Monday, February 26, 2007

Editorial: Riverfront group needs scrutiny

Commercial Appeal [Link]
February 26, 2007

When Memphis mayor Willie Herenton floated the idea of turning management of the city's riverfront over to a nonprofit group, his pitch was simple.

The Riverfront Development Corp., as the nonprofit came to be known, was supposed to be able to handle the oversight work more efficiently than city government could.

But has the RDC fulfilled that promise? About seven years after the agency was founded, it's a question worth evaluating.

We know this much: The RDC has been very good for some former city employees.

As Jacinthia Jones reported in a story last week, the three highest paid employees on the RDC's payroll are all former city division directors. They're collecting pensions from the city while continuing to work for the agency, which, in turn, gets most of its funding from city government.

Benny Lendermon, who's been running the RDC since its founding in 2000, makes $198,290 a year, plus a $4,800 auto allowance and other benefits. That's more than Herenton's $160,000 annual salary and it's roughly double the $99,800 Lendermon made as the city's public works director. John Conroy, a former city engineer, makes $126,052 a year and Danny Lemmons, a former general services director, makes $98,437.

And that's only counting what they're earning now at the RDC. Their annual pensions range from Conroy's $36,204 to Lendermon's $61,116.

If the RDC had to operate like most nonprofits do -- begging and scraping for funding from private contributors -- then that wouldn't be a cause for public concern.

But the RDC isn't that kind of nonprofit. Under the terms of its contract, the RDC gets $2 million annually to manage riverfront parks, plus revenue generated from concerts, Mud Island museum admissions and park rental fees on city-owned property.

The RDC gets about $250,000 from private sources like the Plough Foundation, but Lendermon admitted that without the city funding, "we'd go away." So really, whether Lendermon or his charges care to admit it or not, the RDC is just like an arm of city government.

That doesn't mean it always acts like one.

During the RDC's short history, some City Council members have complained that the agency hasn't provided enough information about its planned expenditures during annual budget hearings. And some riverfront activists have complained that the RDC doesn't open up its meetings and records the way a public agency should.

With the RDC poised to tackle its largest project ever, the $27 million Beale Street Landing, now would seem like an opportune time for council members to evaluate whether RDC's claims of operating the parks more efficiently ring true.

There's a joke around Memphis City Hall that RDC stands for "Retired Directors Club." But if taxpayers are subsidizing an inflated payroll for bureaucrats who are providing essentially the same level of service with less accountability to the public, then RDC could well stand for something else: Really Dumb Concept.

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