Public safety referendum passage leaves city, county officials with questions over implementation

Approved tax increase raises questions

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Memphis voters approved a sales tax increase in Thursday’s municipal election with 52-percent saying “yes” to restoring police and fire benefits that were cut five years ago. But there are lots of questions about how the program will be implemented and whether Shelby County could make a play for some of the cash.

The road to implementation on this doesn’t appear clear cut, and it will likely be a long process to figure out how to spend the money for its intended purpose, taking months, even a year, or longer.

“I even asked the question this morning, when is the first day the sales tax is increased, and we are not 100 percent sure,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

Strickland was re-elected Thursday to serve as mayor for another four years. Strickland said his office is still trying to determine specifics of the referendum question voters approved, one that adds a half percent to sales tax in city limits, bringing the total sales tax to 9.75-percent.

“We’ve got to work with the council on how that’s spent, and it’s my intention to fulfill the mission of what the public votes on,” Strickland said.

First responders got the question on the ballot through a very public signature drive, in an effort to restore pension and health benefits slashed in 2014 when city officials cut them amid significant budget pressures. A city spokesperson said Friday an initial assessment shows roughly 2,000 people could go back on city rolls for health benefits, if the referendum question is followed.

" When the citizens do a referendum then it’s incumbent upon those that have been elected to carry out the orders of the citizens, and I think it would be political suicide for whomever tries to come up against this," said Mike Williams, President of the Memphis Police Association on Thursday night.

But state law opens the door for Shelby County to potentially claim some of the money by raising county sales taxes, and multiple Shelby County Commissioners indicated to WMC Action News 5 Friday that their staffs are already at work examining that possibility.

Strickland did not take a public position on the referendum during the election but said Friday that a key focus of his next term will remain trying to beef up MPD’s ranks.

Memphis voters signaled Thursday public safety is something they’ll pay for.

“I think a pay increase would have been a better selling point to new recruits, but we will try to use this new revenue as much as we can to aid in our recruitment efforts,” said Strickland.

Multiple sources have indicated that guidance for how the money will be spent on the referendum is non-binding. And the Memphis City Council has the final say, per city charter, because they make budget appropriations. While the current council can weigh in, it’s very likely the new council that takes office in 2020 will be dealing with this, because they will craft the next budget.

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