When the Memphis City Council’s three-member impasse committee approved a 3 percent pay raise for Memphis police officers Thursday, May 21, it spoke volumes about the budget season at City Hall.
It reflects the tension in the relationship between Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s administration and the council. The tension, which has been a political fact of life for several city budget seasons, has been heightened in this Memphis election year.
The council impasse committee approved the Memphis Police Association’s last best offer over the Wharton administration’s last best offer, which was for no pay raise.
Each side made its case to the committee chaired by Wanda Halbert and including Reid Hedgepeth and Bill Morrison.
All three council members were selected by a drawing of numbered balls from a whirling metal cage that the council staff keeps close this time of the year.
The police agreement is for two years, with a wage reopener clause in the second year.
The impasse committee’s decision is reported to the full council and becomes final unless the council specifically votes to veto it.
The union and the administration differed even on the pay raise’s impact on the still-forming city budget for the coming fiscal year.
The union estimated it would add $3 million to the city’s operating budget. The administration estimated it at $5.8 million.
Memphis Police Association attorney Deborah Godwin also referred to the pay hike as “an adjustment in the pay grade and the base wage rate in order to be competitive for recruitment and retention.”
Several council members and the administration called it a raise.
The impasse procedure calls for a three-member council panel to consider last best offers on economic issues in which the two sides cannot reach an agreement. The offers are in writing, and the panels also give each side half an hour to make its case.
The offers are considered the final word from each side – a concept that has held through most impasse processes since the procedure was added to the city charter after the 1978 police and fire strikes.
The original idea was that the final offers would be submitted after a cooling-off period.
Since 1978, the impasse procedure has been amended and changed several times.
This budget season, the negotiations continued as the impasse committees were meeting.
Since the impasse declarations in May, the administration has offered the various labor groups an across-the-board raise of 0.5 percent. As of Thursday, a dozen of the employee unions had accepted the raise.
That’s after city bargaining teams initially told the labor groups there would be no raises.
“They came to the table with a big zero,” Godwin said.
“We’re under obligation to fully fund the pension plan,” city human resources director Quintin Robinson told the council members as he also cited the cost of benefit adjustments to keep retirees younger than 65 on the plans through the rest of 2015.
“This administration is making a significant increase in personnel-related expenditures in the upcoming budget,” he added. “We’re choosing to address personnel matters that are at the forefront.”
Robinson said the city is still talking with the unions and willing to consider proposals, but that drew skepticism from Morrison.
“Is this another, ‘We’re going to do a study and it’s going to be put on a shelf?’” he asked.
Robinson said the city is working to develop a study and select a vendor to conduct it.
“The city administration will honor and commit to funding any increase that is recommended as a result of the study,” he added. “We’re further committing that we would begin to fund any raise recommended by fiscal year 2017.”
That refers to the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2016.
Godwin said that fell short of being a “firm commitment.”
The committee’s decision in the police impasse also includes $89,000 in incentives and extra pay for bilingual police officers called as interpreters.
And Morrison was critical of the administration for not agreeing to what he said would have been “a good faith move.”
“Why didn’t you just accept this bilingual thing and just move on?” he asked.
Robinson said the administration proposed s with 30 police officers.
There are already 22 bilingual officers who are called as interpreters to any part of the city when needed, Godwin said.
Another impasse panel last week approved a 3 percent raise for Memphis firefighters over the next two fiscal years, while yet another approved a two-year raise of 10.6 percent for Memphis Animal Shelter employees.
Those were also the last best offers of the unions representing those employees.
They are also subject to a call for a veto vote once they are reported to the full council.