VOL. 129 | NO. 245 | Wednesday, December 17, 2014
City Council Approves Pension Changes
By Bill Dries
Memphis City Council members put to rest Tuesday, Dec. 16, at least the City Hall portion of the debate about city employee benefits and the liability of those benefits by approving changes to the city’s pension plan.
The changes approved on third and final reading of the pension ordinance include in the new hybrid pension plan city employees with 7 1/2 years of service or fewer as well as city employees hired after July 1, 2016.
The 9-4 council vote on the proposal by council member Wanda Halbert follows a council vote in June to change employee and retiree health insurance benefits as well.
Municipal union leaders favored an alternative by council member Myron Lowery that would have applied the new hybrid plan to new hires only and left all vested and unvested employees on the city’s current defined-benefits plan.
Memphis Fire Fighters Association President Thomas Malone said earlier that if the council approved Halbert’s plan the unions were certain to sue the city.
The hybrid plan is a combination of a market-based plan and a defined contributions plan similar to a 401(k). However, unlike private-sector employees with 401(k) plans, city employees do not participate in the Social Security program.
Halbert’s plan allows city employees with 7 1/2 years or fewer with the city as of the 2016 start date to freeze their own contributions and city contributions to the existing pension plan with them including multipliers and collect on it when they retire.
Nevertheless, Halbert, who had once been counted by the unions as a vote against including current unvested city employees, was the target of much of the criticism from city employees who packed the council chambers Tuesday.
The employees and retirees have been a vocal and constant presence at City Hall through the summer starting with the council’s first debates on health insurance changes.
Actuaries have told city leaders that the unfunded liabilities in the health insurance and pension plans are unsustainable some kind of changes.
In other action Tuesday, council members approved $1.5 million more in city funding for rape kit testing. The money comes from higher revenue collections than anticipated on the city’s tax on mixed drinks.
Council chairman Jim Strickland amended the resolution to say that if the city secures private or federal and state funding to test the rape kits in the city’s backlog that the city funding will be used for forensic analysis as well as police personnel to continue processing rape kits beyond the backlog.
The council also approved on the second of three readings changes to the city’s taxi ordinance that are expected to see more debate including input from the city’s cab companies before a vote on third and final reading at the Jan. 6 council meeting.
Meanwhile, council member Lee Harris turned in his letter of resignation from the council Tuesday. Harris was elected to the state Senate this past November.
His resignation is effective Jan. 12, the day before the Tennessee Legislature opens its 2015 session.
The council will vote on appointing someone to his seat at its Jan. 20 meeting.
Those applying for the appointment have to sign an affidavit saying they live in the council district and submit proof of residence. They also submit a petition signed by 25 voters who live in the district.
The council office began handing out the packets with the paperwork Wednesday and the council set a Jan. 7 deadline to file the paperwork at City Hall.
At his next-to-last council meeting, the council approved Harris’ resolution to establish a $50,000 city fund to finance holiday light displays in neighborhoods that apply for the funding through the Memphis City Beautiful Commission and the city Public Works Department.
Harris’ resolution takes the funding from the pedestrian bridge project that was to link buildings on and near the International Paper campus in East Memphis, a project that has been delayed.
But city engineer John Cameron said the city still has plans to use all of the funding set aside for the project.
In zoning and development items, the council unanimously voted down a car lot at Summer Avenue and Vaughn Road.
Council members approved an amendment to the Kirby Gate planned development by Grant Properties LLC that allows a self-service storage facility as well as an amendment to the Oak Tree Planned Development at Mt. Moriah Road and Park Avenue permitting commercial mixed-use development.
Meanwhile, the council approved on third and final reading a set of 35 amendments to the city-county Unified Development Code.
The changes include a written requirement that cellphone towers be at least 150 feet from single-family residential neighborhoods, an informal rule the council has been using for some time.
The changes also require a special use permit for car lots when there is a new owner of an existing lot instead of the current requirement of a permit for newly constructed car lots only.
The council delayed consideration of another amendment that would ban the use of “rope lighting” used commonly on convenience stores. The council will discuss the proposed ban more in future committee sessions.