VOL. 129 | NO. 99 | Wednesday, May 21, 2014
Council Hesitates Over Fire Recruit Class Funding and Charter Restrictions
By Bill Dries
Memphis City Council members discussed a new recruit class Tuesday, May 20, for the Memphis Fire Department that is not in Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s budget proposal.
But council members voted down a plan to come up with the $1.7 million for the class of 100 fire recruits from a $3 million cut in the line item for fire department sick leave, proposed by council member Kemp Conrad.
The tie vote in a committee session attended by 10 of the 13 council members was an indication of some uncertainty by council members about whether the council could hold fire department brass and the administration to use the money for a recruit class.
Some on the council cited city charter provisions that forbid the council from acting on personnel matters and decisions. Those are duties reserved for the administration.
City Finance Director Brian Collins told the council that the administration supports a new recruit class fire director Alvin Benson said is necessary to keep his compliment of commissioned firefighters over the 1,700 mark. But he also said the recruit class wasn’t included in Wharton’s budget proposal because it is among the options the council can fund from a $15 million reserve set aside for public safety expenses.
Conrad reluctantly accepted the amendment to add a recruit class and funding to his resolution from council member Shea Flinn, indicating he agreed in order to build the necessary seven votes for passage.
The proposal could resurface again as the budget committee moves toward a June wrap up session when committee recommendations will firm up on their way to the full council for a final vote on June 17.
Conrad’s intent was to correct what he says is a bad policy that is more sick time than for other groups of city employees and which has a connection to Fire Department “brown outs.” The brown outs are when ladder trucks are taken out of service because of manpower shortages from firefighters taking sick leave and vacation time.
The brown outs lead to calls being routed to different fire houses that can lengthen response time.
The brown outs are a concern for Benson who told the council his goal is to eliminate them entirely in the new fiscal year that begins July 1.
“Today we have browned out three ladder trucks,” were the first words Benson said to the budget committee Tuesday afternoon. He also told the council that the fire department “is a lot smaller since four years ago.”
Collins used a larger frame of reference for the brown outs in which he said the administration is relying on the council to decide the level of service city taxpayers want from city government.
Conrad’s proposal was taken from efficiency recommendations by Public Finance Management, the administration’s financial consultant.
Meanwhile, the council is expected to get a final report June 10 from Segal Consulting of Atlanta, the actuary firm hired by the council to review pension liability and annual required contribution estimates by the administration and municipal unions.
The committee will meet in committee June 10 to hear the report and is scheduled to take final overall votes on the city operating budget, capital budget and city property tax rate at its June 17 meeting, marking the end of the city budget season.
Those votes will include council action on steps to pay more toward the liability and increase the annual contribution, although how much that should be is still being debated.
The incoming president of the Greater Memphis Chamber, Phil Trenary, urged the council Tuesday to switch city new hires and unvested city employees with less than 10 years of service to a defined contributions 401-k type plan quickly.
Trenary made the comments during a brief introduction at the council executive session Tuesday. The former Pinnacle Airlines CEO told the council the chamber intends to become engaged on such public policy and political issues on a sustained basis.
Trenary said the switch to a sustained contributions plan is fair and puts the finances of city government on a more stable footing.
The approach is the proposal of Wharton but is not yet on the council’s agenda for action.
After the session, Trenary talked with Memphis Fire Fighters Association leaders who vehemently disagree with the change.
In other action Tuesday, the council approved a 22-lot single-family-home planned development at the southeast corner of Shady Grove Road and Interstate 240 by Greenbrier Partners LLC.
And the council voted down a special use permit sought by Shelby County government for a cemetery at the northeast corner of Raleigh-Millington and Duncan Roads. The cemetery goes to the Shelby County Commission for approval Monday and county officials say the current cemetery for indigent citizens on Ellis Road will run out of space in two years.
The council approved on the first of three readings a proposed ordinance by council chairman Jim Strickland that would eliminate incentives for employees to schedule their retirement several years in advance under the city’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan – or DROP – and get paid for working for the city as well as a pension.
Also passing on first reading Tuesday was a pilot program for residential parking permits in the Overton Square area.
Look for more detailed council discussions of both proposals in committee sessions before second reading next month.