Behind the Headlines – October 11, 2019

Behind the Headlines – October 11, 2019


– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines
is made possible in part by: The WKNO Production Fund, The WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like you.
Thank you. – Members of the
County Commission on the Sales Tax Referendum, county
spending, and much more, tonight, on
Behind the Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] – I’m Eric Barnes with
The Daily Memphian, thanks for joining us. I am joined tonight
by two members of the County Commission. Edmund Ford Jr., thanks
for being here again. – Thank you. – And Van Turner, thank
you for being here again. – Thank you.
– Along with Bill Dries, reporter with
The Daily Memphian. So let’s start with the
sales tax referendum– – Right.
– and the outcome. It passed during
the election, what, now two weeks ago. And you had raised,
Commissioner Ford, some questions in an op-ed
you did for The Daily Memphian, and elsewhere you’ve talked
about that the County ought to look at taking
half of that money. So we’ll just, for those
who haven’t followed as much, the referendum said that the
City of Memphis would go from 9.25 to 9.75–
– (Edumund) Correct. – generally, the working number
is that would increase revenue by about $50 million–
– (Edmund) Give or take. – Give or take. And it was pushed very hard
by the Fire and Police unions, as a way to restore
the benefits from 2014, the pension and healthcare
benefits that were cut at a time when you
were on the council– – (Edmund)
Correct. – I think you were in
the midst of that whole, and voted for those
changes to those benefit plans. – (Edmund)
Right. – Ok, so that’s
the lay of the land. It seems that the
County has the right, some would say, to
take half of that money, because that’s just
the way it works. But where are we
in that process, and why would the
County take half that money. – Well Eric, it is a process,
and I’m glad that you used that word, because it’s
not something that, a lot of people have
been asking me about well, are you going to bring
legislation next week, or next month. It’s going to take time
because there are a lot of legal opinions out there
that I’m asking for, and there are a lot of other
information that I’m asking, but while I’m asking
for that information, it’s unusual, but not too
unusual that post-election, post-referendum,
people are asking me, “What did I vote for again?” [Eric laughs] And I’m
letting people know, what you voted for was an
increase in the sales tax for the City of Memphis to
go from 9.25 to 9.75. Now even though some of the
items in the referendum can be looked at as aspirational,
remember this same question was brought to us when we
talked about this same type of increase for
Pre-K 6 years ago. And those same terms such as
aspirational were put in place, and that referendum failed. The concerns that I had in
the op-eds and the other shows still remain. Because my concern, and it
would still be my concern as a County Commissioner,
as a consituent, as a Memphian, is where do we
go now if you undo the reform? How much is it
actually going to cost, and where will we
be at one year, two years, five years from now. – Alright, we’ll come back and
we’ll dig into all this stuff. – (Edmund)
Sure, sure. – Let me get
Commissioner Turner in, your take on this? From some points-of-view,
this was presented as purely a City of Memphis,
Mayor’s office, City Council, it didn’t have anything
to do with the County, is kind of how
it was framed up, and I think Commissioner Ford
surprised some people when he suddenly reminded them that
that sales tax revenue is potentially for the
City and the County, but where do you
stand in all of this? – Yeah, I mean I
think that the goal, if we were to get any of
these funds would be to support education–
– (Edmund) Correct. – And we all know how important
education is to everyone. Police and Fire is
important, Pre-K is important, and just K-12 education
in general is important. So if there are any funds which
can be garnered to support education, then I’m all ears. However I do know that police
and fire worked hard for this referendum, we’re all familiar
with the cuts they endured some time ago, so you know,
I respect that as well. So hopefully there’s a way
that we can all come together. When I talked about this
before I said oftentimes in the Federal government,
the House will pass something and the Senate will
pass something, and then you have a
reconcilliation meeting, where you reconcile
the two bills from the two houses,
and then that’s what you have as the legislation. Perhaps that’s
something that could happen, so I’m all ears, I know
Commissioner Ford is on top of this, plenty of lawyers will
speak to this issue– [all chuckle]
we’ll just wait to see what happens.
– Let’s get Bill in. – Commissioner Ford, from what
you know from the attorneys at this early stage in this, let’s
go over a few basic points that are being talked about. – (Edmund)
Sure, alright. – If the county
opts to do this, does it involve half of the
total revenue that’s collected with this
half-cent, in the city? – Alright, and I
gotta an answer for that. In fact when I
asked about that, I went back to
Tennessee code, 67-6-703. And the last sentence of that
code simply says that “the tax “levied by a County legislative
body is finally determined to be “non-operative, such action
shall not preclude subsequent “action by the County to adopt
a tax at a rate at least equal “to the city or town tax rate
in which event the city or town “tax shall cease
to be effective, “provided that the city or town
should receive from the county “tax the same amounts as would
be received from the city or “town tax until the end of the
current fiscal year of the city or town.” So I know people have
interpreted one way or the other, one thing
that I know that Commissioner Turner has
probably looked at, and that’s the CTAS opinion
that was given approximately a year ago
where if that tax is levied, 50% would go to education, then
the other 50% would be levied in another fashion. But at the end of the day, as
I said at one of the meetings, the meeting on Monday,
the intent is not to harm any of the municipalities,
it’s just to make sure that fair share is considered. Which I’ve been
talking about for weeks. – And the
County-wide referendum, that’s been referred to, that
would come into play if the County Commission
passes this resolution, who votes in that? – It’s been brought to my
attention that it would be unincorporated Shelby County,
but I’m still looking into that, one of the attorneys
that’s close to me informed me of that
particular group voting, but whatever is put together
is going to take some time. I’m not going to be
able to give a Bill Dries, a draft of the legislation
tomorrow or next week, or anybody else,
but it’s going to take time– – (Eric)
Sure. – and anything that you do
should take time and do due diligence, which
I plan on doing. – Let me interrupt
just for one second, because I got thrown off. So the County would
have to do another, its own referendum–
– (Edmund) Right. – in order to take, to get this-
– (Edumund) Don’t say take… – Not take, but in
order to get this money? It would have to be–
– It would have to be another referendum, yes. – But potentially limited
only to unincorporated Shelby County, that, whether
or not that’s right, why would that… why is that being floated,
because they didn’t have a chance to vote on this? – Yeah, my, I think it
almost is like a double-dip, because if you’re
in a municipality, you get a chance to vote on
that municipality’s sales tax rate, and if
you’re unincorporated, you don’t get a chance to
vote in the City of Memphis, or Collierville,
Bartlett’s referendum, so the only other constituency
that has not had an opportunity to speak to the issue is
unincorporated Shelby County. – ‘Cause this goes
back to, I’m sorry Bill, but this goes back to the
municipalities all raised their sales tax to 9.75? Or 9.5?
– (Van) 9.75. – 9.75, when they, when
deconsolidation happened and they set up their own school–
– (Bill) They formed their own school system, right.
– Ok, back to Bill, that helped me, sorry. – Commissioner Turner,
you’re an attorney, how legally complex
is this part of this? – Well I think
it’s very complex. I mean you’re talking about
a number of issues that are taking place at the same time. And you’re dealing with
potentially seven various consituency groups which
may or may not have competing interests. So, that’s what
the courts are for, and we all know how complicated
it was for the school system to basically consolidate and
then deconsoldiate if you will. And you had the creation of
those six municipal school districts along with the
Shelby County Schools, so I would figure that
this would perhaps not be as complex, but perhaps would
likely lead to a court having to weigh in at some point. – Commissioner Ford, do you
have any estimate now when all of these legal opinions are
going to start coming in, when you’re going to have
the answers that you need to pursue? – I know one has
already come in, but I can’t discuss
it too much because of attorney-client privelage. But I am doing
the due diligence. Commissioner Turner
talked about legal challenges, and things of that nature. I think the City of Mempis is
going to have its own share of legal challenges with the
referendum that got passed. That’s one reason why
I asked Mayor Strickland to offer me a few requests. And some of those
requests included the number of employees, public safety
employee and non-public safety employees that were
affected in 2014, and which ones went from a
defined benefits to a defined contribution plan. I also asked for
actuarial costs. And the reason why I’m asking
for that is because even though you brought that
$50 million number up, Eric, that may not be enough, because when you
look at sales tax, sales tax is
either going to be flat, or depending on what the
economics are for that particular time period,
it could go down. But healthcare costs,
they don’t remain flat, and they don’t go
down, they go up. So, looking at that, and
looking at the work that the City Council did in
order to pay on their ARC, which they’ll be doing in 2020, as well as looking at other
numbers, I’m just looking at, and this was one of my other
requests, as far as actuaries. I went back to the email
from 2015 when Comptroller Justin Wilson and I had
conversations back and forth, and he essentially said,
“Either get your house in order, or we’ll do it for you.” – This was at the State level.
– Yes. – Which basically
put, forced the city, and some other municipalities,
but particularly Memphis to get its house in order in
terms of the pension, and the underfunding
of the pension plan. – And I think if you go back
to what was the case prior to 2014, I think that those same
challenges and same concerns are going to come back up.
– (Eric) So… go ahead Bill. – So you each represent
districts that include the City of Memphis–
– (Edmund) Correct. – parts of the City of Memphis. Is your concern here then that
this sales tax hike might not cover the cost for
the City of Memphis? – (Edmund)
You wanna start first? [all chuckle]
He’s got a little bit of unincorporated too, so.
– (Van) Yeah, I’m both. – (Bill)
Mm-hmm. [affirmative] – I’m about equal. You know, I don’t know, it
would be quite something if the money raised still doesn’t
cover what it attempts to cover, and of course that’s the
pension benefits for police and fire, and we’re hearing that
other groups who were left out, who also had their
benefits cut were not in, were not contemplated within
this particular referendum, so there are other groups who
were cut that are not police and fire, and so what happens
when they start to chime in, and they want their
benefits restored. The referendum I believe only
contemplates police and fire. So, you know, I would say that
it’s easier to kind of deal with money and see how
you can parse it out, as opposed to not
having anything at all, I mean at least we’re not
starting at ground zero, I understand it
may be $50 million overall, and so hopefully that’s
something that can be worked out on the city side. And again, we’ll have to see
what happens on the county, as Commissioner Ford
has indicated, a referendum has to be passed
by the County Commission which would likely take nine votes. And then you would have to
then put that out to the unincorporated
citizens of Shelby County, so it’s not something that
just can happen overnight. And you have to get to
nine votes on the commission. – Let’s think about a
couple of issues here. So, separate from
the legalities, you all represent, your
district is mostly city? – (Edmund)
It’s all city. – It’s all city, you used
to be on the City Council. As you said, part city. There is a crime
problem in Memphis, so is part, would you not say,
well the will of the voters was to increase benefits
for fire and police, and we should– – (Edmund)
To go back to 2014 numbers, let’s make sure that…
– to go back to 2014, so shouldn’t we honor that? Whether the legality, separate
out the legalities for a second, isn’t
there some pressure? And this is what
the union has said, and Tommy Malone was on here a
couple of weeks ago– [Edmund chuckles]
he said look, if an elected official wants to go against the
will of the voters, I guess they can, but that seems like it
wouldn’t be very smart. Isn’t there some pressure
just to follow the vote? – From me? I mean to me? – (Eric)
Yeah. – I can’t speak for my collegue
– (Eric) Yeah of course. – I’ll just put it this way. And I’m not trying to be
presumptious or anything like that. In 2014, 2015 when I had
to make the most difficult decision I ever had to
make on the City Council, whether it was to raise taxes
on my people who have a lower socio-economic status,
it was either raise their taxes 30% more than one time,
or to reform. And I say that because
there was a lot of pressure, but at the same time I had to
look at the 90,000 people that I represented. The unions didn’t like it, they
said so many things bad about me, but I didn’t care, but you
know what it made me stronger as an elected official. And I say that because I
went back to my community, invited those same unions
who never came to my meetings, and I told my
community exactly what I did, and I got back
with 72% of the vote. And I say that Eric, because
your question was do I feel any pressure on that. Any decision that I make as an
elected official I always go back into the community and
tell them exactly what I do, so I’m not pressured ever, by
any police union or fire union. In fact, I gave Thomas Malone
back his money when somebody in his group decided to say on
TV, “We gave Councilman Ford $1,000, and he didn’t vote the
way he was supposed to,” so I will never have pressure
against a Tommy Malone or anybody else. – Let’s stay with
that, do you agree that… your concern is that if this
goes forward in part it gets the city back on this trajectory
that’s unsustainable. That–
– That’s my major concern. – That’s your major concern.
– Yes it is. – And especially
because the sales tax revenue is so variable. – It’s variable, it’s
regressive, and many of the people that I represent
will be affected by it. – Do you look back, and
I asked Jim Strickland, who was on the Council with
you when this vote was taken, who’s obviously now
Mayor, re-elected Mayor, I asked him this
question a few weeks ago. Do you look back, and you
believe that was a very sound decision financially for the
City at that time– – (Edmund)
Correct. – under the
pressure of the state. But in part as a
result of that, hundreds of police
officers left the police force, and some will say that resulted
in an increase in crime. So do you look back and, was
there unintended consequences from that vote that you are
afraid could happen again, or maybe you don’t believe that
the police force needs to get back to 2300. – We opened up the residency
in 2008 when it went to a referendum, there were
unintended consequences, there was a mass exodus of
employees that left the city. – (Eric)
Ok. – We also need to look at, there was a time before
Mayor Strickland got on, that there was zero
recruiting and retaining of police officers. There were no classes
or anything like that, so people have to put that
into the chronology as well. There has been an increase,
we used to be at 1900, we’re at about 2,100
police officers. People can argue
about the net all day, semantics, but all I know
is, when it was brought to my attention that,
and I’m looking at some of the numbers from the past. And they may be the
same or worse now but, if some of these
groups are put back in, you’re talking
about annual increases, and this is 2015, of
$23.1 million as far as OPEP, and then we’re looking at
unfunded liabilities of up to $300 million, so a sales tax
increase is not going to take care of all of
these other items, that if we bring them back,
I don’t want to get another letter from–
– (Eric) Right. – Comptroller Wilson saying–
– Let me get Van in, then I’ll come back, we
have ten minutes left. Same question for you, do you
feel as an elected official representing at
least part of Memphis, that you can, that the will
of the voters of the City of Memphis was, we want this to
go back to these benefits, again, separate
out the legalities, do you feel pressure
to honor that vote? – I mean I would say yes,
because citizens voted it in. Quite clearly the citizens know
when they want to vote a sales tax in, and when they don’t
want to vote a sales tax in. Hence, the Pre-K vote
failed, this referendum passed. So I think the
citizens should be respected. As an attorney, we are often
times told respect the jury. You know if you put 12 people
in a jury box you have to respect their intelligence, you
have to respect the fact that they have different life
experiences that they’re going to bring to the issue, and
you have to speak to that, so in this instance the
citizens of Memphis spoke, and you know, I think
it should be respected. We respect, I
think we both agree, we respect what the police
and firefighters do in our communities every day, and when
we talk to constituents they ask for blue light cameras,
they ask for more safety in their communities which means
that they want an effective police department, an
effective fire department, and I think we
should respect that. Now again, we have all
the legal issues at play. Commissioner, former-Councilman
Ford is much more engaged in this process as he was on
the Council at the time, some of those things
I don’t know about, but I do say just
for me, on the County, looking from the outside in,
the citizens of Memphis have spoken to this issue, and
it should be respected. – Ok. Alright, and I should also
mention that we reached out to a couple of suburban County
Commissioners who we couldn’t get on, but obviously there’s a
lot of conversation and shows– – (Edmund)
That’s good. – that we’ll do on
these kinds of issues, so we’ll get some other people
on here. Bill. – So, is it possible that if
there is a move for the County to claim some part
of this revenue, can you only use it for
County Government functions? Could there be a half and half? Could there be some like, this
much toward the city restoring the benefits, and this
much to County funding for Shelby County schools? – Well that’s the one thing
that I’m glad that the CTAS opinion dictates, as well
as the CTA, and that’s 50% going to education, and then 50%
being levied in particular ways. I don’t have the exact
language for option two, but it’s different from
what just got passed, because this new
council, administration, in it’s own particular way,
and I know you had Councilman Conrad on not too
long ago, he simply said that this new council,
this new body could essentially do what they really
wanted to do with that money. Even though I know you asked
would they have any type of pressure honoring what
was in the referendum. But I’m asking
particular questions as well. Because the goal with
your particular question, I would like to find out
how much each one of the municipalities gets from their
local option sales tax and I would like to see what percent
each one gets from the county property tax
allocable to schools, because that’s going to give me
an idea of making sure that the municipalities who
raised their sales tax, and some raised their property
tax in order to have their own municipal schools, we’ve been
talking about schools a lot in this conversation. Let’s look at the numbers,
let’s keep getting the legal opinions, and I sincerely hope
that the new members of the city council, as well as more
seasoned ones are able to look at their numbers
as well, because, and I’ll be real quick because
I know we got limited time, I appreciate what you
said Commissioner Turner, but there’s one thing that
sort of broke my heart a little bit yesterday. I was in my constituency… my community, I
was eating lunch, and there were a lot of
Public Works workers. There was this one gentleman
that looked like he’d been working 24 hours straight. He had two knee
braces on each knee, and he asked me what makes my
work different from a police officer or a firefighter,
and I gave my time as well, so I think there’s going to be
a lot of legalities that will have to be resolved, especially
if that worker or somebody else decides to say, well my
benefits were reformed as well, so I would like to get the same
thing that everybody else got. Because, and I’ll
say this to end off, we were not given
the decision to cherry-pick the people that we reformed. We had to reform everybody.
So– – (Eric)
Fire, police, public works, everything.
All were reformed. – We had to, so how can we go
back and reverse it and say only one particular group
and not everybody else. – This really sounds like at
some point very soon down the road, this is going
to involve talks between the County Commission and
the City Council. – (Edmund)
I welcome it. – Alright, Commissioner Turner? What do you think
about that, do you, do we need to get 26 people
around a table here from both groups, and talk about
how this would be spent, if this goes to a referendum,
and if it’s approved? – I don’t know, we’ll
have to wait and see. There are eight
Democrats, five Republicans, if you can count,
I know you can count– [Bill laughs]
– you’re there every day. So that means we have to pass
a referendum for a sales tax increase by nine votes. Which would mean one of
our Republican colleagues, if there are eight Democrats,
and eight Democrats vote for it, one of our Republican
colleagues would have to come over and support the referendum
to even get to the people to vote on. And so, you’re going to
have our colleagues on, but what they’re likely hearing
from the six suburban municiple governments is, we need our
full sales tax to support our school system, and if the
County passes a sales tax it cuts into our sales tax which
we’re using for our schools, so dear County Commissioner,
vote no against a County referendum resolution to pass
a referendum on the ballot, so it may not even get
through the Commission, but if it does get
through the Commission, and then the second stage, the
unincorporated citizens have to vote, and if it
passes that hurdle, then I think it’s time
for us to talk to the city. – And one ofthe things that
you’re awaiting in several legal opinions you’re
probably going to get, is whether indeed that it
does cut into the suburban municipalities sales tax? – (Edmund)
And that’s why I’m asking for the numbers as far
as the local option sales tax, so I can see for myself. – Again, with just a
couple minutes left, and we were going to talk
about some other stuff, but we might as well just stick
with sales tax referendum, since we’ve got just
two minutes left here. – (Edmund)
Sure, why not. – You mentioned, again, will of the voters. So there’s an
emphasis on that vote, and in the
mayor’s race on crime, crime fighting comes up a lot. Do you feel any pressure,
the County doesn’t fund city police, obviously. But the County does fund
certain law enforcement crime prevention strategies. Do you feel any
pressure to say, well if the
county does take that, I mean there are
needs everywhere. School, Pre-K, all this, but to
follow again that will of the voters saying we want this
money to go towards crime generally, that’s what we,
if you interpret it that way, and you can hear
certain politicians already interpreting it that way, it’s
not about the specific language in the referendum, which
is as you say aspirational, but the intent is, voters
were concerned about crime, and they want to fund
crime fighting efforts. Are there things the County
could look at that would help prevent crime? – I’m open. But I will say this to answer
definitely the first and second part of your question. If the new County, or the new
City Council members as well as the City Mayor want to go
back and see what can be done, just know it is at a price. And the sales tax is not
going to be enough money. In fact the numbers that I
showed you from 2015 will probably be more, so be ready
to either raise taxes on top of your tax rate, or cut services,
or something that may not necessarily have
been in the referendum, but these are the unintended
consequences that could happen. So if they honor it, just know
that it’s going to be a cost that the tax payer is going
to have to have on top of the sales tax. – Alright, we will
give you the last word, we’ll leave it there. Thank you Commissioner,
thank you Commissioner Turner, and thank you Bill. Join us again next
week, goodnight. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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