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VOL. 126 | NO. 185 | Thursday, September 22, 2011

Council Continues Fiscal Policy Talks

By Bill Dries

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Nearly three months after a city budget and tax rate for the new fiscal year were set by the Memphis City Council, the council and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. continue to debate and make decisions about long-term city fiscal policy.

Even as the council approved the budget and tax rate in June, Wharton said it was just the beginning of the long-term choices that are still unfolding.

This week, Wharton delayed a vote on third and final reading of an ordinance that would have set a minimum retirement age for city employees and make other changes to pensions and benefits for new city employees or those with the city for less than 10 years.

Wharton said he sought the delay because he is talking with municipal union leaders about the changes and the impact they will have.

“The only thing we are interested in is the soundness of the plan. This is not about haste for the sake of haste,” Wharton said. “We were amenable so the actuaries can get together face-to-face and test the premises upon which our proposals were based. If they need modifying, we’ll be glad to do it. If not, we’ll move forward.”

Union leaders claim the city’s investment portfolio has rebounded more than the city’s estimates indicate.

Meanwhile, the council passed on the first of three readings an ordinance brought by Wharton that would insure any changes that might be approved to the pension plan would not mean an additional cut in the pay of city employees who are already taking a 4.6 percent pay cut that began with the start of the fiscal year July 1.

“We have to actually change the ordinance to make sure that those employees who retire while this cut is in effect will not suffer,” Wharton said. “Once we get through this, we want to make this up to the employees. If someone were to leave and lose their pension, it would be hard to make up.”

As Wharton talked, a group of local religious leaders were rallying in front of City Hall and preparing to deliver petitions to the council protesting the pay cut.

And the Memphis Police Association continues to air television ads in this campaign season that accuse the city of not keeping its word to employees about pay and benefits.

The ads, however, don’t mention Wharton or any council members by name. The union is one of a coalition of municipal unions backing former city council member Edmund Ford Sr.’s challenge of Wharton in the mayor’s race.

MPA vice president Michael Williams, meanwhile, was one of two municipal union leaders who showed up to help sink the referendum ordinance that would have put to city voters in November 2012 a charter amendment requiring a two-thirds council vote to approve any property tax hike higher than the percentage of inflation or the growth of population.

“I think that’s against the citizens,” Williams said. “If you put a two-thirds majority in place, I think it’s another attempt to actually control this body. The citizens have asked for a simple majority.”

Chad Johnson of the AFSCME local called the proposal “a naked attempt to frustrate the Democratic shift that has occurred in this city and seeks to give disproportionate power to a few council members who not longer represent the majority of the citizenry.”

The ballot referendum proposed by council member Kemp Conrad was voted down months after the council approved a one-time-only, 18-cent property tax hike in its budget season deliberations.

Council member Harold Collins called the proposal “asinine.”

“Typically that’s why we run for the seats we have – so we can make the choices,” he said. “The people elect us to speak for them on their behalf during these times.”

Conrad and other council members favoring the measure questioned how a referendum vote could disenfranchise the same voters who would participate in deciding the question.

“This is about taking something to the voters,” Conrad argued, saying the 18-cent tax hike managed to get a nine-vote, two-thirds majority even though the supermajority wasn’t required. “Let’s let the people out there in the city of Memphis determine how much more they want us to continually raise their taxes and not tighten our belt. … I don’t think the cost of government should continue to go up.”

PROPERTY SALES 56 289 2,908
MORTGAGES 55 226 2,009
BUILDING PERMITS 108 1,002 6,703
BANKRUPTCIES 42 248 1,225