MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Emotions ran high as the Memphis City Council heard solutions to health benefit cuts, and for the first time, dozens of sanitation workers united with other city workers and retirees to protest.
Tuesday morning, whether it was raising taxes, taking a look at tax breaks for businesses or making cuts in every department, the council listened to you on how to fund the pension without increasing health care costs for retirees and employees.
Mayor A C Wharton, who said he is open to suggestions, was nowhere to be found.
Members of his administration, however, were at the committee meeting.
“This was not a negotiating session. Nobody negotiated down there. You misunderstood. You don’t negotiate down there. My door is always open,” said Wharton. “I was represented at the meeting. There was no negotiatin. I want to get something done. This was for them to speak. Why should I be there in the way when they can speak, and I can hear everyone they say. You get things done. You sit around a table. That’s what we want to do.”
Emotions escalated as the day went on.
Hundreds of angry workers, retirees and their families hoped they were heard from outside city hall.
They waved signs and prayed. Anything to get the council to take another look.
Dozens of public works employees joined in, wearing bright green shirts, for the first time.
“The public and also city employees are tired of being taxed every year when it deals with the budget. [City employees] haven’t received raises in five years, and now this,” said public works employee Michael Goodman.
They took their protest to the city council meeting, spilling into the hallways and an overflow room.
Wives held back tears as they told the council their stories and begged for change.
“I am curious if you’ve ever put yourself in a firefighter’s, a police officer’s or paramedic’s shoes?,” asked one tearful wife of a MPD Major.
Sadness then turned to frustration when they realized the council wasn’t going to make any changes Thesday night.
One firefighter got personal, asking council members if they would take away their loved ones’ or their own health benefits, or if they would take a pay cut.
“Mr. Conrad, or Captain Jerry Springer, how about you? Would you take a 75 percent hit to fund somebody in your family. I am not looking at you. I am talking to you!” he said.
It got so tense at one point, Councilman Harold Collins reminded the people at the meeting, “personal attacks are not becoming of the badge.”
Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams addressed the council saying the city should vote in a half percent sales tax.
Williams said 80% would fund the pension, and the rest would go to debt services.
Mayor Wharton said he would support the proposal being sent to voters.
Even if the controversy is magically resolved, next year Mayor Wharton said the city will have to find another $30 million to fund the pension.
He said one way to meet that goal is restructuring the police department.
The state of Tennessee now requires local government to full fund pensions.