Harris against Shelby County taking share of Memphis sales tax increase

Harris against Shelby County taking share of Memphis sales tax increase

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Shelby County commissioners are looking into the possibility of the county taking a share of the sales tax increase Memphis voters recently approved, but Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris says he doesn't support that idea.

"I am not going to be for taking money that is currently earmarked for investments in public safety," said Harris.

Harris weighed in on efforts by some county officials to take a share of a sales tax increase Memphis voters approved 52-48 percent on Oct. 3.

The tax is projected to bring in at least $50 million.

The money is supposed to be used to restore Memphis police and firefighter health and retirement benefits. But state law opens the door for Shelby County to potentially claim some of that money, perhaps up to half.

Commissioner Edmund Ford, Jr. is urging his colleagues to get behind the idea, to ensure Shelby County gets its "fair share."

"I believe that we have a significant opportunity in front of us, if we decide to exercise our rights as a legislative body," Ford wrote in a memo to his fellow commissioners before the Oct. 3 election.

Commissioners like Michael Whaley say they're still looking into the issue. "There's still I think a lot of unanswered questions, so I'd love to kind of figure that out first before we decide what to do," said Whaley.

But Mayor Harris made it clear to WMC Action News 5 that he does not support the effort.

“I am not going to undermine this community effort to devote more resources to public safety because I think that’s a top priority. That’s a top priority of the voters when I talk to them,” said Harris. “So, I would have to disagree with Commissioner Ford about taking money that is to go to the public safety.”

The Memphis police and fire unions say any effort to use the tax dollars for anything other than what was intended would be politically risky.

"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 WKNO’s “Behind the Headlines,” Ford acknowledged it will take time to bring forward any legislation, as county officials get expert legal opinions on the issue.

Ford recently sent a letter to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, asking for documents and figures related to the sales tax increase, including: the number of public safety and non-public safety employees impacted by the benefits cut in 2014; the actuarial costs of reverting back to the defined benefit plan for public safety and non-public safety employees; and legal opinions that show it’s permissible to restore benefits for some employees but not all.

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