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MLGW pays bonuses while Memphians pay bills, and other news.

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MLGW Employees Get Bonus While Memphians Pay Bills

The Memphians who got the most help paying their utility bills this winter may have been the utility's own employees. In recent weeks all of Memphis Light, Gas and Water's approximately 2,600 employees received a $1,000 bonus, for a total of about $2.6 million paid out by the utility.

MLGW's Mike Magness, vice president of human resources, refused to comment to the Flyer but faxed a description of "Power Pay," the program through which the bonuses were distributed.

According to the fax, Power Pay "is an employee incentive program designed to assist the Division in achieving strategic objectives in customer relations, employee health and safety, and cost saving efficiency."In 2000 "employee innovation stimulated by Power Pay brought about improvements in processes and resulted in considerable savings."

However, most Memphians probably didn't notice these "savings" this year, at least not this winter, when utility bills tripled and quadrupled across the city.

Richard Freudenberg, plant manager for Fineberg Packing Company, Inc., in North Memphis, says his company is still coping with this winter's bills. Fineberg, a meat-packing company, uses natural gas to power much of its plant operations.

"In a small, family-owned company like this, those high bills damn near broke us," says Freudenberg. "We went from our bills being $32,000 a month last year to $72,000 a month this year. Even now our bills aren't back to normal. They're still about two and half times what they normally are."

Freudenberg says that Fineberg Packing Company, which has been in North Memphis for 62 years, may have to close its doors for good due to this winter's bills. With a hefty MLGW balance still hanging over their heads, Fineberg isn't in the clear yet.

"[MLGW)] sent us a cut-off notice and I had to do a little politicking to keep from being cut off," says Freudenberg. "Now they want us to pay $10,000 every Friday until we get caught up. But we're not caught up yet."

In the meat business, where profit margins linger around the single digits, an extra $10,000 a week isn't easy to come by. Unfortunately, Fineberg Packing Company isn't alone in its struggle to pay off their winter gas bill.

La Montagne Natural Food Restaurant on Park Avenue was hit so hard by this winter's bills that the restaurant is now closed on Mondays.

"We decided to close on Mondays after we received our December bill," says La Montagne general manager Terry Cox. "That bill pretty much doubled and the next bill was the same."

Cox, who has followed the national energy crisis closely, fears that the predicted summer electricity crisis won't help the restaurant's situation. He doesn't know when they will be open on Mondays again.

"We're still closed on Mondays," says Cox. "It was a temporary move directly related to our utility bills. We don't know when we will be able to be open on Mondays again."

And, while the winter gas crunch didn't mean much to the animals, even the Memphis Zoo -- and its patrons -- are paying up.

A number of factors, including the high utility bills, caused the zoo to increase adult and senior admission prices by $1. While the largest factor in the zoo s financial woes was decreased attendance, high gas bills certainly didn t help. Basically, we have 3,000 mouths to feed, says Carrie Strehlau, a communications specialist for the Memphis Zoo. This past winter was extremely difficult for us. With our attendance down and our utility bills up, we had to have more money. As did those 2,600 MLGW employees. While Magness fax states that the utility has used similar gain share programs since 1988, inside sources at MLGW tell the Flyer that the utility instituted a specific gain share program unsuccessfully in 1988 and then discontinued the program because it proved to be ineffective. Magness fax does not say when the Power Pay program began, and MLGW representatives did not respond to the Flyer s request for this date. Sources tell the Flyer that the program was originally instituted to reward specific departments for superior performance, but the program now flatly rewards all employees regardless of their department s performance. In addition, these sources say that the checks were supposed to be distributed in January, but the utility waited until April because of public grumbling over the high winter bills. Two weeks ago the Flyer reported that due to numerous factors, Memphians paid their highest gas bills ever. ?Rebekah Gleaves

CA Plans Layoffs; Guild Urges Buyouts

The Commercial Appeal recently notified 16 newspaper employees they will be laid off in the coming weeks.

Seven of those employees are members of the Memphis Newspaper Guild-CWA, which covers workers in the areas of editorial, advertising, business office, housekeeping (custodial services), general mechanical, and transportation.

"It's unfortunate that anyone is ever laid off," says Lela Garlington, newspaper guild president. "Except for when the Press-Scimitar closed we have had very few layoffs. I am glad that we haven't seen as many layoffs as other newspaper chains are facing."

In accordance with their contracts, employees who will be losing their jobs will receive one week's pay for every six months of service to the company for up to 42 weeks. This money is deducted from the former employees' pension plans and as such it is subject to tax penalties for early withdrawal if it is not reinvested. Those employees will also receive all due vacation pay.

"To the CA's credit," Garlington adds, "for months now, rather than laying more people off, they have simply not filled positions that have been vacated."

The guild has asked The Commercial Appeal management to follow the lead of the Cincinnati Post and consider the possibility of voluntary buyouts. These would eliminate the need for layoffs by allowing employees who have devoted a certain number of years to the company the option of having their contracts bought outright. According to a newsletter distributed by the guild, the CA considers this course of action to be a legal liability, though they have not ruled it out entirely.

The guild's newsletter also states that managing editor Henry Stokes and chief counsel Warren Funk of the CA told guild officials that the layoffs were due to "declining ad sales, flat circulation figures, and a bleak economic forecast." There was also an indication from the guild that additional staff cuts might be forthcoming.

Information provided by Media Marketing Consultants, Inc., shows that from January to March 2001 the CA has improved on the previous year's advertising sales. The report shows that in that period the newspaper sold 53,244 column-inches of display advertising space, an improvement of 5,724 column-inches over the previous year's figures.

The Commercial Appeal did not return calls regarding this story. -- Chris Davis

Theft Victim: "Please Return My Medication"

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something ... stolen? That's not how the rhyme is supposed to go, but that's what happened to one Memphis newlywed.

After her wedding on Saturday, April 21st, while she and her husband were staying at the French Quarter Suites in Midtown, the woman -- who wishes to remain anonymous -- had her truck broken into. The thieves nabbed wedding presents and money for her honeymoon, which has now been postponed because of the theft.

Also stolen was medication used to treat the woman's diabetes and epilepsy. Along with the medication were a pair of prescription shaded reading glasses that allow her to read, since the black-and-white contrast of text can bring on a seizure. The woman says the cost of the medication, which was stored in prescription bottles, was $3,200 for the four-month supply.

The woman is a senior at the University of Memphis studying special education and history and works as an intern at Memphis Goodwill. Neither her student status nor her job offers medical insurance, leaving her little recourse in getting more medication.

Her main desire is to have the medication returned to her as soon as possible. The pills cannot be used recreationally and might be dangerous if consumed. If anyone knows of their whereabouts or has information relating to the stolen medication, please contact the Memphis Police Department's auto-theft division at 545-5200. -- Chris Przybyszewski

City Schools Going Back To Basics

The Memphis City Schools haVE quietly made a fundamental change in the way reading is taught in the elementary grades.

Beginning this fall, all city elementary schools will use the same set of readers and workbooks. The way reading is taught currently varies from school to school and sometimes even from classroom to classroom in the same grade in the same school.

The new materials were unveiled last week at the MCS Teaching and Learning Academy. The textbooks, published by Scott Foresman, were adopted after a six-month review by principals, teachers, and school board members. They might remind some baby boomer parents of the sort of reading materials used in the Fifties and Sixties, when phonics and "the workbook" were staples of elementary education.

Why is something so retro potentially so revolutionary? Because under former Superintendent Gerry House, MCS adopted something called site-based management which let schools basically call their own shots by choosing from 18 different options.

"The district has an adopted text but it's been pretty much a free-for-all as to what people really have been using," says Dr. Susan Dold, English/Language Arts facilitator in the Office of Student Standards, in the current issue of the MCS publication Teaching.

The new reading program is supposed to do two things. By standardizing the curriculum, it recognizes that many children attend more than one elementary school because of the optional program, open enrollment, and general student mobility. In the current system, some students had trouble adapting to new schools and new reading programs. And teachers and administrators found it hard to measure progress because there were so many different methods in use.

The second main feature is close correlation with the Terra Nova standardized test given to all elementary and middle-school students. The test is the basis for the scores by which individual students, schools, and school districts are measured. The low performance of MCS on the test has been widely publicized, and Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson vowed to do something about it when he took over last year. Implementing a systemwide curriculum change in less than a year is in itself considered something of an accomplishment in the school bureaucracy.

The reading selections for each grade range from easy to difficult so that teachers have some flexibility in gearing work to individual student abilities. Every student, however, gets a strong dose of the sort of test-taking skills used on the Terra Nova.

For example, sixth-graders read a passage called "A Trouble-Making Crow" then pick the sentence that does not support the statement "Crows are very secretive" and make predictions about what will happen next in the story. There are also exercises in drawing conclusions, summarizing, separating fact from opinion, and other skills.

Many reading teachers already do that, but the new program will make the process more systematic. Ironically, some of the city schools with the highest standardized test scores, such as Rozelle Elementary and Grahamwood Elementary, allow teachers to do the most free-lancing. -- John Branston

School Board Debates Cell Phones, Safety

Student safety seemed to be the theme during student night at Monday's Memphis City Schools board meeting.

Groups of students, led by their district's student advisory board member, raised concerns about textbooks, lack of higher-level classes, and cafeteria food.

"Some things never change," board president Barbara Prescott told the students about their cafeteria complaints.

But some things have. Five of the nine student advisory groups told the board they were concerned with student safety, specifically that metal detectors in district schools needed to be used more effectively and consistently.

Later the board looked at a resolution proposed by Commissioner Patrice Robinson regarding the board's zero-tolerance policy on electronic devices. Currently the possession of a beeper, pager, or cellular phone results in an automatic three-day board suspension; Robinson's resolution would have made the offense using a cellular phone rather than possessing one.

Although most of the board agreed that cell phones should not be used or even present in the classroom, the issue became divided over cell phones at after-school activities.

But Commissioner Lora Jobe wondered if having cell phones would make campuses less safe.

"I know it's old-fashioned, but parents who need their children can still call the office," said Jobe.

"Safety is one of our main issues," said Jobe, before observing that it would be best if students didn't have a quick means to call someone else after an altercation.

"We don't want a student with a phone to call their big brother and say, 'Get down here and bring your gun,'" she said.

The board decided to refer the resolution to an ad hoc committee. --Mary Cashiola

E-Commerce Firms Have Mixed Success Here

In the tumultuous world of e-commerce, with "dot-coms" closing around the country, some local firms are doing well while others are experiencing setbacks.

In recent years, firms Barnesandnoble.com, ToysRus.com, PlanetRx.com, and Hallmark-flowers.com have called America's Distribution Center home. The presence of these new businesses has changed the economic landscape of Memphis.

"I think that what is going on in Memphis right now is that companies that are delivering services are in line with what Memphis' strengths are," says Howard Zimmerman, vice president of dotLogix, a provider of business-to-business e-commerce help for both software and distribution.

Memphis' strength, according to Zimmerman, is distribution between businesses as provided by such mega-companies as FedEx. Firms like those, according to Zimmerman, are doing well in the new e-commerce world.

Others haven't fared as well. "There are a lot of business-to-consumer applications [e.g., ToysRus.com] that have experienced setbacks and have unfortunately closed," he says. "That's part of the business cycle and not out of the ordinary." This leads Zimmerman to believe that Memphis is "not as susceptible to the market" as other cities with dot.coms providing their economic infrastructure.

Some area businesses are feeling the sting of the new economy. While Barnesandnoble.com and Hallmark-flowers.com have experienced growth, ToysRus.com will soon be closing its distribution site in Memphis.

Jeanne Meyer, vice president of corporate communications for ToysRus.com, says that the company will hand over its online operations and distribution to Amazon.com. ToysRus.com has since moved most of its inventory from its one distribution site, located in Memphis, to Amazon.com's seven distribution sites.

The Memphis site currently still ships out ToysRus.com's line of baby products but is scheduled to shut down "in about five weeks," according to Meyer. She does say that there are efforts to keep the Memphis site open by offering it to other companies. However, the company has already laid off a number of workers, leaving only a "skeleton crew" here.

-- Chris Przybyszewski

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