City Council turns to public to help solve health care cuts, pension fund debate

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Inside Memphis City Hall, council members have taken their share of political bumps and bruises during the past couple of weeks.

Councilman Lee Harris said the complaints haven’t gone unnoticed.

“The council has a bad image. It’s nothing we can do about now. All we can do is try to do the right thing,” Harris said.

The bad image Harris referred to came about after the city council voted recently to cut health care subsidies for current and retired city employees and send that money to the city’s troubled pension fund. It led to protests and rallies outside of city hall.

“We did a whole bunch of things that will negatively impact a whole bunch of families out there, folks who aren’t well-to-do families, folks who are working hard and folks who thought they had a pretty stable career” Harris said.

After the public outcry, the council now wants to hear from the public before its meetings on how it could have found the pension money without cutting health care benefits.

So, is this a political about-face or an attempt at doing the right thing? Jim Strickland is Memphis City Council Chairman.

“It’s about being open-minded. No one is back tracking on what we did. But if there’s a better way, we’d be stupid not to take the better way. So, let’s open it up and maybe someone will come up with a better way to find $50 million dollars (pension fund),” Strickland said.

But some say the council is relying on the public to do its job. Otis Sanford is WREG’s political commentator.

“We elected the mayor and city council to lead this city and now they’re turning around and asking the public to give us some suggestions about where to cut and try to raise $40 or $50 million? I don’t think that’s realistic. This is putting the cart before the horse. They should have done this months ago” Sanford said.

But the council contends it did.

“We had three months of budget hearings and no one came up with any alternatives other than to save $23 million dollars by cutting the retirees’ health care,” Strickland said.

Still, many on the council say no matter how they voted on the cuts, they now agree an alternative solution is needed and they’re hoping it comes from the public.

“I did what I thought was in the best interest of the entire city of Memphis. but I am open-minded to say there might be a better way and let’s try to work together to find it,” Strickland said.

“I’m very hopeful and very glad some council members have decided that we’re going to have some hearings to discuss alternatives because I feel there are some alternatives out there,” Harris said.

Starting with the council’s personnel committee meeting on July 15th, and at each meeting of that committee through the end of the year, council members will listen to the public’s recommendations.

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