The numbers at play so far in the Memphis City Council’s long budget season are big.
Council members tallied $24.4 million in city operating budget cuts Tuesday, June 18, in a marathon seven-hour session before an overflow crowd of angry city employees.
The actions they took in the amendments to an incomplete operating budget affect 400 city employees who would lose their jobs and another 50 funded but vacant city positions that would be eliminated.
And when the council resumes its budget deliberations at a special meeting June 25, another 400 funded but vacant public safety positions will be under consideration for further cuts.
“This is not going to be fun for any of us today, no matter what we do,” council member Reid Hedgepeth said early in the day at City Hall. “I think, in my opinion, the administration’s budget does not cover our future debt issues.”
The decision by the council to adjourn after seven hours in session Tuesday and meet again next week was to reconcile conflicting estimates on not just the still-forming budget but what it means for the city property tax rate to fund the budget.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. proposed a $3.51 property tax rate with 25 cents more on the existing tax rate of $3.11 to make up for property value lost in the 2013 property reappraisal and another 15-cent tax hike to pay debt and replenish city reserve funds.
Council Chairman Edmund Ford Jr. estimated that with his pending plan that should open next week’s session and the other amendments already approved, the council was at a $3.24 property tax rate.
Council member Shea Flinn put the tax rate with the same considerations at $3.30.
Ford’s plan had some elements in common with the plan by council member Jim Strickland.
Four parts of Strickland’s plan were approved by the council Tuesday including laying off 100 city employees and reducing the city payroll by another 300 through attrition. The number of affected employees was the same as Wharton proposed. But Wharton’s plan called for a $14 million buyout of the 300 city employees Strickland and the rest of the council voted not to include.
The council also adopted Strickland amendments to cut approximately 50 non-public safety city positions that are funded but vacant, cut $3.3 million in materials and supplies to every part of city government from 1 to 10 percent and up the percentage of health care insurance premiums employees and retirees pay to 30 percent.
The council delayed action until September on an increase in the overall premium with most members saying they were skeptical of administration estimates of the likely cost.
The council voted down a Strickland proposal to cut $415,400 in extras for city divisions including travel and food, and association dues and membership fees.
Also voted down was a call by council member Myron Lowery to restore the 4.6 percent pay cut all city employees took two years ago. A proposal by council member Wanda Halbert to restore $226,000 in funding to the Memphis Music Commission was approved by the council.
And the council approved an amendment by council member Janis Fullilove to cut $250,000 from the city’s share of funding for EDGE – Economic Development Growth Engine.
What a week will do to the momentum behind a voting majority for the cuts is anyone’s guess. Tuesday’s environment at City Hall was volatile starting with the seven hours of committee sessions that preceded the full council meeting.
Fullilove was pushing the idea that the city’s financial problems were the result of un-named members of the council going to state Senate Republican leader Mark Norris to create the crisis as a pretext for consolidation of local government or a state takeover.
“That’s not true, Janis,” Flinn said, interrupting Fullilove.
“I said allegedly,” Fullilove responded.
The confrontation continued at a later unrelated committee meeting when Flinn confronted Fullilove.
“You lied on me,” he said to Fullilove.
“I have not lied about you,” she answered. “I didn’t say anything about you.”
“You lied,” Flinn came back.
“You are a liar,” Fullilove responded. “I have not.”
A few hours later, Flinn dared any on the council to avoid the cuts and simply propose a new property tax rate close to the $4 range. None responded.
Council members were also frustrated that Wharton made no mention of city employee benefit cuts he pitched just a week ago as an alternative to the 15-cent tax hike he proposed. He stuck to the layoffs and buyouts, which would affect public safety employees.
Then Police Director Toney Armstrong and Fire Director Alvin Benson sat at the head of the council committee table with Wharton and said cuts to either of their divisions would affect public safety. Armstrong said crime rates would almost certainly rise.
For some on the council it was a split message from the administration.