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VOL. 126 | NO. 36 | Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Employee Benefits Issue Plays Out Locally

By Bill Dries

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The debate the Wisconsin Legislature is having about public employee benefits is an issue familiar to local elected leaders.

As Wisconsin’s stormy and emotional debate, which includes a generous helping of collective bargaining controversy not present in any of the local discussions, has played out nationally, the local efforts are moving ahead again.

Shelby County commissioners appeared ready last week to approve a new policy revamping paid leave policies for county employees.

It would have been the first significant change to the policy since 1993.

The new effort to cap the amount of leave employees can bank and cash out came after a first attempt in August passed but was vetoed by then Shelby County Mayor Joe Ford.

After approving several amendments to a new paid leave policy that would include a cap for current employees allowing them to keep what they had banked, the commission voted 6-7 last week to reject the overall policy rewrite.

Commissioner Mike Carpenter immediately vowed he would be back with a new proposal in 90 days.

“I’m just going to wear them down. I’m not going to let it go,” Carpenter said taking aim at fellow Republicans on the commission who voted against the proposal.

“This is low hanging fruit. If they can’t make this vote, they can’t make a vote to change the pension. They can’t make a vote to reduce pay or cut a pay raise. They can’t make a vote to lay people off if we have to lay people off. And that’s coming.”

The paid leave proposal drew opposition from labor leaders representing the county’s public safety employees as well as Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham.

The union leaders sought to protect not only the ability of their employees to keep banked leave time but also to accrue additional leave time over the cap.

They claimed it treated unfairly county employees who haven’t abused the existing paid leave policy.

The union leaders campaigned hard for no changes in a proposal they made that allowed employees who have hit the limit to get an additional 270 sick days on top of that.

“Please don’t believe the myths about our pay and benefits being circulated by the same county commissioners who support consolidation,” read a flyer being handed out in Bartlett last week by Dan Chapman, head of the Shelby County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association.

“One proposed amendment would require employees to actually be present for work 70 percent of the month before the employee would accumulate any benefit in that month,” the letter continued.

Chapman and other union leaders said that may sound reasonable but would mean an employee who took a two-week vacation wouldn’t earn any leave for that month.

Carpenter specifically criticized the municipal unions for refusing to compromise on accrued sick leave when many private sector employees have to use their leave in a given year or lose it.

“Folks in labor out there, they don’t live in the real world,” he said. “They don’t live with regular people and what we deal with.”

Carpenter had the county mayor’s office on his side in this latest attempt.

“We’re going to give it some time,” said county chief administrative officer Harvey Kennedy. “We may even put it off for six months to a year, try to put together a plan that we think will be beneficial and produce some cost savings.”

Meanwhile, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has four plans for dealing with a projected $70.4 million deficit in the new fiscal year.

The tentative options sent to Memphis City Council members Thursday include an 18-cent increase in the city property tax rate and laying off between 659 and 2,110 city employees.

The $70.4 million deficit is continued funding to Memphis City Schools. It doesn’t include paying city schools back the $55 million as two courts have ordered the city to do. With that amount added, the total amount of red ink Wharton is dealing with comes to $125.5 million.

The total assumes the $55 million would be paid in one lump sum.

All four options include transferring $20 million from the city’s debt service fund, the fund that pays off bonds used to finance construction projects and other one-time city expenses that are not operating costs.

One scenario combines the debt service transfer with laying off 2,110 city workers, which would result in a $105.4 million savings and reduction in city services.

Two other scenarios combine lesser numbers of layoffs with salary reductions and furloughs. The combination of salary reductions and furloughs in each option contributes an additional $13.2 million toward the goal of a balanced budget.

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