Memphis City Council members tallied $24.2 million in city operating budget cuts Tuesday, June 18, in a marathon seven-hour session before an overflow crowd of angry city employees.
But the council adjourned before taking a final vote on the operating budget as amended or setting a city property tax rate.
The council meets again in special session June 25 to complete action on the city’s budget season before the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.
Also left undecided at the end of Tuesday’s session was a plan by council chairman Edmund Ford Jr. to make more cuts and to restore approximately $11.8 million in city spending for an expansion of services at community centers, libraries and similar services.
Ford’s plan had some elements in common with the plan by council member Jim Strickland.
Four parts of Strickland’s plan were approved by the council Tuesday including laying off 100 city employees and reducing the city payroll by another 300 through attrition. The number of affected employees was the same as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. proposed. But Wharton’s plan called for a $14 million buyout of the 300 city employees Strickland and the rest of the council voted not to include.
The council also adopted Strickland amendments to cut approximately 50 non-public safety city positions that are funded but vacant, cut $3.3 million in materials and supplies to every part of city government from one to 10 percent and up the percentage of health care insurance premiums employees and retirees pay to 30 percent.
The council voted down a Strickland proposal to cut $415,400 in extras for city divisions including travel and food and association dues and membership fees.
Also voted down was a call by council member Myron Lowery to restore the 4.6 percent pay cut all city employees took two years ago.
A proposal by council member Wanda Halbert to restore $226,000 in funding to the Memphis Music commission was approved by the council.
Ford’s proposal would cut the remaining 400 or so funded but vacant positions including public safety slots. It would also cut five percent from the Memphis Police Department, the only division of city government to grow in recent years, and eliminate college tuition as well as longevity pay for city employees.
Part of Ford’s plan is also financed with $6 million in the next fiscal year the city would not have as an expense with Memphis Light Gas and Water Division taking over the responsibility for streetlights.
Utility president Jerry Collins said the soonest the utility could take over the responsibility would be in January, halfway through the fiscal year. The expense off city books in a full fiscal year is estimated at $12 million.
Ford’s proposal also includes turning over the city’s weights and measures department to the state and taking one paid holiday from city employees.
The difference in calculations is around what the amendments mean to the city tax rate it will take to fund the total operating budget.
Wharton proposed a $3.51 property tax rate with 25 cents more on the existing tax rate of $3.11 to make up for property value lost in the 2013 property reappraisal and another 15 cent tax hike to pay debt and replenish city reserve funds.
Ford estimated that with his plan and the other amendments already approved, the council was at a $3.24 property tax rate.
Council member Shea Flinn put the tax rate with the same considerations at $3.30.
City employees and union leaders watching the budget deliberations grew angrier as the council session continued and they were not allowed to speak before the budget amendments were voted on by the council.
“This is the worst administration I have ever seen in my life,” said Sam Posey, former president of the Memphis Firefighters Association.
Other municipal union leaders said the city would lose public safety employees who are already considering leaving because of the budget deliberations and the earlier 4.6 percent pay cut.
“I have never been more insulted, discouraged and demoralized,” said Memphis Police Association member Veronica Carson.
Ford responded angrily when he was criticized for huddling with Flinn to try to reconcile budget numbers as the public spoke.
“You might not agree,” he said. “But the 93,000 people I represent that need community centers and libraries and these other things need someone to take care of them.”
He also said the council actions are forced by a Tennessee Comptroller’s report in May critical of city finances that if the council doesn’t act could turn into state action which the union leaders wouldn’t like.
“We can do it or you can let the state take care of this and we know how they feel about collective bargaining,” Ford said.