Thursday, February 22, 2007

CA: RDC attracts ex-city officials

'Retired Directors Club' provides lucrative jobs
Commercial Appeal [link]
By Jacinthia Jones
February 22, 2007

The joke at City Hall goes like this: The Memphis Riverfront Development Corp. is where city department heads go to retire.

The RDC's three highest paid employees are retired division directors for the city of Memphis who now draw city pensions while earning sizeable salaries at the nonprofit created in 2000 at the city's behest to oversee downtown parkland.

Under contract with the city, the RDC manages Mud Island River Park, Tom Lee Park and nine other parks for $2.2 million annually, down from the the $2.6 million it received annually during its first five-year contract.

Former city public works director Benny Lendermon has been at the helm of the organization since its inception, a group born from the recommendation of a city-appointed steering committee charged with finding a way to better market and utilize the riverfront.

As president, Lendermon, 54, earns $198,290 plus a $4,800 auto allowance and other benefits, according to RDC.

That's more than Mayor Willie Herenton's $160,000 salary and its nearly double the $99,800 Lendermon earned as Memphis public works director.

He retired in 2000 after 24 years of service and went to work for RDC. On top of his salary, Lendermon collects his monthly city pension of $5,093.

Danny Lemmons, the retired general services director for the city, earns $98,437 as director of operations for RDC.

Lemmons, 64, retired from the city in 1992 with more than 20 years of service. His monthly pension is $3,580.

And John Conroy, 63, the city's former engineer, makes $126,052 in his post as RDC's vice president of project development. Conroy's monthly city pension is $3,017.

He retired from Memphis government in 2002 with 13 years and nine months of service under the city's controversial 12-year pension rule for appointed and elected officials that has since been rescinded.

Connections to City Hall extend beyond the three former directors. The RDC's director of communications, Dorchelle Spence, is the wife of former city attorney Robert Spence. She earns $98,437.

"We've heard the jokes," said Lendermon, but shrugs it off.

Instead, he ticks off RDC's accomplishments: new cobblestones on the riverfront, new steps down the bluffs, medians along Riverside Drive, not to mention sprucing up Mud Island and other parks that had begun to languish under the city's watch.

"All of our projects have come within budget, with no overruns." That's been possible, he says, because the nonprofit isn't tied down by government red tape.

The group is now preparing to tackle its largest project yet, overseeing the city's $27 million Beale Street Landing.

Still, the RDC, though separate from the city, is almost wholly supported by the local government.

"We get the majority of our money from the city, there's no doubt," Lendermon said, adding that if the city ever canceled the contract, "We'd go away."

Besides the $2 million the agency receives from the city annually to manage the parks, the nonprofit gets about $250,000 from private sources like the Plough Foundation, Lendermon said. Its concert series at the amphitheater brought in $50,000 this past season, in addition to other revenue from Mud Island museum admissions and park rental fees.

When Lendermon began to assemble his team at the RDC, he turned to those he knew. He worked with Lemmons at the city and said he knew his work ethic.

When Lemmons joined RDC, he'd been retired from the city for more than 10 years. Lendermon said he had to persuade him to take a pay cut, leave his job in industrial development at the railroad, and join him at the nonprofit.

Similarly, with Conroy, Lendermon said he approached the then-city engineer looking for names of prospects. Lendermon interviewed three who didn't make the cut, before later hiring Conroy for much less.

Memphis City Council Chairman Tom Marshall has heard the RDC jokes as well. One is that RDC stands for "Retired Directors Club."

"Honestly, it just doesn't bother me. Many of us have even laughed about it," he said, dismissing the situation as "water cooler discussion."

Marshall says the council this year may have to address the "brain drain" leaving City Hall to work at city agencies. Otherwise, Marshall says he's happy to have qualified individuals at the RDC who "have a pulse on how things work in the city system."

Councilman Scott McCormick, chairman of the council's park committee and the latest addition to the RDC board, believes the RDC has performed admirably. "They do a much better job of managing the parks than we did."

More info:

Top jobs at RDC
Three retired city of Memphis executives now work for the Riverfront Development Corp., a nonprofit that manages downtown parkland under contract with the city.

Benny Lendermon, 54
Pension: $5,093/month
RDC pay: $198,290/year

Danny Lemmons, 64
Pension: $3,580/month
RDC pay: $98,437/year

John Conroy, 63
Pension: $3,017/month
RDC pay: $126,052

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