City Council Pushes Back at Administration

By Bill Dries

Sometimes there are seven votes. Other times there aren’t. But Memphis City Council debates increasingly point to different thoughts about the city’s course as outlined by the administration of Mayor Jim Strickland.

At the Tuesday, June 20, council session the votes weren’t there to change an administration plan to offer a voluntary retirement freeze as a way to bolster Memphis Police Department ranks.

But the votes were there to delay final votes on stormwater and sanitary sewer fee hikes proposed by the administration.

The votes indicate questions about the path forward for a city government trying to create a net gain in police ranks for the first time in six years, and to finance $170 million in basic public infrastructure construction projects that are mandated by a federal court consent decree.

The council approved a three-year freeze on pending police retirements that MPD argues is necessary to rebuild the police ranks to 2,300 cops by 2020.

The freeze in the Deferred Option Retirement Program – or DROP – is the third in two years by the city as the police force has dropped below 2,000. The force was at 1,928 as of Tuesday.

The freeze was opposed by the police and fire unions. Police and firefighters make up most of the city employees and set a retirement date years in advance under DROP. The freeze would delay by three years the retirement of those in DROP including those on the command staff.

Some city council members are increasingly pursuing different strategies and challenging the strategies of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

Police Director Michael Rallings has said without a freeze there would be a turnover in his entire command staff.

Strickland’s administration argued it is a necessary, if imperfect, part of a goal to achieve a net gain of 300 officers in 2 1/2 years. Three recruiting classes will be coming through the Memphis Police training academy during that time.

“This is a very untenable situation for our city,” said city chief operating officer Doug McGowen, citing the city’s decision years ago to not fund any new police recruit classes for four years. “We’ve had a heavy turnover at the top. … We are in a position now to have a stable force. We need just a bit of stability.”

Council member Patrice Robinson, however, agreed with union leaders that having top brass stay on the job will block the path to promotions for those in the middle ranks who will leave as the top brass stays. Or as Memphis Fire Fighters president Thomas Malone argued in the case of the fire department, there will be difficulty recruiting firefighters at the entry level.

Robinson told police brass her fear is that “you will lose your middle.”

“This does not keep people in the middle ranks,” she said. “It doesn’t keep them anywhere, especially with the new millennial generation. If we don’t give them room for upward mobility, they are going to leave anyway.”

She proposed a freeze of a year and a half before withdrawing it after the administration stuck to its insistence on a three-year freeze.

Council member Kemp Conrad questioned human resources director Alex Smith on the goal of 2,300 police officers by 2020.

Smith said it is a goal of Operation Safe Community, the countywide coalition of law enforcement and criminal justice system leaders.

“Is there more to it?” Conrad said after getting the same answer twice.

“Quite simply, it’s working aggressively to get the complement to 2,300,” she told Conrad. “And we said we would do it.”

Council chairman Berlin Boyd didn’t like the answer.

“Have they ever had any plans that actually worked?” he said of OSC. “Or are we just taking their word for it? To have an entity that created a plan that we don’t know will work is kind of challenging to me.”

Smith said four rounds of promotions are scheduled for 2018.

McGowen acknowledged the strategy isn’t the best possible solution.

“There is no best course of action,” he said. “It took us four years to not recruit our way to this point.”

Council members also questioned Tuesday the city’s mix of pay-as-you-go funding and bond financing to pay for $170 million in sewer and similar infrastructure construction projects mandated in a federal court consent decree.

The council ultimately delayed to its July 11 meeting final votes on ordinances that would raise the stormwater and sanitary sewer fees of residents.

Both fees would go up over the next five years under the proposed ordinances.

Council member Martavius Jones said some kind of fee hike is inevitable. But he wants to explore a 25 percent fee hike in stormwater fees instead of the 50 percent hike proposed over the next five years.

“Do we need to raise fees in order to pay the debt service? Absolutely,” he said. “But would it result in a 50 percent increase to our ratepayers if we borrow more than what has been proposed?”

City chief financial officer Brian Collins argued that would amount to borrowing large and holding onto the money long-term.

“We’re going to have to raise rates to develop adequate revenue streams,” Collins said. “It’s not as if this generation is going to pay for all of this work and then the next generation is not.”

“I’d rather bite the bullet and pay less over the long run,” Conrad agreed.

Ultimately, the administration said it could live with a delay until the July 11 council session to show council members matrixes for the mix of debt and pay-as-you-go on the projects.