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VOL. 128 | NO. 167 | Tuesday, August 27, 2013

City Sanitation Changes Start With Fragile Pact

By Bill Dries

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Changes in city sanitation services would move toward a plan that could change decades of a system in which anything Memphians put by the curb gets picked up for a monthly solid waste fee, no matter how much is on the curb.

But first, the groundwork for that transition has to get seven votes on the Memphis City Council.

The agreement worked out between Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents sanitation workers, includes a $1,000 monthly pension supplement for older workers who retire.

The terms include an expansion of privatization to about 40,000 homes in the Southwind area that the city plans to annex next year.

“Obviously we have not gotten or received any flak from (Local) 1733 when we speak of allowing the private haulers to take on Southwind once it comes on line,” said City Public Works director Dwan Gilliom on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “In terms of outsourcing more services, I am satisfied with the plan we have.”

But the terms say nothing about future privatization beyond that.

That leaves the union and the administration with different and conflicting numbers about who can do what services for less.

Key to the plan before the council is avoiding those numbers at least for now.

When the topic shifts to further privatization of sanitation services, the consensus on the plan the Memphis City Council considers again next month can become tenuous.

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News’ video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

“With all things being equal, we would love for the men and women of 1733 to do that work,” AFSCME executive director Gail Tyree said, adding that she believes city employees could do the same work more inexpensively.

Gilliom cites a city comparison from a year ago.

“It wasn’t as cheap as we thought it was,” Gilliom said. “But it’s a little bit cheaper for us to outsource the services than it is for us to provide the same level of services with in-house crews.”

“But is it outsourcing with the exact same services?” Tyree replied.

Gilliom said it was.

Memphis City Council member Kemp Conrad, who has advocated more privatization of sanitation services in the past, said the current deal is one he can live with.

“All things being equal, I’d rather see city crews do the work. My goal is to deliver the best service as efficiently as possible in a way that’s fair to the people that are paying for it and the retirees,” Conrad said. “About 25 percent of the city is already outsourced. So it’s not like this is a new concept.”

But Conrad still has concerns about the retirement supplement, which he said amounts to a defined benefits program and which comes with some political realities.

“Usually benefits only go up. They don’t usually go down. What happens in a year if there aren’t those savings? What if the cost of fuel spikes and goes up like we’ve seen the last few years?” Conrad asked. “Do you think we are going to the 86-year-old retiree? Are we going to reduce his check? Probably not. So what is going to happen? It’s going to be on the taxpayer to pay for it.”

“This is not a defined benefit program,” city Chief Administrative Officer George Little responded, saying such programs have a city and employee contribution. “This is being funded entirely out of the savings that would be realized. … We all have skin in the game.”

Tyree said the supplement for workers who currently can’t afford to retire on just Social Security was key to her union’s agreement on the other parts of the plan.

“The concern we have is that we have senior employees and if they go out and they get this lump sum – two or three years with family members being strapped for cash – they are going to be back at our door asking what can the local do,” she said. “We are more concerned with long term. We don’t want to offer them a short-term solution where we dump a bunch of money on these seniors and then in four or five years they are broke.”

Tyree said 39 union sanitation workers would qualify for the retirement supplement immediately.

PROPERTY SALES 92 242 2,507
MORTGAGES 108 336 2,943
BUILDING PERMITS 202 643 6,711
BANKRUPTCIES 43 176 1,963