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VOL. 128 | NO. 78 | Monday, April 22, 2013

Severance Pay Ups Ante in Auto Inspections Stand-Off

By Bill Dries

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Some on the Memphis City Council weren’t certain Tuesday, April 16, about going ahead with a severance package for the city employees who now work at city-run auto inspection stations.

Charles Weaver, from left, Tammie Savage and Dekeishia Tunstall test automobiles at the new City of Memphis Motor Vehicle Inspection Station at 2355 Appling City Cove.

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

The council entered the budget season for the new fiscal year that begins July 1 just minutes earlier with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s budget address.

And when that new fiscal year begins, the council has already voted twice to end all city funding for emissions testing and the auto inspection stations.

But with less than three months left to the end of funding, Shelby County government is not prepared to take over the duties and the state of Tennessee is hoping county and city leaders can work out an agreement for at least the next two years.

That’s the earliest leaders have indicated the state would be prepared to take over.

They ultimately approved the severance package that provides for two and a half years of pay and two and a half years of health care benefits for employees who would lose their city jobs if there are no places for them in city government.

The estimated cost of the severance packages is $400,000, according to city General Services director Martha Lott and that does not include a group of 11 city employees who work at the stations who could otherwise retire.

Council member Lee Harris, the sponsor of the resolution, proposed the severance packages be funded with money from the city’s reserve fund.

Council members who are pushing the hardest to stick with the funding cut urged the council to stay the course on those earlier decisions and add the severance packages.

Council member Jim Strickland said if the council ends funding at the end of June, in two years state-run emissions testing will be required of all vehicle owners in Shelby County, not just those who live in the city.

“Apparently at least for two years the state will only require the city of Memphis drivers to go through inspections,” he said. “If the city continues to (fund) it then only those in the city will forever be the only ones to go through inspections.”

But council member Wanda Halbert argued against the two-year wait and demonstrated the deeper questions driving the council’s actions.

“We keep hearing from the state what the city of Memphis cannot do. We keep hearing them tell us that we can’t charge a payroll tax because it’s unconstitutional. We can’t make these other people go through auto inspections because we don’t have the authority,” she said. “How in the world does the state of Tennessee want to tell us that even though we give up this responsibility that we will still be the only people required to go through this? I don’t care if it’s for one month.”

Halbert moved to delay the severance package resolution to explore legal questions.

“The longer we delay this, the more confused those employees are,” Harris replied. “There are so many balls in the air. I’ve heard two years from councilman Strickland. I’ve heard six years from Sen. Kelsey,” he added, referring to state Sen. Brian Kelsey. Kelsey has said several times that state Commissioner of Environment and Conservation Robert Martineau has assured him county vehicle owners who live outside Memphis will not have to undergo the emissions testing for at least six years.

With that assurance, Kelsey called off his plan to propose a state law permanently exempting county drivers outside Memphis from the inspection requirement.

Council member Shea Flinn said council members should be trying to win votes on the Shelby County Commission. The same two bodies did most of the bargaining several years ago when the council voted to end all funding of the local health department. When the city funding ended, the health department became the funding responsibility of county government exclusively.

“We are experiencing a cram down by the state and by the county,” Flinn said of the standoff over auto emissions testing. “If your goal is to get everybody to go through the inspections, absent court action, that is not going to happen within a two-year period. … I don’t like the system anymore than anyone else does. But that is reality.”

Flinn’s argument is that the council should not back off its earlier decision to end city funding because then neither the county nor the state will undertake the program or take up the funding of it – about a $2 million line item.

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