City Reporter 

City Reporter

Despite numerous pleas to be allowed onto Memphis Light, Gas and Water's publicized SmartPay payment program, Mamie Parker has been told that her power will be turned off on May 11th if she hasn't paid the balance of more than $400 by that date. Parker says that the utility has twice turned off her power without any notice, though the utility is sending her cut-off notices now.

MLGW's chief communications officer, Mark Heuberger, did not accept or return three telephone calls from the Flyer but instead faxed a response that read in part, "In order to ensure confidentiality and privacy, it is MLGW's policy not to disclose information regarding customer accounts."

Parker approached the Flyer because she had asked MLGW several times to be allowed to pay her bill in installments under the SmartPay program. Each time she says that MLGW representatives told her that she could not be put on this program but would not tell her why.

As a single mother of two and the primary caretaker of her 36- year-old mentally handicapped sister, Parker, 33, has told the utility that she cannot pay the bill in full with the $600 monthly salary she earns as a custodian at Rozelle Elementary School. The gravity of her situation cannot be underestimated. Her children, 2-year-old Keith and 3-year-old Kiara, rely on a breathing machine to live. Keith, whose asthma is severe, must use the machine four times a day and has already had to go to the emergency room twice this month.

The possibility of her power -- and the children's breathing machine -- being turned off worries Parker. She fears that this winter's high gas bills may cost her children their lives or that a loss of oxygen to their brains could leave them mentally handicapped. She has asked the utility if she could have a separate power line installed exclusively for the breathing machine so that it would remain on and has been told that the utility would not do this.

"I don't know what I'd do if something happened to them. I guess I'd have to sue MLGW or something," says Parker.

Even if Keith or Kiara were injured as a result of the power being turned off and the breathing machine not functioning, Parker's legal recourse against the utility is limited. The Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act prescribes that governmental entities, in this case MLGW, enjoy relatively low liability caps.

After the Flyer reported in April that MLGW charged its customers 25 percent over the overall national average for gas this winter, a number of Memphians contacted the Flyer to inquire if there would be a class-action lawsuit against the utility. This paper contacted several attorneys and learned that the aforementioned act limits the utility's liability to $130,000 per person or $350,000 per incident. These liability caps became particularly controversial when a study conducted two years ago showed that the state could increase the liability limit to $1 million without adversely affecting the state's insurance premiums.

The study was conducted as part of a Spokane, Washington, couple's effort to have Tennessee lawmakers change the cap. The couple, Don and Irma Wilson, were tourists in Nashville when an electric transformer exploded and badly burned both of them. The blaze also injured Ben Holt, a construction worker, and killed Michael Jay Hickman, a painter. The Wilsons, whose hospital bills topped $1 million, lobbied the legislature unsuccessfully to modify the liability cap so that Nashville Electric Service (NES) would pay their hospital bills. Two years later the legislature did pass a measure allowing NES to pay the Wilsons' medical bills but did not pass a bill generally increasing liability for city-operated utilities.

Unfortunately, Parker now finds herself in a position not dissimilar to the Wilsons'. If Keith or Kiara have an asthma attack while the power is turned off and cannot get oxygen, the $130,000 to $350,000 MLGW could be held liable for would hardly cover the cost of caring for the children. It's a bleak reality that Parker must face.

In the meantime, she says she hopes and prays for a break from MLGW.

"If they would just let me pay about $50 a month, I could pay on these gas bills until I could pay it off. I've asked them about that and they keep telling me that there's nothing they can do and that they're going to cut me off on the 11th if I haven't paid the whole bill. I can tell you right now, I can't pay the whole $400 bill. I only get $300 every two weeks." -- Rebekah Gleaves

Land Bridge May Be In Memphis' Future

In the past few months, the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) has publicized plans for reshaping Memphis' Mississippi waterfront. The most startling change -- as well as the most controversial -- is the construction of a land bridge between Mud Island and the city. That land could be used as developable property and would create an inland lake to its north and an inlet marina to the south for the docking of rivercraft (see illustration at right).

While the land bridge may be in the future, RDC president Benny Lendermon says there is much to be done now to pave the way.

"You would start on the land side first, on the available property," he says. "You would clean up, preserve, restore the cobblestones. You would build a docking facility for long-excursion boats to New Orleans. You would be seeing development occurring because of that. At the same time, you start to do all your permitting, all your funding issues for the land bridge itself. Because they are pretty significant. All those things are happening simultaneously."

The development on the land side will create revenue that will pay a chunk of the taxpayers' cost.

"We just want to make sure we have enough development on public land to pay for the infrastructure," says Lendermon. "Otherwise you can't do any of this, without taxpayers paying for it all." That development could take up to four years to complete before the land bridge is ready for construction.

A land bridge could add "in excess of 70 acres of land that is useable. [That's] in addition to the existing land that may be available [such as northern Mud Island]. That land all becomes developable for some purpose."

Lendermon says that the development of the new land would happen "under a very controlled environment" and that the leasing of the properties would have to be "for appropriate uses. We define what the appropriate uses are and have a very public advertising and try to get a best fit for that piece of property that will generate the most revenue."

Lendermon says that while there has been enthusiasm expressed for the land bridge, many Memphians are cautious about its actual construction.

"A majority are scared of how you do that formation process," he says. -- Chris Przybyszewski

Investigation Continues Into Downtown Stabbing

An ongoing police investigation has yet to reveal why Robin Elizabeth Yevick was stabbed to death in downtown Memphis on Sunday, April 29th. According to officer LaTanya Able, the public information officer for the Memphis Police Department, investigators are "working diligently to solve the case but no new information has been discovered."

Yevick, a 38-year-old resident of Hot Springs, Arkansas, was found dead just before 3 p.m., lying on Gayoso Avenue between Wagner Place and Front Street. She had apparently been stabbed in the throat several times. She had with her a black travel bag containing makeup and two small plastic bags.

At press time, Memphis police were looking for a female suspect described as being a heavyset black woman with shoulder-length hair, standing about 5'7" to 5'9" and last seen wearing a blue shirt, blue pants, and white tennis shoes. Police were also looking for a man who may have witnessed the crime, but no description of the man was available.

Anyone with information on this crime is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 529-CASH. -- Rebekah Gleaves

Parents Want Changes To Open-enrollment Process

Devoted parents may want to camp out at the Mid-South Fairgrounds for five days to get their child into a certain school, but how feasible is that with jobs and children?

That's why over the years a group of Memphis City School parents have devised a waiting list for the system's open-enrollment process. While not officially recognized by the district, the list includes written rules, roll calls at specific times, registration cards, and numbered badges -- all designed as a place keeper so parents can go about their daily lives.

But in April, that system broke down when district security told parents that the board didn't honor that list. What resulted, said several concerned parents who came before the board Monday night, was a few parents pushing, elbowing, and shoving to cut in line.

"What we witnessed shouldn't be tolerated or accepted, much less rewarded," says parent Dorothy Melonas.

The parents repeatedly asserted that the first-come, first-served system does work -- they just want the board to set a policy to honor the waiting list.

"Next year, will there be violence?" asked Phillip Erickson, whose family manned the list for more than 80 hours. "Now is the time to determine what will happen in the future."

Superintendent Johnnie Watson said that he and the staff would be working out a procedure for the open-enrollment process and hoped to present it prior to the new school year.

"Much of what we heard tonight is what I'll be recommending to this board," said Watson. -- Mary Cashiola

Memphian Named To Volunteer Top 10 List

Charity race director Caitlin Steiger didn't have to lace up her running shoes to win her latest award; all she had to do was write lots of letters, make a ton of phone calls, and raise almost $50,000.

Steiger, the 17-year-old who founded Help for Hope House 5K two years ago, was named one of America's top 10 youth volunteers Monday.

Nearly 23,000 students applied for the national Prudential Spirit of Community Award, with 104 state winners converging on Washington, D.C., this past weekend. The White Station junior was one of five high-schoolers in the country to be awarded the top honor. The other five recipients were in middle school.

"I'm completely overwhelmed," says Steiger, "I was totally caught off-guard."

Steiger decided to found Help for Hope House 5K after she learned of the organization through a White Station Middle School service club. Hope House is a daycare for underprivileged children infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. Started by the Junior League in 1995, the organization picks up the children in the morning, cares for them, and feeds them two meals a day.

Steiger's first 5K raised about $23,000; the one last November took in about $25,000.

In Washington, the state winners were honored at an awards ceremony with former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

"Everyone here deserves an award," says Steiger. "I can't say enough about the people I've spent the last couple of days with."

Each of the state winners received $1,000, while the 10 national honorees were presented with an additional $5,000. Steiger will also have $25,000 in toys and clothing donated in her name to local children by Kids In Distressed Situations, Inc.

Last fall Steiger decided that she would be too busy applying to colleges to direct the Help for Hope House 5K and passed the reins onto three other teenage girls. This summer, she will be a counselor at Camp Dream, a camp that provides 24-hour care to special-needs children.

After that, though, who knows?

"This weekend has reinforced that there are a million and one amazing causes and a million and one things that you can do," Steiger says. -- Mary Cashiola

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