FACING THE FACTS: "No matter how much we love Memphis ... and no matter how much we want people to live in Memphis, that doesn't make people live in Memphis," said City Council member Jim Strickland as he pushed to end a Shelby County residency requirement for emergency personnel. -- Photo By Bill Dries
The Memphis City Council that took office in January had its first major debate this month and emerged with the appearance that nothing was taken personally.
At issue was a recent proposal by council member Jim Strickland to waive the city's policy of only hiring emergency personnel, including firefighters and police officers who live within Shelby County or move within the county limits six months after they are hired.
The proposal was defeated on a 6-7 council vote last week that fell along racial lines.
The debate before the vote touched virtually every hot local political issue: crime, a shrinking tax base and how to make it grow, heightened criticism of the city by those who live outside it, heightened criticism by those within the city of those who work in Memphis but live elsewhere.
Strickland argued that waiving the residency requirement was necessary to hire enough police officers, in particular, to meet Mayor Willie Herenton's goal of adding 500 officers to the force.
"We're having a difficult time recruiting," Strickland said. "We've been hovering around 2,000 police officers. ... This year the police department predicts it will lose at least 110 police officers through retirement. No matter how much we love Memphis ... and no matter how much we want people to live in Memphis, that doesn't make people live in Memphis. We are failing. We are failing to recruit officers."
Failure to launch
"It doesn't matter if we put a million police officers here.
People don't like our mayor. People don't like some of us. ... Everybody wants to come and make a dollar and take it away from the city.
That's the bottom line."
- Wanda Halbert
Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware countered that it would only heighten the tax burden on Memphians and send the wrong message about trying to build confidence in the city's future.
"You talk about tax base and who pays taxes and yet you want to exempt people you are employing from contributing to the tax base," she said. "That sounds like double talk to me."
In 2004, Memphis voters approved an amendment to the City Charter requiring that emergency personnel, including firefighters and police officers, live in Memphis or move to the city six months after they are hired. The amendment also included a provision that allowed the council to waive the requirement if needed.
The council did that to permit the city to recruit workers from within Shelby County. That two-year waiver is beginning its second year.
Council member Bill Boyd said the trend is clear after a year.
"Our citizens are leaving this city because of crime. That's the ones we represent. That's the ones we need to look at," he said. "I know that businesses when they are taking a look at our city, they notice how we rank high in most every category of crime. ... I think we're losing them leaving, losing them coming. And that's where the tax base really is."
Pick your battle(s)
But Council member Wanda Halbert said the city is battling more than tax base problems. It's battling criticism from outside the city limits, often from those who work in the city but don't live in the city and don't pay taxes in the city.
"It doesn't matter if we put a million police officers here," Halbert said. "People don't like our mayor. People don't like some of us. ... Everybody wants to come and make a dollar and take it away from the city. That's the bottom line.
"If you want to do something about recruiting, the appropriate thing is to amend your resolution with something that shows ownership and responsibility and loyalty."
Strickland agreed to an amendment from council member Bill Morrison requiring city employees to live within an hour's drive of the city, give Memphis residents a preference in hiring and require emergency supervisors to report on the results in a year.
Council member Shea Flinn argued statistics.
"I want people to choose to live here, but we've got to separate the emotion from the fact. The fact is we are not adding police officers at a rate that will allow us to add those 500," he said at a recent council meeting. "The math is against us. I can agree with the emotions. ... We can only ignore the reality for so long. There's a price for that and the price goes up."
Council member Edmund Ford Jr. argued statistics from a different perspective.
"My concern is that when you hire outside that, that tax base is going to decrease. ... We as citizens are going to have to pay for others outside to work. They may not necessarily have to put in anything," he said.