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VOL. 129 | NO. 133 | Thursday, July 10, 2014

Chamber Head: Hard Choices on City Benefits Necessary

By Bill Dries

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The president and CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber says efforts by municipal union leaders to boycott business members of the chamber and get those businesses to drop their chamber membership is having only a minimal effect.


Phil Trenary counts approximately 20 businesses out of 2,200 who belong to the chamber who have dropped their membership.

And Trenary says the chamber is now hearing from more businesses who are backing the chamber’s stand in favor of changes to city health insurance and pension benefits.

“As difficult as it is, they are actually very supportive and glad that the chamber is willing to step in and be the voice of small business,” Trenary said Tuesday, July 8, the same day that several hundred protestors, many of them firefighters and police officers, picketed the chamber headquarters at the Falls Building Downtown.

“From their perspective, they’ve worked hard and they have benefits that were granted to them by previous administrations and the can was kicked down the road,” Trenary said of the protesters. “But that’s not their fault. … We understand, and there’s no malice with them at all.”

The protests later moved to City Hall as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. held a press conference Tuesday afternoon on the sick-out that has grown to a quarter of the police force across all shifts since the month began.

The benefits change toward fully funding the city’s pension liability is the first political goal the chamber has tackled as it seeks to have an impact on and voice in government policy decisions. And Trenary remains convinced the changes, some approved by the Memphis City Council in June and others to be voted on in October, are hard but necessary choices among those on the table, including a tax hike or a cut in services.

“We’ve got to stop the outward migration of the middle class. We’ve been losing jobs every single year for 10 years. That has to stop,” he said. “We can’t do that if the city’s finances are not certain. That’s something we hear over and over from the site consultants. That’s what we hear from the companies that are leaving.”

Trenary also acknowledged that if he were a city employee, he might feel like those protesting outside his office felt.

“This very difficult step that (the city) took really brings our public servants closer in line to what an average citizen would have,” he added. “The benefits that they will have are actually still significantly better than what the majority of citizens have. While we understand it’s a cut and I would respond the same way if I was in their shoes, it’s still very, very fair.”

The Memphis City Council plans to field any alternative proposals from any citizen starting during council committee sessions Tuesday, July 15. Trenary said the chamber will review those proposals as well.

The leaders of the police and fire unions have made tax breaks used to lure corporations and corporate expansions through payments-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOTs) their choice for what should replace the benefit cuts to fund the pension liability.

“Let’s go to the big dollars,” Memphis Fire Fighters Association President Thomas Malone said last month on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines,” referring to PILOTs. “Because it’s the big businesses getting the PILOTs. It’s the small businesses getting the shaft. … Let’s all get skin in the game.”

“They don’t understand the program. It’s ridiculous. Checks are not written to companies,” Trenary said of the criticism. “Anyone who says that does not understand the program. That’s probably the most frustrating thing. … It’s a valuable tool. It’s one that’s used very sparingly and only very effectively.”

Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams sees the tax breaks as a priority that should compete on a list of priorities including keeping existing city benefits or less of a cut in the city’s benefits.

“Why are we continuing economic expansion on the backs of city employees and the citizens?” Williams asked. “When are those businesses going to say, ‘If this city is having a hard time, we are going to pony up to the table?’”

Trenary argues business expansion is part of a chain that builds the city’s middle class and retains it thus improving the tax base far beyond whatever tax incentives are involved.

“Yes, this is difficult and it’s a hard choice,” he said. “But if we want to repair streets, if we want to be able to support public safety, if we want more officers, if we want to be able to ensure the pensions already promised are there – something like this had to happen.”

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