VOL. 130 | NO. 123 | Thursday, June 25, 2015
Memphis Ends Budget Season, But the Arguments Aren't Over
By Bill Dries
The end of the budget season at City Hall can be a festive occasion.
Weeks of line-item detail and swapping one amount with another in the budget, as well as the pressure of revenue and other projections that amount to moving targets in the fiscal year, give way to approved operating and capital budgets as well as a property tax rate.
Yet at the end of a six-and-a-half-hour council session Tuesday, June 23, which closed out the 2015 budget season, the 11 council members present looked pretty grim.
And there were plenty of indications the budget season won’t end all the arguments and discussions about how city government decides what to spend money on.
The council made the decisions in the first three hours that locked in a stable tax rate of $3.40 and approved an operating budget of $656.5 million. It includes 2 percent raises for police and firefighters as well a 1 percent raise for all other city employees effective January 1.
But the council still had a series of impasse committee reports to pass judgment on which could have been at odds with the budget’s pay raises.
The voting majority that approved the raises stayed in order to vote down any impasse committee decisions where a union’s offer had been accepted. For several hours Tuesday, council members took the wrath of an audience that was largely city employees and retirees.
Sherry Hopper, the wife of a retired fire department dispatcher, was among those upset that the council did not extend city health insurance coverage for another calendar year in 2016 for pre-65 city retirees.
The council decision was a big victory for the administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. But Hopper was among those in the audience who said the health of those retirees is on the council’s conscience.
“Would you have done this if God was sitting here with us? Because he is,” she said. “There’s not a dollar amount that you will have in your bank account that will save you.”
There was more debate about the impasse committee decisions in which the three-member council committee sided with the union’s final contract offer in a dispute with the city administration.
Council attorney Alan Wade told the council that in the event the full council approved a larger raise for employees in its impasse committee decisions than it had funded in the city’s operating budget, the budget was the amount that counted.
He cited the terms of a 1994 council revision of the impasse procedure, which was originally approved as an amendment to the city charter in the wake of the 1978 strikes by Memphis police and firefighters.
At Tuesday’s session, some on the council questioned the basic function of the impasse process coming after the budget and tax rate votes.
“What was the purpose of the impasse?” council member Janis Fullilove asked Wade.
“If you want to put it in there, do it,” Wade said of putting a different pay raise in the budget. “Man up.”
Fullilove later said the council had “made a joke out of the political process.”
“I am so sorry to be on this council with many of you,” she added.
Council member Harold Collins termed it “the tail wagging the dog.”
“For this body to circumvent and maneuver systematically gives us the presence of corruption,” he said. “It is the perception that we have met and decided prior to this meeting. Even if we hadn’t, I submit to you the integrity of the process has been compromised.”
Memphis Fire Fighters Association president Thomas Malone read the impasse ordinance aloud and said the council’s decision amounted to, “when you don’t like it, it’s not legal.”
Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams called the 2 percent raise that begins halfway through the new fiscal year “absurd.”
He again raised the possibility of a legal challenge of the budget based on the question of whether the city followed the impasse ordinance. Williams has also sought a legal opinion that specifically questions whether police are prohibited from striking if the city doesn’t follow the impasse ordinance.
“We are going to exercise the legal options that are available to us,” Williams said Tuesday. “This is a process that the citizens asked for and these guys are saying they don’t have to listen to the will of the citizens.”