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City Reporter



A Great Day at the CA?

Daily paper announces layoffs, other staff changes.

By Mary Cashiola

Have you seen the Dilbert comic strip where the company announces an outside consultant will be doing layoffs and tells the employees if you see a stranger near your cube, look out?

Employees at The Commercial Appeal have.

Someone at the CA passed around the cartoon after Memphis' daily newspaper went through another round of layoffs last week, including staff cuts to the newsroom.

The newspaper cut 22 full-time equivalencies, including nine positions covered by the Memphis Newspaper Guild. The company has maintained a hiring freeze for more than a year, but this is the first time in recent years that newsroom positions have been eliminated.

Business reporter Christopher Barton, DeSoto sports writer Andre Johnson, and copy editor Diana Powell were among those let go on Monday. Another copy editor, Victor Hall, voluntarily resigned. Other employees were laid off or took early retirement in the advertising, housekeeping, and customer-service and distribution departments.

"Several positions were eliminated through attrition before we even knew we were going to have layoffs," said guild president Mark Watson. The guild learned of the layoffs three weeks ago and then met with management to try and determine how they could minimize the pain. "Out of that process, we got some people to agree to resign or take early retirement."

Although new editor Chris Peck starts in January and left his job as Belo Distinguished Chair of Journalism at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in October, the reduction in the work force is being blamed on the lagging economy, not an editorial shake-up.

The layoffs themselves were based on a ranking system, where reporters were compared with other reporters and copy editors with other copy editors, for instance, based on their competency, special abilities, length of service, and other factors. The guild, however, believes the ranking system is an imperfect way of judging performance.

"This is not the first time they've used the ranking system," said Watson. "They've used it for years. The first grievance relating to it was filed last spring and we're pursuing that into arbitration. If we win the grievance from last spring, we may be able to get the company to settle other cases." He says the guild's board is strongly in favor of pursuing the issue.

"Basically, what we were told is that someone in high-ranking management went through all the company's personnel files and compared them," said Watson.

Newly named managing editor Otis Sanford referred questions about the layoffs to the CA's general counsel and human-resources head Warren Funk. Funk did not return inquiries by press time.

Despite the layoffs, the paper has hired a new editorial staffer. Maria Bibbs was sponsored by the CA as a fellow with the Freedom Forum's Diversity Institute, a 12-week print journalism program designed for persons of color who have no previous journalism experience. Sponsoring papers agree to hire the fellows after they finish the program.

Watson said the paper is glad to have her with them, but he doesn't understand "how you can lay off with one hand and hire with the other."

"There's one reporter [Barton]that was laid off who generated a lot of news stories. He only had a couple of errors over the last two and a half years. He was a good reporter and frankly, we're missing him now," said Watson. "We have no personal issues with the people that had to make these decisions. ... We just think the process is fatally flawed and we're working to get one that more accurately reflects what's stated in our contracts."

Political columnist Susan Adler Thorp announced her resignation last Monday as well, to become Shelby County mayor A C Wharton's top aide, but according to Watson her departure did not factor into the layoffs.

Asking for Input

Whitehaven development plan focuses on better land usage.

By Janel Davis

City officials warned Whitehaven residents this week that certain areas will be open for contractors to build multifamily dwellings once a six-month building moratorium expires at year's end, if a rezoning plan is not instituted.

About 300 residents attended the meeting at Holmes Road Elementary School Monday night, where Division of Planning and Development (DPD) officials outlined a comprehensive rezoning proposal for 65 properties in the Whitehaven and Levi areas.

"Currently, there is inappropriate zoning, which has existed since the 1960s," said Wanda Martin with DPD. "There is a lot of vacant land [in the area] which could be used for more housing but could be lost if something is not done." Martin and other DPD officials referred to an existing moratorium on construction of multifamily dwellings, currently in effect until December 31st. The moratorium is another six-month extension of the original abeyance, enacted February 2001, said Terry Emerick, the city's director of planning.

The rezoning plan is one part of a study of the 40-square-mile area, prepared by DPD and three independent architectural and consulting firms. The area's boundaries are Nonconnah Creek, the Mississippi state line, Airways Blvd., and the Illinois Central Railroad. The study found that mixed zoning in the areas has led to "appearance problems, lack of code compliance, spotty use of streetscape landscaping, and vandalism." The rezoning plan calls for a "down-zoning" of several areas from multifamily residential and industrial business to single-family residential and commercial business. A future business park is planned for the area, setting up a new zoning district where industries will have stricter appearance and service guidelines.

The purpose of the meeting was to get residents' input before a plan to down-zone several areas was put into place. Officials assured worried residents that their land would not be taken from them, used for industrial businesses, or subjected to property-tax increases. Residents also expressed concern at the lack of notice about the plan.

"This is not the first meeting we've had on this issue," said Martin. "During the last year's planning process, [DPD] has held 15 to 20 meetings within the communities. I think there is a lack of understanding in the community, which has contributed to the opposition. That's why we're having these meetings."

The rezoning plan's next stop is a review by the Land Use Control Board on Thursday, followed by the third and final reading by the city council on December 17th.

"Whitehaven has a lot of assets, but there has been a decline in certain areas," said Emerick. "Zoning is just a small part of the overall plan. We've then got to attract business to the area and get more residential development."

Recommendations for future development include establishing greenbelts along Nonconnah Creek, establishing gateway entrances in six considered areas, and preservation of T.O. Fuller Park.

Show Me the Money, Part 2

Community development corporations are still waiting on their funds.

By Mary Cashiola

After more than a year, the city has given out less than half of the money it promised to community development corporations (CDCs) last October.

Last week's Flyer cover story asked how much of a more than $2 million "down payment" on the city announced last fall had actually been awarded. Without figures available from the Whitehaven CDC and the South Memphis Alliance, each originally granted $100,000, the city had released approximately $306,000 by December 2nd.

The $2 million was a blend of city and federal funding awarded to 12 established CDCs and six newly designated CHDOs (community housing development organizations) as part of the mayor's "decade of neighborhoods" initiative. Some of the CDCs and CHDOs felt there was a time lag in executing contracts and reimbursing them for spent moneys.

The awards included: Memphis Area Neighborhood Development Corporation -- $131,650; Neighborhood Housing Opportunities -- $232,950; Orange Mound Development Corporation -- $100,000; Frayser -- $100,000; and Hyde Park -- $50,000.

As of December 2nd, none of that money -- almost $615,000 -- had been distributed.

Hyde Park and another CDC, Nevets, actually received $100,000 for two years to split between them. Both groups shared the same boundaries and the same mission when they were designated city CHDOs -- a decision made for political reasons, says a CHDO analyst -- but have since changed their boundaries so they don't overlap. Of Nevets' $50,000, they've tapped into about $14,000.

The Cooper-Young CDC and Vollintine-Evergreen Community Association (VECA) CDC each received $50,000 in administration money; because they had not received administration moneys in previous years, the $50,000 was simply added to old contracts. Cooper-Young has drawn about $45,000 of its administration money.

Information from the Center for Neighborhoods showed VECA had been reimbursed for $37,989.81. Documents forwarded from the city attorney's office show VECA has only received $30,204.57 and makes no mention of a $7,785.24 draw the group requested on September 26th.

The city's information did not include information on the Whitehaven Economic Development Corporation or the South Memphis Alliance.

However, the Whitehaven EDC was awarded $100,000 when it was the Whitehaven CDC (the group decided to change its name last January to better reflect its economic focus). Shortly after the announcement at City Hall last year, they declined the funding, and reports in the media spoke of infighting between Whitehaven's various community organizations.

But when it was awarded, the city had already earmarked the money for various line items, including a large chunk for a consultant. As is the norm, the Whitehaven CDC was expected to pay the up-front costs and then be reimbursed by the city. For an organization whose yearly budget is under $100,000, accepting the grant just didn't seem feasible. Instead, the city and the group compromised with two $10,000 grants for two years.

Of $100,000 supposedly awarded to each of the following new CHDOs, Glenview has received $20,331.48; New Chicago has drawn $6,690.03; North Memphis has gotten $25,000; and Riverview-Kansas has received almost $6,000. The Douglass, Bungalow, and Crump CDC received $82,000 but has only drawn about $15,000 of it.

Other CHDOs received larger awards but have yet to see all the money. LeMoyne-Owen has received about $26,500 of its $180,000 award. Project Helping has received about $55,000 of its $120,000, and The Works has drawn $63,000 of its $280,000.

Some of the CDCs had complained about the length of time it took the city to reimburse them after they turned in expenses, but on average the information from the Center for Neighborhoods and the city shows reimbursements were paid within two weeks to a month. There were, however, several instances when payments took two months or longer and one instance where the record shows it took over a year for a CDC to be reimbursed.

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