in benefits to future retirees or propose an increase in the amount employees give to the plan. Currently, city employees give up to eight percent of their salaries.

Councilman Jim Strickland proposed an amendment that essentially bars the pension fund from relying on the city operating budget if there isn't enough money to cover the increase due to market fluctuations.

Councilman Joe Brown accused fellow council members who questioned the increase of "trying to put mud" on important pension benefits for retirees.

"Some members of this council seem to want devastation to come to the pension plan. It's common knowledge, if you know anything about investments, that this pension plan is not going belly up," Brown said.

Memphis fire union president Larry Anthony actually spoke out against the increase because he wanted a higher increase for city retirees.

"The promise was if you take care of the city, the city would take care of you," Anthony said. He said the proposed one percent increase was "a slap in the face" and instead proposed a three or two percent increase.

The one percent increase is expected to go into effect by July 1st.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Flood Shelters Closed

Posted By on Fri, Jun 3, 2011 at 2:10 PM

Sonia Ramos and her children at Hope Church

All emergency flood shelters operated under the faith-based Shelby Cares partnership closed today. But before closing, a task force of bankers, realtors, and social workers placed people in homes.

Some volunteers drove flood victims around town to search for homes or apartments and even assisted them in their moves. According to county spokesperson Steve Schular, in most cases, flood victims did not have to pay deposits or move-in fees for their new homes.

The four Shelby Cares shelters housed more than 600 people during flooding. Those included Hope Presbyterian Church, Cummings Street Baptist Church, the Disaster Recovery Center on Mullins Station, and Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Memphis Firefighters Protest Equipment Cuts

Posted By on Thu, Jun 2, 2011 at 11:29 AM

Off-duty firefighters protest equipment cuts.
  • Off-duty firefighters protest equipment cuts.

About 15 off-duty Memphis firefighters gathered outside Fire Station 25 on Willow this morning to protest possible cuts in equipment, one of several items in the city budget proposal.

Most held bright red signs reading, "Your rescue truck is closing! You and your family are in danger!" If the city approves Memphis Fire Director Alvin Benson's proposed budget cuts, the department could lose 111 jobs, 7 fire engines, 6 ladder trucks, and one rescue truck over the next three years. No ambulance cuts are proposed.

According to Memphis Fire Fighters Association president Larry Anthony, the cuts would bring the department back to 1972 staffing and equipment levels. Yet the city has annexed Cordova, Hickory Hill, Southwind, and Wolfchase since that time, and Anthony maintains that current staffing and equipment levels are necessary to ensure public safety.

In 2003, firefighters Trent Kirk and Charles Zachary died while fighting a Family Dollar store fire on Watkins Street. After the incident, the fire department director requested the city add two additional rescue trucks to its fleet of two. Only one was added, and now the city council is considering removing that extra truck from operation.

"These cuts will be devastating sooner or later," Anthony said. "Someone will be hurt."

The city council will vote on budget cuts next Tuesday.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Trolleys Collide at Downtown Intersection

Posted By on Wed, Jun 1, 2011 at 4:17 PM

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At 2:35 p.m., Memphis Police officers responded to a crash involving two MATA trolleys at the intersection of Main Street and Auction Avenue. Four ambulances made the scene, but MPD spokesperson Alyssa Moore said she did not know yet if anyone was transported to the hospital.

The Memphis Fire Department has reported that the crash occurred when the trolley line lost power. There is an MPD investigation ongoing.

Mirimichi Reopens Today

Posted By on Wed, Jun 1, 2011 at 11:57 AM

Justin Timberlake
  • Justin Timberlake

Justin Timberlake's 27-hole golf course in Millington is scheduled to reopen today, after being closed for nearly a month due to flooding.

Before floodwaters rose, the Mirimichi golf course installed an aqua wall, an intertube designed to hold back floodwaters, around their state-of-the-art performance shop. However, there was nothing they could do to prevent flooding of the 7,400-yard golf course.

At the time, Director of Golf Greg King told the Flyer the golf course likely wouldn't see too much damage from the flooding.

"We feel confident that, as the water recedes, the grass choices that we have are most tolerant to these conditions," King said.

Mirimichi announced yesterday that the performance center reopens today, meaning they're open for golf lessons, club fittings, and golf clinics. The on-site cafe is also open for business. The nine-hole championship golf course will reopen on June 24th, but the 18-hole course won't be ready until late July or early August. A date will be set when they can better access how much repair is needed on the front nine holes.

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