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VOL. 130 | NO. 172 | Thursday, September 3, 2015

Retirees Could Shore Up Memphis Police Ranks

By Bill Dries

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Memphis City Council members are exploring the idea of encouraging retired police officers to get back in uniform on a regular basis as reserve officers to keep the force from slipping to less than 2,000 officers.

Though retired officers already have the option to become reserves – which comes with a token amount of pay and coverage under the city’s health insurance plan – their duties are limited.


However, Councilman Harold Collins wants to use the option to get reserves on the street more regularly than the occasional duty they see now.

“Go and recruit these officers and personnel who retired a year ago,” Collins said during a Tuesday, Sept. 1, council committee discussion. “Should they get qualified, they can go right back into active duty – and for us, active duty is not behind a desk but behind a steering wheel. We need men and women on the street.”

The idea drew immediate resistance from Memphis Police director Toney Armstrong and Memphis Fire director Michael Putt.

Putt said a reserve employee would still have to pass a physical, and he expressed concern about retirees in their 50s who had been in the upper ranks returning to firefighting.

“I don’t think that would be good for the job or them,” he said.

Armstrong had similar concerns, though he has acknowledged that some of the department’s patrolmen are in their 40s.

Collins described it as a “stopgap” measure for the force, which currently stands at 2,092 commissioned officers. The department realized no net gain from the latest police academy class because of retirements.

“If the goal is to put officers on the streets of Memphis,” Collins said, “then I think this might be one surefire way of doing it and not incurring a lot of problems down the road with lawsuits or people trying to pass background checks or what happens to their pension if they come back as a regular employee.”

The idea wasn’t up for a vote at Tuesday’s meeting, but the discussion quickly became part of a larger ongoing council debate about health insurance and benefits cuts the body has approved in the last year.

Collins said those cuts are driving the shortage in the police complement.

The council did move a step closer to final approval of a plan by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton’s administration to allow city employees to freeze their deferred retirement option plans in another effort to keep the police ranks above the 2,000 mark.

Under that plan, employees can schedule their retirement date up to three years in advance. They remain on the city’s health insurance plan and collect retirement benefits as they continue to work.

The administration wants to freeze that option for one time only and allow those in the program to go back on the city payroll, putting off their retirement indefinitely. The plan does not go into the ranks of the already retired, as Collins’ plan would.

Council members approved the second of three readings of the ordinance Tuesday.

The body also approved a resolution by Councilwoman Wanda Halbert that would extend city health insurance coverage to city retirees younger than age 65 through the 2016 calendar year.

The administration and council agreed last year to extend the coverage through 2015.

“I ask you to please do exactly as we did last year in less than five minutes,” she said, citing projected surpluses in the city’s health care fund that the administration later argued are tentative.

The Wharton administration is opposed to any further extension, saying it would endanger the city’s plan to begin paying its unfunded pension and health insurance liabilities. That plan applies some savings from health insurance benefits changes toward the pension liability.

Halbert’s extension passed, but it is a moot point, according to the administration and council attorney Allan Wade.

The $9 million cost of the extension through 2016 spans two fiscal years, and Wade said the council cannot approve funding for a budget year when a budget hasn’t been approved yet by a future council.

He also said the council can’t direct the administration to take the action, only ask it to.

“This doesn’t change anything,” he said. “This only authorizes the city administration to implement an administrative plan. It is not the magic bullet. You are not making anything happen.”

City human resources director Quintin Robinson said the administration will not extend the coverage despite the passage of the resolution.

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