Memphis City Council members got deeper Tuesday, Feb. 4, into the specifics of Memphis Police and Fire Department budget decisions.
But they didn’t get a clearer picture of what the direction forward will be as they and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. prepare to make some hard decisions about public safety in dealing with the city’s unfunded pension liability.
Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong cited crime statistics showing drops in every major category of crime corresponding to the increase in the police force and insisted the rise in police on the streets in the Blue CRUSH strategy is responsible.
Further cuts in funding and a lack of new recruit classes for uniform officers, Armstrong said, could lead to such moves as going to longer police shifts.
Memphis Fire Director Alvin Benson said brownouts, the practice of shifting fire calls to different firehouses with ladder trucks to respond to calls, is a direct result of his department dealing with a rationing of overtime.
The brownouts depend on how many firefighters are on vacation, sick leave or paid leave on a daily basis.
“I decided that we will reduce that overtime line and control it,” Benson said. “Before, when sick leave and vacation exceeded, we absorbed the cost. … The decision was to really manage that and make every attempt not to exceed that overtime, which had been reduced $5.7 million.”
If more than 28 firefighters are on sick leave on a given day, there will be a brownout in which ladder trucks are offline and unavailable. That is planning for a maximum of 50 other firefighters on vacation. A brownout causes the shift to other fire stations that have firefighters to man a ladder truck.
Benson has implemented the brownouts 136 times since Sept. 1, he told the council.
Council member Shea Flinn pointed to the study by the administration’s financial consultant, Public Financial Management, that says more police officers does not necessarily mean a drop in the crime rate and that cities where police ranks have not increased have experienced a drop in crime.
“We’ve got a tale of two cities on this,” Flinn said. “And they are both coming from the same administration. … None of this is being done in a vacuum. Somehow we are going to have to square these circles.”
City Chief Administrative Officer George Little said the fire station brownouts and limits on overtime, as well as decisions not to start new recruit classes or promotion rounds, are “sort of one-time items.”
But Little also cited the coming proposal in the Tennessee General Assembly by Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris of Collierville that would give local governments with unfunded pension liabilities five fiscal years to fund those liabilities or risk the state withholding funding to go toward the liabilities.
That pressure, he said, forces the city to look at public safety funding that, in the case of the Memphis Police Department, is not only the largest division in terms of funding and employees in city government, but also the only division that has seen its funding increased by the council in recent fiscal years.
“To quote Willie Sutton, ‘We’ve got to look where the money is,’” Little said of the famed bank robber. “We think we can balance all of this out, but it is going to require some tough trade-offs.”
Meanwhile, the administration plans to put the city’s actuary along with the actuaries used by the city’s municipal unions in the same room with council members March 4 in a committee session that is expected to last two to three hours.
Council Chairman Jim Strickland referred to it as “actuary day.” It will be a chance for council members to question the actuaries about their differing estimates of the city’s liability and for the actuaries to question each other.
The council is still in the process of hiring its own actuary.