MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Less than a month after kicking off their official campaign for a sales tax referendum, and two days before early voting starts, the Memphis police and fire unions now have public opposition.
The unions say the half-cent sales tax increase will restore retirement benefits police and fire lost a few years ago.
But Memphis City Council chairman Kemp Conrad and former Memphis city councilman and current Shelby County Commissioner Edmund Ford, Jr. are urging voters to vote “no” on the referendum.
“This will put us back on the wrong path,” said Conrad. “It's not right by anybody except the union leaders who would maybe get elected a couple of more times.”
Conrad told WMC Action News 5 there are several reasons voters should reject the referendum.
He said the city's already hiring more police officers and fire fighters and paying them more.
He said the sales tax won't cover rising healthcare and pension costs, especially if there's an economic downtown.
He said it could result in cuts and layoffs like those the city made in 2015, when police and fire lost their benefits.
“We had a decision then which we will have again to either drastically reduce the size of government, including layoffs, increase property taxes by 30 percent or go back and make these same decisions all over again,” said Conrad. “It's just the wrong answer and the right answer is continue to do the hard work of growing our city, so we'll have more funds to continue increasing the pay for police and fire like we've done the last three years.”
John Covington with the Memphis Police Association called Conrad's arguments misleading.
“Lower that rhetoric down,” said Covington. “Can we just talk as adults?”
Covington said Memphis still needs hundreds more officers and the sales tax increase will help.
“We're trying to rebuild the department to make a safer Memphis and this will do that,” said Covington.
As for Conrad’s warning about future possible cuts that may be necessary?
“It's just not true because the money for the things we're talking about is generated by the sales tax. There's no extra money asked for from the city,” said Covington.
The unions said extra money that comes in would go to pre-K and fixing roads.
But Conrad says the city is already increasing funding on those programs.
There's also uncertainty about how the sales tax would be implemented if approved.
Conrad says despite the referendum’s language, the city council, which approves the budget, has the final decision.
The unions say the will of the people should be respected.
The Memphis municipal election is Oct. 3.