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VOL. 129 | NO. 140 | Monday, July 21, 2014

Wharton Ready to Shift Talk on Benefits Debate

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is trying to turn the page on the emotional City Hall debate over cuts in health insurance benefits to city employees and retirees and also close the book on the city budget for the two-week old fiscal year.


But his own tendency toward political compromise and conflicting messages from within his administration are getting in the way.

At week’s end, Wharton clarified that he will not propose a ballot question for later this year on a half-cent citywide sales tax hike, after saying earlier in the week he could possibly support it.

Wharton’s first response was the same day that Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams called on the Memphis City Council to put such a tax hike to city voters with the estimated $47 million in revenue it would generate being used to restore cuts to city employee and retiree health insurance benefits starting Jan. 1.

No one on the council has come forward with the referendum ordinance necessary to do that.

Restoring the cuts would mean reopening the set of city budget resolutions the council approved in June, including the health insurance benefit changes.

“I respect the people’s right to vote,” Wharton said in the Thursday, July 17, statement on a sales tax ballot question. “But, it is necessary that everyone understand that for us to comply with state law and move forward in addressing our issues with pension and healthcare reform, we must implement the plan we have outlined in the budget resolutions as passed.”

Wharton also said his administration has worked to “strengthen the healthcare safety net put in place to provide assistance as needed to our retirees.”

But the council delayed approval of council member Edmund Ford Jr.’s $2 million proposal last week after it seemed to change dramatically.

Several council members remembered the proposal as a one-year fund to help employees and retirees with a subsidy to get through the transition either to continued city benefits on new terms or health insurance on the federal exchange or marketplace.

But when city human resources director Quintin Robinson said the money could not be used for subsidies but would instead be used for education and training, the council put off approval.

Robinson said city subsidies from such a fund could run afoul of complex federal health care regulations that include provisions for subsidies.

Not only did the council delay action on Ford’s resolution, it reconvened an ad hoc committee of municipal union leaders as well as leaders of retirees to begin the process of knitting its own safety net with a report due to the council by September.

Last week, Wharton indicated all line-of-duty disability retirees would remain in the current city plan, one of the items on the committee’s list of six issues.

“It is, however, time for us to move forward to assure that our employees and all of our retirees are informed, assisted and covered in the context of the budget and plan we have right now,” Wharton added at the end of his written statement.

That is proving to be difficult, with Wharton wondering aloud last week about whether he is going about reassuring citizens the right way.

“We did not have any good choices whatsoever,” Wharton said at the outset of a July 8 press conference at City Hall as dozens of protestors who had been picketing the Greater Memphis Chamber headquarters a few blocks away showed up with signs and lots of emotion. “There will not be anybody who is not covered. That includes line-of-duty disability. That includes the pre-65 retirees … To the degree that it’s been stated that there will be no insurance, that simply is not accurate.”

The next day, sick calls by firefighters spiked before gradually going down.

And during the council session a week later, it was apparent many city retirees clearly didn’t believe Wharton. Among those in the standing-room-only crowd was Jan Long, a retired council staff member of 18 years.

“I worked for the city when we didn’t make much money, and I don’t have much of a pension,” she said. “I’m very thankful for what I do have. I don’t want you to take it from me because I need it to live on.”

Wharton has continued a strategy of not appearing at City Council committee or regular sessions – a strategy he began with the June council votes on the health care changes.

“I made 14 visits to the employees – went right in their face in a very quiet setting,” Wharton said earlier this month on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines.” “I didn’t call a press conference on those. So I don’t feel like I need to add to anything that’s going to hype up the debate.”

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