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VOL. 129 | NO. 136 | Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Sick Calls Drop, But Benefits Debate Still Volatile

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis Police Department returned to normal operations Sunday, July 13, for the first time in more than a week with fewer than 350 officers calling in sick.

And the number of sick calls among Memphis firefighters dropped to 60 Sunday, the lowest total for the department since sick calls among firefighters spiked Wednesday, July 9.

Retired firefighter T.A. Norris shows his opposition to health insurance changes for city employees at a recent “Blue Flu” press conference.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But those numbers could surge again depending on what happens at City Hall Tuesday when a Memphis City Council committee begins fielding alternative proposals from citizens to the health care benefits cuts and changes the council approved last month.

Union police and firefighters plan to again protest outside City Hall Tuesday afternoon and are expected to show up in large numbers for the committee sessions as they have in past weeks.

The number of fire department sick calls spiked the day after a City Hall press conference by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. that drew several dozen protestors, most of them wearing yellow firefighters T-shirts.

The sick-outs reflect the volatility of the civic discussion and it remains high even as the sick calls decline.

Memphis City Council member Edmund Ford was targeted early in the reaction before the blue flu for his comments about the large number of police and fire department retirees who do not live in the city and thus don’t pay city property taxes that fund the benefits at the center of the controversy.

Seventy two percent of city government’s retirees do not live in the city of Memphis – 60 percent of retirees younger than 65 and 77 percent of retirees older than 65.

“I feel like they have full latitude to live wherever they want,” Ford said as he reviewed the numbers at a July 1 committee session, noting that he hears from Memphians who have a different view of the controversy.

“These are the same people I talk to saying, ‘Until we get our house in order, please do not go up on my taxes … and subsidizing three-fourths of those individuals that do not even live in the city.’”

The sales tax proposal police and fire union leaders have reportedly been readying for presentation possibly on Tuesday is where Ford's point is relevant.

Union leaders would be asking for, and presumably campaigning for, city voters to approve a sales tax hike on which many union members cannot vote.

Memphians have voted down two sales tax hike in a year. The first was a countywide sales tax hike in which Memphians were the majority of those voting on the measure. The remainder of the voters on the first sales tax hike proposal were citizens in unincorporated Shelby County.

The second, on the November 2013 ballot, was a city sales tax hike.

When Muddy’s Bake Shop posted an Instagram photo Sunday of Wharton in the shop touting the business’ recent mention in the New York Times, the posting was followed by threats of a business boycott and taken down quickly.

But the Instagram photo was put up on the Facebook page “I Have Been Negatively Affected by The City Of Memphis Council Vote,” under the heading “Where NOT to eat…”

One of the comments from a poster identified as John Young read, “If you choose to support the ‘Devils’ who have unjustly taken money out of the pockets of employees and retirees of this City – including those who protect you and your businesses from the thugs putting a bullet in your skull while they rob you and those who keep your places from burning the ground – then we and our family members and friends will take money out of your pockets. Now, are there any questions?”

Other’s posting on the Facebook page focused on a reference to “chilling” with Wharton in the Instagram photo.

“She did say, ‘Just Chilling.’ And that wasn’t by accident,” posted “Danny H. Stamps.”

Those comments also drew some resistance. A poster using the name Maye Jackson said the reactions to the photo came across as “bullying and strong arming.”

“I’d remove the pic too if I’d been nailed to the cross the way she was. And then you want her to come back and say she supports you? Seriously? My lips would be sealed,” Jackson wrote.

Some of those vowing to boycott any business showing any kind of support for Wharton expressed disbelief that any business owner could be unaware they are one side or the other and there is no in-between.

Phil Trenary, president of the Greater Memphis Chamber, has said the unions’ campaign to get chamber members to drop their chamber membership has had only a minimal impact, with indications of a backlash from small-business owners who he says have urged the chamber to continue pressing the point in favor of the health insurance and pension changes.

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