VOL. 129 | NO. 133 | Thursday, July 10, 2014
Budget Reality Informs Response to Sick-Outs
By Bill Dries
For about a year, Memphis Fire Department Director Alvin Benson has been taking ladder trucks out of service to deal with firefighters on vacation and on sick leave at much lower levels than those that surfaced Wednesday.
That’s when the “B” shift of firefighters began their multi-day shift at firehouses across the city and 40 called in sick – in addition to the 25 firefighters who called in sick days earlier.
Benson was surprised by the numbers. But his response was anything but a surprise.
For the last two budget seasons at City Hall, Benson has described with great detail how he takes up to four ladder trucks out of service to match the number of firefighters he has. That’s how close fire department staffing levels have been for some time. And the “brown outs,” as they are called, were the alternative when Memphis City Council members revolted against the plan by Benson and the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. to close a firehouse in North Memphis.
Benson’s department and the Memphis Police Department each got funding for new recruit training classes in the fiscal year that began July 1.
Wharton has said the trade-off for getting the new personnel was finding other money in the budget to go toward the city’s unfunded pension liability – thus the cuts in health insurance benefits for city employees and retirees approved by the council in June and some form of pension changes the council is scheduled to vote on in October.
Either way, cuts to funding public safety – the fire and police departments, the two single largest divisions of city government by budget and by personnel – were going to be on the table at the outset of the just-completed budget season at City Hall.
Meanwhile, Benson pointed to talks earlier in the day Wednesday among the Wharton administration and the police and fire union leadership.
But the session wasn’t the first discussion.
Wharton said earlier in the week that he had already been talking with the union leaders.
And Wharton hopes they might be among those who present detailed alternative plans at a council committee session Tuesday, July 15, specifically set up as the police blue flu began over the Fourth of July weekend.
Memphis Fire Fighters Association president Thomas Malone has had much more to say about possible alternatives than Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams.
Williams has taken the position that plans and financial moves are what the mayor and council are elected to do.
The first plan to emerge during the week came from former Memphis City Council members Carol Chumney and TaJuan Stout-Mitchell.
They each have some different ideas but agree on several common points, including a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut, some scaling back of tax breaks for economic development and a 25-cent to 30-cent city property tax hike.
“Of course, property taxes are high, but that would not be that much on each house,” Chumney said, calculating that the tax hike would mean an extra $8 to $10 a month. “I know how hard it is on people, right. But I know how important public safety is.”
The proposal would reopen not only budget deliberations halfway through the first month of the fiscal year but also reopen the property tax rate. However, the health insurance benefit changes approved by the council in June do not take effect until January, and any pension changes that the council might approve in October would not take effect until the next fiscal year begins July 1, 2015.
Chumney also wants the Tennessee Comptroller’s office at the table for talks on alternatives to the pension and health insurance changes as well as changes in the state law passed earlier this year that gives the city six fiscal years, starting with the current one, to reach full funding of the annual required contribution toward the pension liability, estimated at $78 million. Chumney said it may take seven fiscal years.
“If we did that as the city (government), then we would have some time next year to take a look at it again and see if the economy picks up,” she said. “The stock market is now bouncing around.”
When asked if she would be scheduling a time Tuesday morning to take the plan to the council’s personnel committee, Chumney was uncertain.
“I’ve posted it on my Facebook. … I’ll probably make some calls to some council members to talk with them about it,” she said. “If they feel like they need me there, of course I’m happy to come and put it on the table in person. … But I feel like it’s public knowledge … so everybody’s going to know what I’m proposing.”