VOL. 128 | NO. 164 | Thursday, August 22, 2013
Funding for Untested Rape Kits Sparks Debate
By Bill Dries
The Memphis City Council’s sharpest debate during a Tuesday, Aug. 20, council agenda with several major issues wasn’t about Smart Meters or changes in garbage pickup.
It was about “several thousand” rape kits Memphis Police have – some dating back to the 1980s – that investigators never processed.
The council approved a $501,000 state grant to the Memphis Police Department for the processing of 2,200 rape kits.
Council member Kemp Conrad, after a day of committee sessions in which he and other council members got a briefing from Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong on the problem, wanted to add $2.5 million from the city’s reserve fund to process all of the rape kits and identify whatever DNA can be found.
“I don’t think I was aware of the gravity of the situation,” Conrad said.
Armstrong said he had no precise count on the number of unprocessed rape kits but estimated it was several thousand.
Conrad reacted when council member Lee Harris asked Armstrong what the urgency of the situation was.
“I don’t need someone to tell me the urgency of the problem,” Conrad said.
Council member Shea Flinn echoed the sentiment.
“I’ll raise taxes to get this money,” he said. “This is outrageous.”
But other council members wanted to know how using that much from the city’s reserve fund would affect the city’s financial health. Several cited concerns about the city’s reserve fund level earlier this year from Tennessee Comptroller Justin Wilson.
Council member Myron Lowery said all on the council agreed the rape kits should be processed.
“The only question is where will the dollars come from,” he said. “For us to act today on a moment’s notice … is a knee-jerk reaction. I don’t think we should touch our reserves on a moment’s notice.”
“We have an ability to send a message tonight to the Memphis Police Department,” Conrad replied. “Government is about choices. If the council can’t make this a priority, I don’t want to serve on a body like this.”
The council will discuss additional city funding to process more rape kits during Sept. 3 committee sessions.
Meanwhile, council members approved a $10.1 million contract Tuesday for Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division to buy 60,000 Smart Meters.
And the council delayed a final vote on setting a solid waste fee that is the starting point for changes over several years to the way the city collects garbage. The two-week delay in setting the fee also delays acting on a plan to provide sanitation workers with a retirement supplement of up to $1,000 a month funded with the savings from the changes in the services.
After an hour of questions about the plan in committee sessions, council members indicated Tuesday that they still want more discussion on the matter.
Council members had lots of questions about whether the money the city would set aside for the supplement would be enough if a lot of employees retired at once. They also questioned what would happen if it wasn’t.
The plan was worked out by the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local, which represents city sanitation workers.
The supplement would be funded with savings from efficiencies in the new garbage pick up plan which would add 100 stops to most daily sanitation routes, eliminate special crews to pick up large items on the curb and move toward broader recycling.
If the savings aren’t there, the city would not be obligated to pay the supplement.
The Smart Meter contract vote came with more questions from council members for utility president Jerry Collins but relatively little debate.
Collins confirmed that the utility will not charge a fee to customers who opt out of the Smart Meters. Such a fee was in the original version of the plan, but several council members moved to take it out.
Council member Janis Fullilove first attempted to amend the contract resolution to call for a citywide referendum on the use of Smart Meters and then tried unsuccessfully to delay the vote for four months.
“What would be accomplished in 120 days that we don’t know or haven’t received?” asked council member Harold Collins.
“I personally would like to have more information,” Fullilove answered as she again called for a citywide referendum on the expansion of the Smart Meters pilot project.
The council vote for the contract was 9-4 in favor.
The council followed up by setting time-of-use rates for the Smart Meters that will charge utility customers based on when they use energy during the day. Energy usage during peak hours comes with a higher rate while use during non-peak hours comes with a lower rate.