With perfect unanimity, the Shelby County Commission voted 13-0 Monday to accept the transfer of the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center from City of Memphis managementto that of the Health Department, now the sole responsibility of Shelby County.
The vote was in decided contrast to the somewhat edgy and distanced attitude displayed by members of the commission’s Community Services committee last Wednesday when commission members present — expressing concerns about cost or protocol or “unilateral” action by mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton in announcing the transfer — had voted to send the issue to the full commission “witout recommendation.”
Deborah Clubb, executive director of the Memphis Area Women’s Council and one of several members of a “Friends of MSARC” coalition that has lobbied on behalf of the transfer, was asked: What was the difference between Wednesday and Monday?
“Word came down that if we didn’t move on this we we’d be missing out on all kinds of federal grants. That, and the fact that defense attorneys would literally be in heaven,” Clubb said succinctly.
Both points had been addressed at Monday’s commission meeting, the former somewhat obliquely, the latter more directly. Commissioner Mike Ritz, who had been the leading edge of complaint last Wednesday, hit it head down when introducing the facilitating resolution Monday.
“I think we have created a huge opportunity for defense attorneys who are defending these rapists to get off the hook,” he said, concerning the present irresolute state of affairs and the lack of an agreed-upon protocol. Ritz is normally among the most hard-nosed of commissioners on issues of cost but agreed with colleague Sidney Chism, who had said, “There’s a cost factor whether we like it or not. I don’t know that we’re in a position to say, whatever the cost, we’re not going to do it.”
The issue of costs was addressed directly by county finance officer Jim Huntzicker, who estimated expenses as $210,000 for a 90-day transitional period and annual costs as ranging from a “worst-case” scenario of $750,000 to a best-case one of $100,000, with a “mid-range” estimate of $275,000 to $300,000 being more likely. Huntzicker, Health Department director Yvonne Matlock, Shelby County mayor Wharton and others all indicated that additional financial support was likely from city sources during the transition.
“We will maintain things as they are for 90 days,” said Wharton, promising a.” coordinated effort” with the city. “We will make sure that two things prevail: That the physical, emotional, and mental welfare of victims will be foremost at all times, regardless of the when and where the examination takes place, and, second, for forensic purposes, there is a standard and uniform protocol which will avoid the situation to which Commissioner Ritz alluded.”
Matlock offered further reassurance of a “seamless” transition in which there would be “very little change in actual operation.” She said longer-term issues to be resolved including those of staffing, funding, and infrastructure, as well as that which she referred to delicately as “co-location.”
Various supporters of MSARC, including Norma Lester, who spoke Monday on behalf of forensic nurses, have been dubious about splitting the functions of MSARC, as proposed, before the transfer was arranged, by Memphis mayor Herenton, who accepted an offer from LeBonheur Hospital to see juvenile rape victims, while adults would continue to be treated at MSARC’s main facilities.
The question of location was left vague on Monday, however, as were most other matters, pending a fuller report to the commission by Wharton, Matlock, and others within the 90-day transitional period.
All in all, the commission seemed on Monday to be of similar mind, determined, as Commissioner George Flinn, chairman of he community services committee put it, “to keep this [discussion] to a minimum and get this thing out of the headlines and into practice.”
Clubb, Lester, and Jacob Flowers of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, in thanking the commission for its action, said that suited the Friends of MSARC just fine.