The Memphis City Council passed the 2020 fiscal budget Tuesday after little discussion.
A large portion of the budget is dedicated to public safety, as the council voted to give both Memphis Police Department officers and Memphis Fire Department personnel a 4 percent pay increase — up 1 percent from what Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland proposed in April.
The 4 percent raise will cost an additional $2 million, according to the city’s chief operating officer, Doug McGowen.
Before the vote, representatives with the Memphis Police Association (MPA) urged the council to pass a budget including a 5 percent raise, which the council had agreed upon during an impasse hearing late last month.
Deborah Godwin with the MPA told the council she was there to make sure the council included that 5 percent raise in the budget it passed Tuesday.
According to Godwin, the city’s impasse ordinance requires the council to pass a budget with the amount agreed upon during the impasse.
However, council attorney Allan Wade said the council’s role is to solve the dispute between the unions and the administration. But, any decision the council makes during an impasse, isn’t binding.
John Covington, chief negotiator for MPA told the council that 5 percent is an important number.
“Any kind of raise is welcomed,” Covington said. “Police officers can never be paid enough. That 5 percent number was important, though, because it sends a message about recruitment, as well as morale.”
Covington said police pay is an important part of creating a “safe and prosperous community.”
Michael Williams, president of MPA echoed those sentiments, adding that he wants to “trust the system to actually work.”
“We still want to trust the council to do what’s right,” Williams said. “You always ask us to trust the system, trust the process. You guys heard our proposal, heard the city’s proposal, and adopted our proposal.”
Without discussion, the council voted unanimously in favor of the amended budget.
The newly passed budget also includes a 1 percent pay raise for all city employees and no property tax rate increase, which remains at $3.19.
The council also voted Tuesday to keep the $5 cover charge to enter Beale Street in place until the end of September.
The fee was put in place after a pair of shootings and stampedes took place one weekend in May. Now it will be in place on Friday and Saturday nights, except on nights when conditions aren’t conducive to large crowds.
Conrad said the $5 fees will go toward implementing security measures on the street, such as installing more SkyCops. About $600,000 is needed.
Before the vote, Councilman Martavious Jones said he will not support the cover charge without seeing data showing that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between having a fee in place and the number of incidents that occur on the street.
Jones maintained that having the fee in place over Memorial Day weekend did not deter crowds from rushing the street and causing disturbances.
But, Jennifer Oswalt, president of the Downtown Memphis Commission, said the fee has “proven effective” and that there is evidence that the $5 fee is substantial enough to decrease the crowd just enough to reduce the likelihood of a stampede that results in a serious injury.
“It doesn’t reduce it such that no one comes to Beale Street,” Oswalt said. “It’s not as effective as a $10 fee at reducing crowds, but it’s enough to keep the number of exits slightly below that dangerous level.”
Oswalt said that if there continue to be incidents while the fee is in place, then “we can discuss it again.”
Memphis Police Department Director Michael Rallings said the fee is a “reasonable response” to recent incidents occurring over Memorial Day weekend, and that his “obligation is to keep people safe.”
“If that helps keep people safe, then I think we should support that,” Rallings said. “We know there is no 100-percent solution that works anywhere, but if we see something that works, we should do it. … But I’m going to defer to the wisdom of the council to make a decision that helps to ensure the safety of our visitors, our officers, and business individuals.”
Rallings said Beale Street is an “open bar." “If you run an open bar for 17,000 to 20,000 people, there are some issues you may run into. And I think the Beale Street security fee helps that.”
Councilwoman Patrice Robinson said she is “really struggling with paying a fee to participate on a city street in Memphis.
“But I do understand that we have a lot of people on the street and our police officers need additional support,” Robinson said, garnering applause from members of the audience.
Robinson said she believes the fee is not needed for safety, but as a way to raise money for additional security infrastructure on the street.
“If we don’t have $600,000 in our budget, I think this is a way to garner those dollars, but I would not go around saying that this is a way to keep down anything on Beale Street.”
Councilwoman Jamita Swearengen agreed, saying it’s a “big cop out” not to say the fee is needed to fund the tools required to keep Beale Street safe.
Swearengen also said when the fee has been in place, there were no checks and balances in place to keep the program consistent: “We haven’t heard of how the money will be collected, who’s going to house the money, how the money will be transferred to the Memphis City Council.”
Wrapping up the discussion, Council Chair Kemp Conrad, supporting the fee, said he trusts Rallings “implicitly, when it comes to public safety.”
“If you haven’t been down there to see it and talk to the police officers and ask them what they need to do their jobs to keep themselves safe, to keep Memphians safe, and to keep visitors to Beale Street safe, then I’d say you haven’t done your due diligence to vote on this item and certainly not to vote ‘no’ on an emotional basis when people’s lives and safety are included.”
The council voted 8 to 4 vote in favor of the fee. Council members Conrad, Worth Morgan, Ford Canale, Sherman Greer, Frank Colvett Jr., Reid Hedgepeth, Cheyenne Johnson, and Gerrie Currie voted in favor. Council members Joe Brown, Robinson, Swearengen, and Jones voted against the measure.
The entrance fee is one of the 24 recommendations made by the crowd control consultant, Event Risk Management Solutions, last year. Council chair Conrad said all 24 of those recommendations have been implemented.