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VOL. 129 | NO. 124 | Thursday, June 26, 2014

Benefits Debate Goes Larger Than City Hall

By Bill Dries

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When several hundred firefighters, police officers and other city employees and retirees formed a picket line around City Hall Tuesday, June 24, it signaled the beginning of an escalating political dispute bigger than the City Council’s decision a week earlier to cut health insurance benefits for employees and retirees.

Paisley, age 2, atop father Tony Hilliard of the Memphis Fire Department protesting the health insurance benefits cuts that were made at City Hall. Several hundred firefighters, police officers and other city employees protested Tuesday.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The action a week ago is considered final under council rules because the body approved on that same night a portion of the minutes for that meeting. Minutes are normally approved at the next meeting.

It means that even if a council member who voted for the insurance changes wanted to move to reconsider, it would probably result in a rules fight before the body could reopen the lengthy and emotional council debate that occurred before that June 17 vote.

Also weighing against a reconsideration move is that the insurance changes approved are funding the pension changes the council is scheduled to vote on at its July 1 session.

Municipal union leaders, led by the heads of the police and firefighters unions, however, don’t seem focused on parliamentary maneuvering within the council chambers.

They’ve gone broader in a way that suggests a sustained effort into the campaign season for the 2015 city elections, and so far they have the biggest megaphone.

“This administration has created an environment of false economic distress,” Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams said on “Behind the Headlines” Friday, June 20, days after the council decision. “They wanted to attack the pension funds. They wanted to attack the benefits.”

Memphis Fire Fighters Association President Thomas Malone agreed.

“This is an orchestrated effort in conjunction with big business,” he said on the same program.

Both said they will take the city to court over the changes.

An anonymous protester dressed as the Grim Reaper stands outside City Hall as city employees and their families protest benefits cuts Tuesday, June 24.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The union effort is pointed not only at Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. but at the Greater Memphis Chamber.

And the chamber is using different means to push a message in favor of the changes – at times using equally bold wording, albeit usually written.

“Increasing taxes to pay for an extreme benefit package, which our citizens will be burdened with, is not fair and it drives away jobs and the opportunity to grow our middle class,” chamber president and CEO Phil Trenary wrote in a letter to chamber members the day before the council vote. “Our support for pension reform is not a ‘fight’ against any persons, government nor union; it is a crusade for what’s fair for all citizens of this city we all choose to call home.”

But since the council vote, Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong seemed to call for reconsideration of the health insurance changes.

“Just because it is done does not mean that it cannot be undone,” Armstrong said Friday. “I’m hoping that somehow we can sit down and construct a plan that does not allow us to do something as drastic as this and can reinstate those benefits.”

What was left unsaid was whether Armstrong was advocating undoing the changes over a longer period than the next council session.

Armstrong also said police will continue to do their duty despite the vocal off-the-job protests, and he will insist on that.

Williams agreed with that, but he also believes it’s not possible to keep the political turmoil off the clock when it comes to work.

“You’re going to make me have to think twice about running to the aid of citizens,” Williams said. “Some people are going to say, ‘Well, that’s your job.’ It is my job, and I’m going to do my job. But you are going to make me think about it because if I get hurt, there is no assurance that my family is going to be taken care of or that I am going to be taken care of.”

As the week began, Wharton said he stood by the changes. But he also talked of the changes as a council decision.

“I’m not going to get into what might be undone. I’m the executive branch of government. That comes from the word ‘execute.’ It means I have to carry out what the legislative branch has done,” Wharton said Monday. “I’ve been saying this since I rolled this out – if somebody has that better plan I would love to see it. Right now, I have to execute what the council has passed.”

But Wharton is also continuing to try to be heard with a message that is yet a third one in a political drama that has now gone bigger than the confines of City Hall.

“One thing that seems to be lost is that this year’s budget process started out with, ‘Let’s take $11 million out of your police budget,’” he said. “We have the alternative of, ‘Do we cripple law enforcement, raise taxes?’ There was simply no good choice. As far as police and fire, they have come out on the plus side.”

Wharton was referring to the new funding each department got for recruit classes.

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