Will public safety sales tax passage spur first responder retirements in Memphis?

Will public safety sales tax passage spur first responder retirements in Memphis?
Will public safety sales tax passage spur first responder retirements in Memphis? (Source: WMC Action News 5)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - There’s new concern over talk of a mass exodus of Memphis police and firefighters in the wake of a tax city voters just passed to improve benefits.

Tuesday, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland told Memphis City Council members that the public safety tax voters approved in the municipal election in October may have an unintended consequence, pushing police and firefighters toward retirement.

“This issue is potentially out there, which would be the exact opposite of what the public voted for,” said Strickland.

Memphis voters gave a thumbs up to that referendum last month, passing it by 52 percent. Voters agreed to hike sales tax in the city by a half percent to restore benefits cut in 2014 to police and fire. The associations have said the tax could raise up to $50 million.

But Mayor Jim Strickland said a crisis could be looming over roughly 600 of those first responders, just as voters signaled recruitment and retention is important.

“We have hundreds of firefighters and police officers right now who are eligible to retire,” said Strickland, “If given retiree healthcare, that might actually incentivize them to leave and not stay.”

The deep cuts in 2014 to city pension and health benefits made it more expensive for retirees younger than 65 to get healthcare, meaning some police and fire who could step aside and retire have stayed on to keep better benefits.

“We don’t expect all of them to walk out the door on the first day,” said John Covington, Chief Steward, Memphis Police Association.

The Memphis Police Association said they’re aware of the mayor’s concern and are actively working with the city.

Covington said the MPA is making a list of affected employees and seeing where they stand. Covington said officers with more years of service tend to be higher rank, which means younger officers may be promoted faster.

“You might have a correction there,” Covington said, "But in the long term it’s going to make a healthier department, easier to recruit and maintain and allow us to go beyond the numbers we are at now.

Strickland said a mass exodus would be detrimental for the city, noting the 28 months he said it’s taken to graduate 200 officers out of the academy.

“It’s a challenge that hopefully – we can overcome the challenge,” said Strickland, “We are going to implement the will of the people on the referendum.”

Strickland is also asking Memphis City Council members to allow voters to weigh in on residency requirements on police and fire. New hires currently have to live in Shelby County.

Strickland is in favor of lifting the restriction, something the MPA said it also supports.

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