Council sides with police and fire unions in pay raise impasses

Also delays Memphis 3.0 development plan for fourth time since March

By Updated: May 22, 2019 12:38 PM CT | Published: May 22, 2019 12:17 AM CT

The Memphis City Council has tentatively approved a bigger raise for police and firefighters than the 3 percent Mayor Jim Strickland proposed for public safety employees.

The police and fire unions were the only two to garner council approval for higher raises in the set of impasse committee votes Tuesday. The city administration’s position prevailed in the five other impasse decisions.

All the decisions are considered tentative until the council takes final votes on the city operating budget and property tax rate scheduled for June 4. The action on the budget and tax rate are what funds the raises.

The police and fire raises appeared to add $3.9 million to the city’s budget, based on tentative calculations at the end of Tuesday's seven-hour council session.

City chief financial officer Shirley Ford said Wednesday the impasse decisions added more than $5 million to the mayor's budget proposal.

Strickland proposed 3 percent pay raises for police and fire including police dispatchers and a 1 percent raise for all other city employees.

The council sided with a 5 percent raise for police and a 3.8 percent raise for firefighters.

Police dispatchers pushed for a 4 percent raise through their union, Communications Workers of America. The council voted to back the city’s final offer of 3 percent in that instance.

Council chairman Kemp Conrad said it is now up to those on the council to either find the money for the police and fire raises through cuts in other areas of city services or to propose a property tax hike in an election year.

“When this revolution comes Oct. 3, it’s going to be a big one,” said Councilman Joe Brown, referring to city elections. He commented after the council sided with the city in a 1 percent pay raise for city employees represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. The union sought a 4 percent pay raise and Brown favored that.

“Our main authority is our budget authority,” Conrad said in response to Brown. “If you don’t like 1 percent, bring back what you would like to do. Let’s put our money where our mouth is. Let’s not talk. Let’s do it.”

Earlier this week, Strickland also indicated it would be up to the council to make the politically tough decisions on how to rebalance his budget proposal if it sided with the unions. And he cast it as a choice between a property tax hike and cutting “basic core services” – both of which he opposes.

Bill Dries: Strickland says council faces tough choices over pay raises

It’s not the first time the council and Strickland have differed on pay raises, but the amount appeared to be more substantial than other raises the council approved independent of the administration.

Memphis Police Association chief negotiator John Covington argued police officers in Memphis are too far below the market average to retain them.

“If we can’t find the money then maybe we need to change our priorities,” he said. “We need a long-term strategy.”

Covington called the 5 percent raise “good policy.”

“It will accelerate recruitment. It will positively impact retention and institutional knowledge,” he said.

City chief human resources officer Alex Smith acknowledged the disparity in police pay compared to other comparable markets.

“It’s hard to follow such a compelling argument,” she said after Covington spoke. “Our study has shown that there is a disparity.”

But Smith said the city has been moving on several fronts to bring up police pay and working conditions, including paying the increase in health insurance premiums in the new budget to the tune of $5.4 million so no city employees have to absorb that increase.

She also said the city has a recruiting strategy that is growing police ranks to a goal of 2,300.

Councilman Worth Morgan, who sided with the union, said he has cuts in mind to fund the 5 percent police pay raise.

“But I’m not sure it would be appealing to a majority of the council,” he said as he suggested accelerating the growth of police ranks. “The mayor has his priorities. … But for me this is a cup I would have filled up first before moving to things that are other priorities.”

Bill Dries: City budget proposal could grow by $6 million

Firefighters union president Thomas Malone also questioned Strickland’s call – both as mayor and as a council member before that – to make public safety the city’s No. 1 priority.

“I wouldn’t insult your intelligence to say I know how to do your job just like you don’t know how to be a firefighter,” he told the council. “We are losing some of the best we have.”

City chief operating officer Doug McGowen said public safety is the administration’s top priority.

“And that has remained unchanged,” he said. “It may be a matter of degree. It may be a matter of perspective, but I stand behind the work we’ve done.”

McGowen said public safety accounted for 48 percent of the city budget 30 years ago and currently makes up 70 percent of the city budget.

“If we could do more, we would do more,” he said. “We are paying for some of the sins of the past.”

Meanwhile, the council again voted Tuesday to delay until July 2 a vote on the first of three readings of the Memphis 3.0 long-range land use and development plan. This marks the fourth time the vote has been pushed back since March.

The decision to delay comes a week after Strickland signed an executive order enacting parts of the plan controlled by the administration, but not the land use provisions that are the purview of the council.

Councilman Berlin Boyd moved for the delay “to clear up speculation” about the plan.

“There is so much uncertainty,” he said. “I’m trying to give it a little life but if there is no delay, I’m a no vote.”

The council voted 11 to 1 for the delay with council member Sherman Greer the only no vote.

In other action on a long agenda of 59 items, council members approved a special use permit for the twin-tower 20-story Downtown hotel development called The Clipper near FedExForum and the new FedEx Logistics headquarters at the old Gibson Guitar plant. Conrad and Councilman Berlin Boyd recused themselves from the vote. Boyd works for FedEx Logistics.

The council also approved two alley closures on a block in Uptown that St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and ALSAC, its fundraising and awareness arm, is developing as temporary housing for patients and their families.

Council members approved a compromise on a residential development at 2115 Jefferson near Overton Square, nicknamed “Noah’s Ark” by critics, that lowers the height of the row of townhomes, the number of units in the development and the number of lots it will take up. The compromise also included changes to the Unified Development Code that would affect similar proposals in Midtown.

The council delayed for a month a vote on a planned development that would reshape the Waste Connections of Memphis facility at 621 E. Brooks Road at Graves Road in Whitehaven.

Homeowners complained of the smell and noise from the site as well as health problems in the neighborhood. The developers claimed the changes on the site would improve those problems.

Several council members said they want to tour the area.

The council also voted down plans for a paid parking lot on a section of the parking lot for the Southbrook Mall in Whitehaven. Ki Y. Kim and Kyung R. Kim have fenced off the section of the mall parking lot they own in an ongoing parking dispute with owners of the mall.

Councilwoman Patrice Robinson, who represents the area, said it would set a bad precedent for other retail centers where parking is free.

Council members approved a resolution asking Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee to find $10 million in state discretionary funding for the NBC television series “Bluff City Law.”

The resolution by Councilman Martavius Jones matches a resolution approved earlier by the Shelby County Commission.

The Tennessee Legislature has adjourned for the year, and any special session to deal with the pending resignation of House Speaker Glen Casada could only deal with the matter the special session is called to address.

Jones said there is some discretionary funding the governor controls that could be used without requiring approval from the Tennessee Legislature.

NBC has greenlighted the series, starring Jimmy Smits of the series "L.A. Law" and "The West Wing," for the coming season. The incentives would be used for production of the series in Memphis.


Memphis City Council Public Safety Budget Kemp Conrad Doug Mcgowen
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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