VOL. 129 | NO. 24 | Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Council Hears More on Police and Fire Budget Decisions
By Bill Dries
Memphis City Council member got deeper Tuesday, Feb. 4, into the specifics of Memphis Police and Fire Department budget decisions.
But they didn’t get a clearer picture of what the direction forward will be as they and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. prepare to make some hard decisions about public safety in dealing with the city’s unfunded pension liability.
Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong cited crime statistics showing drops in every major category of crime corresponding to the increase in the police force and insisted the rise in police on the streets in the Blue CRUSH strategy is responsible.
Further cuts in funding and a lack of new recruit classes for uniform officers, Armstrong said could lead to such moves as going to longer police shifts.
Memphis Fire Director Alvin Benson said “brown-outs” or shifting fire calls to different fire houses with ladder trucks to respond to calls is a direct result of his department dealing with a rationing of overtime.
The brown-outs depend on how many firefighters are on vacation, sick leave or paid leave on a daily basis.
“I decided that we will reduce that overtime line and control it,” Bensons aid. “Before when sick leave and vacation exceeded, we absorbed the cost. … The decision was to really manage that and make every attempt not to exceed that overtime which had been reduced $5.7 million.”
If more than 28 firefighters are on sick leave on a given day, it means there will be a brown out in which ladder trucks are off line and unavailable. That is planning for a maximum of 50 other firefighters on vacation. A brown out causes the shift to other fire stations that have firefighters to man a ladder truck.
Benson has implemented the brown outs 136 times since Sept. 1, he told the council.
Council member Shea Flinn pointed to the study by the administration’s financial consultant, Public Financial Management, or PFM, that says more police officers does not necessarily mean a drop in the crime rate and that cities where police ranks have not increased have experienced a drop in crime.
“We’ve got a tale of two cities on this,” Flinn said. “And they are both coming from the same administration. … None of this is being done in a vacuum. Somehow we are going to have to square these circles.”
City Chief Administrative Officer George Little said the fire station brown outs and limits on overtime as well as decisions not to start new recruit classes or promotion rounds are “sort of one-time items.”
But Little also cited the coming proposal in the Tennessee legislature by State Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris of Collierville that would give local governments with unfunded pension liabilities five fiscal years to fund those liabilities or risk the state withholding funding to go toward the liabilities.
That pressure, he said, forces the city to look at public safety funding that in the case of the Memphis Police Department is not only the largest division in terms of funding and employees in city government. It is also the only division that has seen its funding increased by the council in recent fiscal years.
“To quote Willie Sutton,” Little said of the famed bank robber. “We’ve got to look where the money is. We think we can balance all of this out, but it is going to require some tough trade offs.”
Meanwhile, the administration plans to put the city’s actuary along with the actuaries used by the city’s municipal unions in the same room with council members March 4 in a committee session that is expected to last two to three hours.
Council chairman Jim Strickland referred to it as “actuary day.” It will be a chance for council members to question the actuaries about their differing estimates of the city’s liability and for the actuaries to question each other.
The council is still in the process of hiring its own actuary as well.
In other action Tuesday, council members sent back to committee a proposal by Bill Boyd that would have waived the new monthly streetlight fees on Memphis Light Gas and Water bills for newly annexed residents of South Cordova in areas without street lights.
Other council members said they were prepared to seek similar waivers for residents in their districts in similar situations. And the council may consider some kind of waiver for resident of planned unit developments where homeowners pay a fee for streetlights as part of a homeowners group.
Council member Bill Morrison and other council members said the waiver Boyd sought raises questions about the intent of the monthly fee – are those paying the fee paying for streetlights where they live or paying for streetlights on streets they travel?
Areas exempted from the fee would raise the fee for other parts of the city.
“I don’t think this is a very well thought out plan so far,” Morrison said. “We’re going to be raising the fee every two weeks as people start exempting their area.”
The council approved an anti-blight grant program Tuesday for “tax dead” properties – properties with more in back taxes and associated fees than the property is appraised for or could ever be sold for.
The five-year pilot program approved last month by the Shelby County Commission offers up to $200,000 a year in a pool for grants to community development organizations in the amount of the back taxes and fees due which are then paid back to the city and county. The program would offer another pool of $100,000 a year in grants to pay property taxes on the properties for the next five years.
The program now goes to the Tennessee Attorney General’s office for legal review and then back to both city and county bodies for another vote.
The council also approved Tuesday transferring $700,000 in capital funding for streetlights to three streetscape projects. They are $440,000 for construction in the Poplar-Sweetbriar area; $145,000 for construction and $25,000 for architecture and engineering on the section of Walker Avenue by the University of Memphis; and $90,000 for architecture and engineering on the Medical Center streetscape.