I got several calls from Memphis Police and Fire Department employees this week. They were all angry about the proposed cuts and changes to their pension and health-care plans and wanted the Flyer to "tell the truth" about the situation.
The core truth is that the city — as mandated by the state — needs to find a way to pay down its pension obligations in five years. It can do this by cutting costs, raising revenues (taxes), or a combination of the two.
The proposal at hand would turn the current guaranteed pension plan for city employees into a 401k plan. It would also reduce benefits and/or raise the costs of health care for current employees and retirees.
The Memphis City Council majority is determined not to raise property taxes, come hell or high water, the stated rationale being that it will motivate people to leave Memphis. The 6,000 police and fire personnel and other city employees contend that they are being asked to carry the entire burden of fixing the budget mess for the rest of us.
The council has gotten support for its "no new taxes" position from the Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce (COC), which launched a campaign against any tax hike. A counter-campaign has sprung up, urging citizens not to patronize businesses that are COC members.
And speaking of hell and high water... one fireman I spoke to alluded to certain "measures" that could be taken to demonstrate how important his department is to the city. He was referencing the rumors that have been circulating for a week or so about a "sick-out" over the Fourth of July weekend.
A sick-out of fire and police personnel on a holiday weekend filled with fireworks and massive downtown crowds would be a PR disaster for both departments, in my opinion, and would only harden the views on both sides of the issue. Especially, if there were a fire or a crime that caused the loss of life due to a lack of response.
That said, taking away promised health benefits, especially from retirees on a fixed pension is just wrong. And remember, these employees don't get Social Security, so their pension is it when it comes to supporting themselves in their old age.
I'm quite obviously not an expert in city finances, and Lord knows the city has spent enough on consultants and experts to cover my retirement quite nicely. But surely there is a baby to be split here somewhere. A small tax increase isn't going to send people fleeing en masse. And the switch to a 401k plan isn't going be the end of the world for city employees.
We need to keep and attract highly qualified police and fire department personnel. A fear of not being safe will send as many people fleeing the city as a tax increase will. It's time to make a deal — before things get even hotter.