City Reporter 

City Reporter

Singing The Blues

City cuts funding for Memphis Music Commission.

By Chris Davis

Jerry Schilling, president of the Memphis & Shelby County Music Commission, was fighting an uphill battle when the commission met this past Thursday to pass a budget for the 2003 fiscal year. Only two months ago, a commission vote to remove Schilling from office was narrowly defeated by a margin of 11-9, and battle lines were clearly drawn when commission member Deanie Parker, responding to those who thought such a move would weaken the commission, spoke out in favor of change.

Parker was quoted in The Commercial Appeal as saying, "For us not to clean up our business would be more detrimental to the funding of this organization."

Though reasons for wanting Schilling removed were not made clear, an outline subsequently prepared by the executive committee listed "lack of clear directions," "lack of past results," "poor communication," and "ineffective leadership" among the commission's chief weaknesses. Tensions were heightened on Thursday, as the city council had voted to cut its funding of the commission from $125,000 in 2002 to $62,500 in 2003. The situation was compounded by the fact that neither Schilling nor any representative of the music commission had attended the council's third reading and subsequent vote for the funding. It was at this third and final reading that the cuts were made.

"I'm not going to give up on [getting more money from] the city yet," Schilling says. "I went to the proper meeting I was supposed to go to and I was told that we were in for $125,000. I knew of a second reading, in case [your funding] was disputed. I'd never even heard of a third reading." He told the commission on Thursday that if they wanted someone just to manage a budget, they had the wrong man.

Commission member David Less, apologizing for his pedantic tone, stopped the formal budget discussion on Thursday and explained to Schilling how the city council's process works: Nothing is final until the council's third reading and subsequent vote. Schilling, who has helmed the still relatively new commission for three years, later joked that this was his first government job.

Though the county commission has yet to vote on its share of the music commission's 2003 funding, Schilling is confident at this point that it will receive the full $100,000.

The commission's proposed budget-tightening saw $10,800 cut from a public-relations budget that totaled $23,200 last year. The commission's "networking" budget is set to shrink from $19,500 to $12,500, and the economic-development budget from $6,000 to $1,500. Amounts allotted for salaries and lunch and dinner meetings were left unchanged.

The budget failed to pass a committee vote, and a number of commission members, notably Charlie Ryan, David Less, John Fry, and Preston Lamm, voiced concern that cutting their budget without cutting salaries sent the wrong message to the city. Administrative costs, which are budgeted at approximately $191,000, make up 88 percent of the commission's total budget. Of that amount, 93 percent is devoted to salaries and benefits. More than half of that amount covers Schilling's salary, which was subject to a six-month review based on his ability to raise two-thirds of a proposed $30,000 from outside sources within that time period.

Lamm entered a motion to eliminate the fund-raising requirement for Schilling's continued salary and cut $17,000 from the budget line scheduled for salaries and benefits. After this encountered some resistance, Lamm altered his motion to say that the $17,000 could be cut from any line item at Schilling's discretion. The motion was passed, and the revised budget was passed pending a review in 30 days.

Of the attempt to cut salaries, Schilling says, "Let's face it. There are a couple of people who would like to see a change [in leadership]. The commission voted to stay with me for another year to 15 months. If they couldn't get rid of me, they go after the money."

Commission vice-chair Onzie Horne commented on the commission's decision, saying, "It seems to me that our approach has been a callous disregard for the message the city has sent. We've just worked on making the numbers fit."

Schilling showed his disappointment in the commission's obsession with the budget and claimed that numbers were their only concern. He also accused the commission of stifling his efforts to open up a dialogue on creativity. When asked what creative proposals he had suggested that had been shot down, Schilling recalled the A&E Biography on Sam Phillips that aired two years ago, which the commission was instrumental in helping to plan and promote. He hoped to parlay this relationship into a similar project celebrating Sun Records' 25th anniversary. According to Schilling, however, the board thought it was too soon to take on another Sun project. Schilling likewise pointed out that he's worked to eliminate the "no-compete" clause in the new arena's contract.

"Memphis is a B-grade concert city at best," he says. "[According to the 'no-compete' clause], if Billy Joel wanted to play The Pyramid on a night when there was a Grizzlies game, he couldn't do it." What bearing this has on local musicians is unclear.

Two years ago, the music commission established a health-care plan for Memphis musicians. Currently, only 23 musicians have enrolled in the plan. Schilling says the commission has not been actively promoting the plan as much as he feels they should, since neither his group nor their partner the Church Health Center is in the insurance business. They have brought in national music-industry experts to meet with local musicians and have held a town hall meeting to get feedback from the local community.

According to Schilling, should anything disastrous occur, the music commission has enough money in reserve to operate at its current level for at least a year.

Beautifying the Bluff?

Riverfront project should make the area more user-friendly.

By Janel Davis

Motorists traveling along Riverside Drive have certainly had plenty to observe lately. From Channel 3 Drive to Beale Street, Riverside is being updated to give the area a street-length facelift.

"The entire project is part of the original Riverfront Master Plan," says Adam Brown of PDR Engineering, which designed the plan. "Riverside Drive was seen as a barrier to the park, and the plan was to make the area more pedestrian-friend-ly and accessible."

The $2.7 million redevelopment plan is based on a 14-month schedule that began in January of this year.

The plan includes three main developments. First, medians are being built, six feet wide beginning at Channel 3 Drive. Brown says the road will not be widened in this area but will be narrowed to slow down traffic and make the street more pedestrian-friendly. The medians will widen to 10 feet at Tom Lee Park, requiring the road to be widened there. Four feet of land on the bluff side of the road will be used to widen traffic lanes.

The second part of the project includes renovations to Tom Lee Park. The entrance and exit to the park are being relocated farther north to tie in with pedestrian crossing zones.

The third phase calls for installation of crosswalks to the park, complete with pedestrian-controlled in-pavement lighting systems that will allow for safe passage across Riverside Drive. The crosswalks will be installed at Butler, Huling, and Vance.

Rebuilding the bluff area is an additional improvement within the main project. Existing trees and underbrush are being cleared to make way for workers to level the slope. "The area was too steep and was eroding," says project foreman Jerry Humphries of Ronald Terry Construction. "It will be refilled with dirt to level it out, and trees and shrubbery will be replanted."

Brown says retaining walls will be added to some areas, similar to the existing wall at the Beale Street entrance, making the bluff easier to maintain.

Any complaints? "One lady passed by and cussed me for knocking down the trees, but that's about it," says construction worker Keith Lawson.

Rob Peter To Pay Paul?

School systems struggle to meet reduced budgets.

By Mary Cashiola

At a meeting for parents in annexed Countrywood last week, Shelby County Schools superintendent Bobby Webb laid his cards on the table.

"No way we can cut $18.2 million out of our budget without cutting personnel," he said. That's how much the system will have to be reduced under the proposed no-new-taxes budget plan in the state legislature. With the clock counting down and talk of a state government shutdown, education in Tennessee could be in trouble.

While parents at the meeting wanted details on which district would be educating their children, many of their questions focused on the districts' proposed budgets and the single-source funding proposal.

Under the no-new-taxes budget, Memphis City Schools would have to cut almost $50 million. Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson sent a statement to the press last week saying that the district was prepared for best- and worst-case funding scenarios.

"If adequate funding does not materialize, the staff is prepared to quickly present a set of recommended reductions to the Board of Education," Watson said. "Even though we face a difficult funding situation this coming fiscal year, any proposed budget reductions will be targeted toward areas that will have the least negative impact on classroom instruction."

Reached by phone this week, Watson said he felt he had been rather silent on the matter and wanted to make it very clear that if the worst-case scenario occurred, the classroom would be the last thing touched; neither he nor Webb, however, have committed any contingency budgets to paper.

"I'm optimistic," Webb says, "that the state legislature will at least fund the [Basic Education Program] so we won't have to lay off people. When we get a piece of paper from the state saying we have to cut $18 million, then we'll have to have a plan."

Webb reiterates that, with BEP laws still in effect -- in other words, even without BEP funding -- the district would not be able to lay off teachers and still be compliant with state class-size mandates. Instead, technology needs and routine maintenance, which was put off last year as well, would feel the brunt of the cuts. "There isn't a whole lot we can do," says Webb. "We haven't added any new administration positions, and with an increase in the number of students, it's hard to get it done with the number of people we have. We don't have any to cut."

If a state shutdown becomes a reality, Webb supposes that the district will run initially on the half of its funding that comes from Shelby County. Both the county and the city schools went before the county commission last week to present their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year. Commissioner Buck Wellford was not present but introduced a measure stopping property-tax increases until school funding reforms are approved.

Still, Webb hopes he doesn't need a contingency plan. "I can't imagine that the legislature would let our schools not be funded," he says. "I don't think they're going to say, 'We're embarrassed to be dead-last in per-pupil funding. Let's try to move up in state rankings.' I do believe they'll come up with the money to fully fund what we were getting last year, even if they take it from somewhere else."

Last year's state budget was balanced with the use of tobacco-settlement funds.

"I would like to see some long-term solutions instead of robbing Peter to pay Paul every year," says Webb. "I think education deserves more than that."

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