Proposed sales tax would benefit police, fire departments

Proposed sales tax would benefit police, fire departments

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Eighty-seven days is how long Memphis Police and Memphis Fire unions have to get 40,000 signatures.

They need the John Hancocks of registered voters who'd be willing to say "yes" to a tax increase.

"The response has been overwhelming," Memphis Fire Fighters Association President Thomas Malone said. "It's been heartening the citizens really like the police and firefighters."

After a second weekend of collecting signatures, union leaders said their petition drive for a tax increase has real momentum.

"We want the citizens to have a vote," Malone said. "We want to know what the citizens of Memphis think and want for their fire and police departments."

"I  have not run into any individual that has told us they will not sign," Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams said.

They need 40,000 signatures by June 14 in order to get a proposed half-cent increase in the local sales tax on the November ballot. However, Williams and Malone won't say how many signatures they have so far.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland won't say if he's for or against the proposal yet.

"We're looking at the financial impact," Strickland said. "We want to know exactly how much it's going to cost, how much it's going to generate and get the facts before I take a position."

Past experience has taught Strickland that a tax increase is a tough sell at the polls, even for a worthy cause that people care about.

"Five years ago, I put all my effort into doing a universal sales tax for pre-K, and it failed," Strickland said.

Union leaders said if their initiative is successful, the tax increase would bump the $2.25 local sales tax up to $2.75, costing the average family about $50 more a year.

They said it will generate at least $30 million, probably more to pay pension and health care costs for police and fire employees.

Both critical areas took a hit in past budget sessions, but Strickland said he's trying to improve the pay and benefits for the city's emergency personnel.

"It's better than it was two years ago, but it's certainly not where it was five years ago," Strickland said.

Union reps said better pay and benefits attract and retain better workers, and that results in better protection for the citizens of Memphis.

"The citizens deserve the best-qualified individuals to be able to provide them with the core services they deserve," Williams said.

"We think that, yes, when we get the signatures," Malone said. "I think there will be overwhelming support at the polls for this."

The next step for the unions is sending their members to church with petitions in hand to get more signatures.  They'll also start canvassing the city during the weekday, not just on the weekends.

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