Sunday, November 09, 2008

Herenton, council study options for cutbacks, including buyouts

By Amos Maki, Memphis Commercial Appeal [link]
Sunday, November 9, 2008

As the effects of the global meltdown trickle down to City Hall, Memphis officials are considering employee buyouts and other measures to deal with what could be the city's worst financial year in nearly two decades.

Mayor Willie Herenton and the City Council gathered Saturday at the FedEx Institute of Technology at the University of Memphis for their annual retreat. While the banter was lighthearted at times, the financial scenario laid out by city officials was anything but.

Herenton said next year probably will be the toughest of his 17-year tenure, with a host of cost-drivers -- fuel, utilities and contributions to health and retirement benefits -- continuing to escalate, while sales tax and property revenues are likely to decline.

Herenton promised no property tax increases next year and delivered a broad cost-control plan to council members, who have the ultimate control over the city's purse strings.

The tentative plan includes offering buyouts and severance packages to city workers to reduce personnel costs, cutting capital expenditures, looking for opportunities for city-county consolidation and retooling heath care and pension benefits.

Herenton did not say how many employees would be offered buy-outs and promised to provide details to the council in the next 30 days.

"There will be no property tax increase to support our budget in 2010," said Herenton. "We have developed a buyout plan in an effort to reduce personnel costs."

Herenton said the city is prepared to restructure its health care, retirement and benefits plans.

"In the corporate arena, the employees are paying more and the employer is paying less," said the fifth-term mayor.

"These are trend lines at the corporate level and governments are now looking at the same kinds of trends," said Herenton. "It is predictable that in the future the benefit programs provided to employees will change."

City officials said they likely will start the 2010 fiscal year, which begins in July, facing a $25 million deficit because of increased costs.

The city probably will have to scale back its capital budget, the five-year plan that funds major projects like road improvements and costs $90 million to $100 million annually. City finance director Roland McElrath said the capital budget will likely be $70 million next year.

McElrath also said sales-tax revenue, state revenue sources and property-tax revenues are all likely to decline next year. Sales taxes, which generate about 20 percent of the city's revenue, are likely to get hit hardest.

"We think this trend will continue downward, and unless we see a quick turn around in the economy there will be a sharp drop-off in 2010," said McElrath.

The city has around $89 million in reserves, the roughly 10 percent of the city's general budget that the credit rating agencies like. That number includes a likely $16 million surplus this year.

Looking ahead to next year, council members and the mayor said major cuts to government spending are likely, possibly even in fire and police services, whose budgets represent more than 50 percent of the city's spending.

"We are in these times going to have to prioritize needs," said Councilman Shea Flinn. "It could get very ugly, very quickly."

-- Amos Maki: 529-2351
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Project aims to restore Mississippi river flow and aquatic life behind diversion dikes

By Tom Charlier, Memphis Commercial Appeal [link]
Sunday, November 9, 2008

With its Sahara-like dunes and outcroppings of sun-bleached shells that hinted at a richer past, the acreage stretching out behind Ron Nassar and John Rumancik on a crisp fall morning had all the hallmarks of an ecological desert.

This area just upstream from Downtown Memphis used to be a back channel of the Mississippi River -- a place where young fish could find refuge before plunging into the swift current, and where migrating shore birds could swoop in for a quick meal of tiny crustaceans.

But today, it's 11 miles of mostly sand.

"You can see what's happening to the river," said Nassar, coordinator of the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee. "You're converting it from aquatic to terrestrial habitat."


Biologist Leighann Gipson surveys the scene near a Mississippi River dike targeted for relief to restore aquatic habitat up and down the river. (Mike Maple/The Commercial Appeal)


The problem lies with the navigation dikes -- stone walls up to a mile long -- erected by the Corps of Engineers to divert the Mississippi's water away from back channels and into the main river where barges navigate. Although they've kept the navigation channel deep enough for barges, the dikes have dried up many of the critical side chutes and channels behind islands.

But now, through a comprehensive program known as

"Restoring America's Greatest River," the corps and a group of other federal and state agencies are working to undo the damage. They've identified 239 projects along 954 miles of the river between Cairo, Ill., and the Gulf of Mexico to improve aquatic habitat and recreational opportunities.

Two years ago, in the initial project of the restoration campaign, the group reopened a secondary channel behind Island 63 in Coahoma County, Miss.

In a $200,000 project now under way, a contractor is creating large notches in seven dikes that blocked channels behind Loosahatchie Bar and nearby islands near the Arkansas side of the river across from DeWitt Spain Airport in Memphis. To make the notches, trackhoes and bulldozers peel away rocks weighing up to 5,000 pounds.

Until now, water flowed into the secondary channels only when the river was high. When low stages occur during summer, water gets trapped behind the dikes and eventually dries up or withers into stagnant pools, in which fish are doomed.


The Corps of Engineers and the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee are putting notches in navigation dikes on Loosahatchie Bar and Redmond Chute near Memphis to restore river flow behind the dikes. (Mike Maple/The Commercial Appeal)


Biologists over the years have noted a decline in the diversity in the age groups and sizes of some fish found in the river. It's been attributed in part to the loss of the secondary channels, which newly spawned fish need to safely forage and grow before entering the main river.

Once the notches are in place, the river will scour away some of the sand, creating channels that will have some flow at least 97 percent of the time.

Rumancik, a biologist for the corps, said the builders of the dikes in past decades shouldn't be faulted for not foreseeing the damage.

"Nobody ever thought what might be the impacts because the river was so big and huge," he said.

-- Tom Charlier: 529-2572
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