The Memphis City Council approved a measure Tuesday afternoon that will allow some retirees and their spouses to keep their city-funded health insurance for another year.
The deal will cover city retirees who are younger than 65 (which makes them ineligible for Medicare), and have no other access to health care insurance. Also, those in that group who have been identified as having a permanent disability, would remain on the city’s health insurance in the future. Also, the surviving spouses of those in this group will be included in the insurance coverage.
The resolution came from council member Shea Flinn and was co-sponsored by council chairman Jim Strickland. It was approved unanimously with Harold Collins abstaining from the vote.
“This is not a full solution but it does get that most vulnerable category of employee that people have told us very emotional stories about (in full council meetings), it will get them covered for a calendar year while we can continue to address this issue and potential savings that have come up because, frankly, we’re running out of time,” Flinn said.
Many believed Tuesday’s meeting was going to be the final vote on what has now been a three-month showdown between the council, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton’s administration, city employees, and the unions that represent city employees and retirees.
The council cut health care benefits for employees and retirees on June 17 when they passed their version of Wharton’s budget for the next 12 months. Protests have followed since, keeping the issue in the spotlight.
A specially called meeting at City Hall last week yielded a formal plan from some employees to hold the cuts for a year. That plan basically asked for the Wharton administration to go back to the budget and find $23 million for the health care fund to avoid many of the cuts to the health insurance benefits.
A version of some of those ideas were presented to the council by council member Janis Fullilove during its executive session right before Tuesday’s full council meeting.
The council approved the plan that only asks - not directs - the Wharton administration to try find the funds to avoid the cuts. It's approval was met with hail of applause from angry city employees who packed the council chambers Tuesday.
Many also believed that others were at work on plans that would greatly reduce the benefit cuts and that they would present those plans to the full council Tuesday. The proposal from Flinn and Strickland was the only one that came forth.
Council member Joe Brown called the plan a “shot in the dark” and Flinn said he was trying to “move forward.” Council member Wanda Halbert complained that the plan was delivered to council only hours before a vote later that afternoon and wanted the vote delayed for two weeks.
“If we wait that long, these folks are not going to be heard,” Strickland said. “My impression is that we need to act now. This isn’t the end of anything. The work can continue.”
That last statement seems to hold open the door on the issue that has dragged on during a long, tense summer at city hall. The summer has been filled with protests, of course, but also a mind-numbing truck load of conflicting budget figures from employees, actuaries, benefits consultants, and administration officials.
It was not immediately clear Tuesday what the next move in that debate will be.
There was plenty of anger from the public for council members and administration officials Tuesday evening. Most weren't angered about the new changes but were mad about the benefit cuts in general.
"We have individuals who are probably going to die out here and you (make the cuts) without regard to life or limb," said Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams. "You guys have the power to change this. You may not pay for it today but you’re going to pay for it."
Many on the council criticized other council members for approving the original benefit cuts. Flinn said his proposal did not go as far as some on the council would have liked but he did the best with the money he could find.
"If you can, I urge you to come up with something else," Flinn said. "It's hard to do and not as simple as people think. I wish we could have done more but the finances are what the finances are. It was the best I could do. If you can do better, God bless you, and please go for it."
The council also passed a $2 million safety net plan to help some of those who are under 65 who will suffer significant financial hardships due to the cuts.