City Reporter 

City Reporter

What has the conflict with Iraq cost you so far? Maybe a couple bucks for duct tape, plastic sheeting, or bottled water?

Or is it more?

With branches of the military continuing to call up reservists in anticipation of a war with Iraq, local law-enforcement and public-safety agencies around the country are being hit the hardest. A nationwide survey of more than 1,200 law-enforcement agencies recently released by the Police Executive Research Forum showed that more than 40 percent had lost personnel to call-ups.

Traditionally, there's been an overlap between military reservists and those serving as local police officers, fire fighters, and rescue workers. Locally, Memphis and Shelby County have more than 100 government employees who have been activated from their reserve status. So far, more than 3,000 reservists have been called up from Tennessee.

Sergeant Trey Shull, the military liaison with the Memphis Police Department, said the number of police officers who are in the reserves and who have been called up to active duty is changing every day. "It's a moving target," he said of the figure, but the MPD presently has 45 who are out.

Shull is one of the city's military liaisons because the police department has such a high call-up rate. Other city employees go through the human-resources division when they're called up. "We had 33 who have already gone, served a year, and returned who are now eligible to be called up again," said Shull. "Actually, someone just left my office who just got recalled. It seems like every day I get a couple more."

When police officers are called up, the department treats it as a leave of absence without pay, but all their paperwork is transferred to the city's payroll.

The city pays all its activated employees a monthly stipend of $800 so they can pay their health and life insurance with the city while they're gone. Sara L. Hall, the city's interim director of human resources, said about 100 people from various positions in city government have been called up to date.

The county has a similar program for activated military, which supplements their military salary to make it equal to their county salary. "There's a few whose military salaries equal their county salaries, so they don't get a supplement," said county spokesperson Susan Adler Thorp. "We also continue to pay their health and life insurance premiums so they don't have to pay those while they're active."

The county has about 24 people gone. "We expect quite a few more will go," said Thorp.

The Shelby County Sheriff's Department has 11 people on military leave, and the county fire department has one high-ranking military officer out for three years and two others on standby. A spokesperson for the fire department says they treat the leaves just as they would a vacation and staff the position with overtime.

The Last Customer

Fleming Furniture owner writes final sales ticket.

By Janel Davis

Monday night's closING of the last two Fleming locations on Winchester and Germantown Parkway in Cordova marked the end of the family's 56-year reign as Memphis' furniture royalty. The company's Summer Avenue location closed last week. A three-day public auction will be held at that store through Thursday, and auctions for the remaining two stores begin Saturday and run through Tuesday.

The closings come after a failed attempt to recover from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, filed in 2001. By September 2002, the company had fallen behind in making creditor payments. A final-effort survival sale failed to yield enough money to repay the debts, and a liquidation company was brought in to close out the business.

"What we've done in three months [during the final sale] usually takes us a year to make," said family patriarch and business owner Jim Fleming at the Cordova location. "We were able to make enough money to pay off the secured creditors but not the unsecured."

As customers streamed into the store during its final hours, including a couple buying a mattress with 17 minutes left, Fleming took time to talk with some of his longtime customers. From a high-back chair, he watched as the people who helped build his business returned for one last time. "I've bought furniture from Fleming for 18 years, the entire length of my marriage. We bought our first bedroom suite from them," said Lisa Amann. "It's sad that the company will be gone. [Jim's] always been a Memphis icon."

The sale was conducted by Planned Furniture Promotion of Connecticut. Fleming was the only family member involved with the sale. "It's been good therapy for me to help close out the stores," he said. "I know I have done all I could. Now I'm just trying to see if there's something for me around the corner."

For Fleming, that may be a position with the liquidation company, helping to close other stores that have suffered the same fate, or working with other furniture companies in the area. His wife, Lisa, has taken a job in the healthcare industry, while son Chris is working as a mortgage broker in Olive Branch.

"The last two years were hard on [the family]. It was all about survival and how we would make it another day," said Fleming. "The business created bonds between me and my family, but it also created conflict. No longer will I be [my sons'] boss and father. Now, I'll just be their father."

By 12:15 a.m. the store's last customers, the Sharpe family, walked out the door with invoices for a sofa, a love seat, two curio cabinets, and a recliner. Fleming wrote the last ticket. "Thank you," said Mr. Sharpe, shaking his hand, "and have a good life."

Four To Two

Frayser may have saved historic road.

By Bianca Phillips

After months of protesting the city's plans to convert Overton Crossing into a four-lane thoroughfare, residents of the historic Rugby neighborhood in Frayser may finally be making some progress. In a public meeting held February 11th, the residents voted 28-9 in favor of a down-scaled version of the original proposal.

The new plan would keep the road at two lanes, although it would be widened to 40 feet. The project would also include filling in ditches and repairing curbs, gutters, and sidewalks. The four-lane plan would have caused the city to buy right-of-way land to widen the pavement. In addition, the grade would have been raised about four feet and up to nine feet where ditches run alongside the road.

Rugby residents began their protest in November by sending a petition through the neighborhood and writing to the city council. They feared the four-lane expansion would increase traffic flow and cut into their yards, detracting from the natural beauty of the area.

"We kind of won the battle, I guess you'd say. It was a beautiful example of the democratic process at work. We actually got a lot of residents to show up at the meeting, even those who have never come to a community meeting before," said Jana Gilbertson, president of the Rugby Neighborhood Association.

But war is not quite over. Overton Crossing remains on the major roadways plan, and according to city council member Barbara Swearengen Holt, there's no guarantee that it will be taken off. She says that issue will be revisited in a city council meeting after city engineer Wayne Gaskin has a chance to draw up a plan.

Gaskin says there is definitely a need for a major north-south artery into and out of Frayser, but he says North McLean could eventually be considered as an alternative. Without some kind of alternate route, however, Overton Crossing could become a problem.

"My concern is that in the future, without another major arterial roadway in the area, the traffic volume through the residential part of Overton Crossing will become congested, making it difficult for residents to get in and out of their driveways," he said. "It may impact the neighborhood in a fashion they were hoping wouldn't happen."

Consolidate? Maybe in 2008.

Bogged down by other issues, consolidation isn't a school board priority.

By Mary Cashiola

Don't expect a referendum on the city schools' leadership anytime soon.

The Memphis City Council is expected to urge the city schools this week to make plans for an October referendum on school consolidation, but school leaders say they're not ready to look at it.

"It's at the bottom of our agenda," said school board commissioner Wanda Halbert. "To my knowledge, it's not going to be pressing for the district. We have so many other more important issues on the table."

Last week, the board discussed -- and voted to committee --a resolution to place a referendum on the ballot for a Shelby Unified District. "I've made it perfectly clear," Michael Hooks Jr. said, "that I support the consolidation of our county's government entities ... but our top priority ought to be student achievement."

In the past few weeks, the board has identified 38 future conference topics. An ad-hoc committee has been formed to pare down the topics.

"We reduced them to five major issues and sent everything else to committee," said Halbert, a member of the committee. "The first one is the superintendent search/evaluation, then the MGT study, a board/staff retreat, the education summit with the Shelby County school board, and [Mayor Wharton's] needs-assessment committee." Consolidation was relegated to the curriculum, programs, and services committee.

Last Friday, the city council invited the school board to Tuesday's discussion on the referendum, but the board members were in Nashville to promote their legislative agenda.

Under the proposed referendum, city residents would vote whether or not the city school system should be abolished. If so, the schools and students would automatically transfer to the Shelby County Schools, a system one-third the size of the city system.

The city council's proposed resolution urges the city school board to hold a referendum during the October 9, 2003, city election and includes a clause to form a transition plan should the referendum pass.

New city school board member Deni Hirsh said Monday she had not seen the resolution but had spoken to city council chair Brent Taylor about it.

"I'm opposed to a referendum unless there's a plan in place," she said. "The city council can ask us to do whatever it wants, but, as I understand it, legally we don't have to."

City attorney Robert Spence issued an opinion last month that the city school district did not legally exist, based on a 1983 law. Harvey, the city school board attorney, came back with his own opinion that the district was legal based upon, he told the Flyer, simply "the law." Mayor Willie Herenton has said he will take the issue to court, if need be.

Even without a lengthy court battle, there might be other delays. Hirsh says she is willing to wait until all the effects of consolidation are studied. The city school board commissioned a consolidation study in 2001, but it only discussed Knoxville, Nashville, and Chattanooga, not what would happen in Memphis.

"We're different from Nashville or Knoxville or Cincinnati. We're not them and we need to look at it from all the angles," Hirsh said. "What if [a referendum] passes, and then we can't come up with a plan? That would throw the entire system into chaos."

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