MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis officials announced Wednesday a plan to restore pensions for police and fire employees that they say will help with recruiting and retaining first responders.

Mayor Jim Strickland will seek city council approval to allow police and firefighters to have the option to choose the city’s 1978 pension plan, or the 2016 pension plan. The change would take effect in July 2023.

Currently, 1,000 firefighters, police officers, and dispatchers would qualify to make the change as well as future employees. 

“This change is truly a game changer for the Memphis Police Department, in our hiring efforts, in our retention efforts, and we thank Mayor Strickland,” Police Chief C.J. Davis said. About 20% of Memphis Police officers will be eligible to receive the benefits, she said.

Theresa Carlson with Memphis Police said officers have said “over and over again” that they wanted their original pension plan restored. She said she knew officers who had left the Memphis force and gone to other departments because of better benefits.

This change would go a long way toward keeping those officers in Memphis, she said.

“This is a great place to work, but the benefits just haven’t been what other departments had, and we’re making great strides to do that,” Carlson said. “I really believe that this is a step in the right direction for retention of our officers.”

Memphis Fire Chief Gina Sweat said the change will put Memphis ahead of many other cities.

“For them to actually have to make a choice for their financial future. There’s two different pensions, both have pros and cons but they’ll be able to make an educated decision for themselves and their particular situation,” Sweat said.

The city has been working to recruit police and firefighters by increasing pay, offering bonuses and incentives, and stepping up recruiting efforts, Strickland said. A change in pension plans a few years ago has made it more difficult.

The city is able to offer the 1978 pension plan because of a change in sales tax approved by voters in 2019 that is bringing in an extra $60 million to $70 million, Strickland said. Police and firefighter associations campaigned in favor of a referendum to increase sales tax to retain first responders.

All employees hired before July 1, 2016, already participate in the 1978 pension plan. About 1,000 more employees would now qualify, Strickland said.