City considers relaxing residency rules, creating health care exchange for police and fire employees

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Over the next two weeks, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s administration will analyze the costs of relaxing employee residency requirements and creating a private health care exchange in hopes of recruiting and retaining police officers and firefighters.

Those ideas and others were presented Thursday evening in a sometimes heated three-hour meeting of the Memphis Public Safety Task Force, even as union leaders at the meeting continued to passionately plead for restoration of benefits as the only way to stop the exodus of public safety employees.

“Even though I’ve seen a lot of good things up here today, I still haven’t seen anything that would make people say, ‘I want to stay here,'” Mike Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association, said after the presentations.

The administration will present its full analysis of the proposals to the task force in the fifth floor conference room of City Hall at 3 p.m. April 7. The task force will then present its recommendations to the City Council, probably on April 19.

The task force’s recommendations could reopen City Council’s controversial discussion about cuts to pension and health care benefits that were made, in part, to help the city fully fund its annual pension contribution of about $58 million to $80 million.

The new ideas came from three working committees composed of officials in Strickland’s administration, ranked police and fire officers, and human resources employees. Two of the most controversial long-term ideas were that the city should relax residency requirements and hire a private company to run a health care exchange.

Instead of a residency requirement, the city could offer an extra incentive to live in the city — perhaps in education credits or mortgage down-payment assistance.

Currently, the city’s charter requires employees hired after Jan. 3, 2005, to live in Shelby County. Employees hired before that date have to live within a two-hour drive. Changing the charter would require a public referendum, although a referendum wasn’t discussed at the meeting.

A private Medicare exchange would let the city avoid liability, which was one of the reasons former Mayor A C Wharton’s administration said it wouldn’t honor a council resolution that restored a 70 percent subsidy last year. Without the subsidies, pre-65 retirees who chose to stay on the city’s insurance had monthly premiums that in some cases were as high as their monthly pension payments.

The exchange, which would let retirees choose their own health care plan, could be up and running at the start of 2017 if the city wastes no time pursuing the idea, said Benefits Operations Manager Nila Carrington.

The committees also presented the following proposals:

Lower the age requirement for firefighters from 21 to 19.

Stop carving out spouses from employee’s insurance. Instead, employees could choose from four tiers of insurance coverage: employee only, employee plus spouse, employee plus children, and the whole family. That would likely mean an increased premium for families, but overall savings — especially for younger officers.

Offer a relocation bonus.

Lower the retirement threshold from 25 years of service for public safety employees. The new retirement threshold has not been determined.

Pay for training costs if employees agree to stay for a set amount of time or pay the city back.

Allow officers to opt for 10-hour workdays.

After the meeting, District 2 council member and task force chairman Frank Colvett Jr. and Chief Human Resources Officer Alex Smith said they were committed to finding, as Colvett put it, “out-of-the-box” solutions to the issue.

“Now, it’s time to put things on paper,” he said after hearing the ideas.

But Memphis Firefighters Association President Thomas Malone joined Williams in saying that none of those would solve the problem of officer and firefighter shortages, and that employees should be budget priority No. 1. He called the committee meeting a “facade” after its conclusion.

“The clock’s ticking,” he said of the number of employees’ leaving. “The bomb’s going to go off.”

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About Ryan Poe

Ryan Poe is a politics and policy reporter for the InforMemphis team at The Commercial Appeal. He covers city of Memphis government and politics.

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