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VOL. 128 | NO. 139 | Thursday, July 18, 2013

Council Grapples With Attrition Plan Reality

By Bill Dries

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Every version of a city budget the Memphis City Council and Mayor A C Wharton Jr. considered in June included a plan to lose 300 city employees through attrition for long-term savings toward meeting rising future debt obligations.

Police Director Toney Armstrong, from left, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. and Fire Director Alvin Benson face budget questions.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

But the council is now grappling with the effects of that decision that no one on the council spoke against.

How many city employees to lay off and what property tax rate to set were the questions the council debated during a nine-hour council session in June.

The grappling began this month when Memphis Fire Director Alvin Benson announced he would close Fire Station No. 6 in North Memphis as soon as possible as a result of the attrition plan. It continued days later when Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong said his list of last-resort options included closing several police precincts.

With a committee room filled with more than a dozen North Memphis residents who live near the fire station on Danny Thomas Boulevard north of Chelsea Avenue, council members considered briefly Tuesday, July 16, using $1.1 million from the $48 million city reserve fund to keep the station open.

“I’ve seen smaller crowds affect larger change than this,” said council member Lee Harris, whose district includes the firehouse.

The council dropped the idea after Wharton agreed to keep Fire Station No. 6 open at least until Labor Day.

During that time, the administration and council will explore ways to keep it open.

The closing was part of a plan by Benson that is a reaction to the council’s approval of losing 300 jobs across city government through attrition during the fiscal year that began July 1.

Benson told the council that the closing would not be at the expense of public safety. But he said the response time for calls in the area could lag but would be within acceptable public safety standards. He also noted there are three firehouses within a mile and a half of Fire Station No. 6.

“It’s not like anyone is being abandoned here,” council member Shea Flinn said during the committee session.

But council member Joe Brown proposed using money from the city’s reserve whose depleted status drew the attention and criticism of the Tennessee comptroller’s office. Comptroller Justin Wilson threatened in May to take measures to replenish the fund if the city did not.

“We’re only talking about $1.l million coming out of reserves,” Brown said. “That’s not a lot of money.”

But Wharton and Benson warned that using the reserve funding would just put the city back in the same spot in the next fiscal year.

Council member Reid Hedgepeth was among those warning against the use of reserves.

“What will the comptroller think if three weeks into our budget year we are already taking money from our reserves?” he asked. “We know we’ve got issues after next year with reserves. We cannot continue to do this.”

Meanwhile, Armstrong acknowledged again Tuesday that his options for dealing with the same headcount drop of 300 city employees through attrition include closing three police precincts.

Armstrong was more specific Tuesday about the timing, saying the closings of Mount Moriah, Ridgeway and Old Allen stations are options for the next fiscal year. The closings would cause police brass to redraw district lines for the remaining precincts, a reconfiguration Armstrong just implemented starting this year as he sought to make the precincts more equal in terms of the calls for services they respond to.

Armstrong also confirmed that he will not form any police academy classes or promotions during the current fiscal year as part of the budget cutting measures.

But the administration isn’t counting that as a savings over several years because eventually Armstrong will hire and make promotions in the department.

His hope is that he can resume both processes in the next fiscal year because of retirements of police officers that are mostly coming in the ranks of supervisors.

“Please understand, we do not have reductions in crime by answering calls,” Armstrong said. “We have reductions in crime by strategic crime initiatives.”

Council member Harold Collins, meanwhile, again mentioned the possibility of further action by the state as an alternative to the options being considered.

“If we don’t get control of this,” he said, “we are going to get another letter from the comptroller.”

PROPERTY SALES 81 201 16,108
MORTGAGES 40 104 10,026
BUILDING PERMITS 130 336 38,272
BANKRUPTCIES 28 56 7,528