Thursday, June 18, 2009

Pay Raises Raise Questions

The first reaction to the Memphis City Council’s vote in favor of a three per cent pay raise for its employees is disbelief.

On the surface, it appears that a majority of the Council is more concerned about employees than taxpayers. Below the surface, it was yet another reminder of the special importance that government has to the African-American middle class in our city.

In the end, we understand those dynamics, but it does little to temper our incredulity that in a year of disastrous budget challenges, with billions being shipped to local governments to stimulate the national economy and with jobs cuts are the norm, $11 million was used to boost city employees’ salaries.

One-Time Hit


We’ve written until most of your mouths move when we start talking about this, but it remains nonetheless true: the Memphis property tax rate must be reduced so that Memphis is on a level playing field with suburban municipalities. If a majority of Council members believe that city government has $11 million to spare, we’d suggest that it should be used to reduce the tax rate about a dime.

Alternately, City Council should have treated the three percent raise was a one-time bonus, so that it would not be an ongoing cost in future city budgets.
A one-time bonus would not de facto increase the personnel budget for next year, and even if City Council voted for raises next year, they would be based on the salary levels of last year without the three per cent increase.

Coupled with last year’s courageous, then disappointing, vote on school funding – when $40 million of the cut was moved to general city government operations – means that City Council has missed crucial chances to decrease the tax rate by about 50 cents.

Mixed Messages

As a result, City Council is sending mixed messages. On one hand, it’s cutting school funding in the interest of tax equity, but on the other hand, it’s not following through by slashing the city’s tax rate.

It’s Step 2 that matters most. Otherwise, as was shown last year, city taxpayers get a token reduction and the bulk of the money ends up feeding the broken business model that is city government.

And yes, we know that before their 5 per cent pay raises were given last year, city employees hadn’t received a pay raise in two years. But the economic downturn is forcing hard decisions on everyone, and there’s no reason that government is exempt from the realism that private sector Memphis workers are confronting every day, particularly the 33 per cent of them who are not now working.

Unfulfilled Promise

This year’s budget hearings began with such promise, but deteriorated into some grand-standing that is always expected with such a process and the racial divide that we hoped had finally passed.

The final vote on the three per cent said it all: only one white Councilman and one African-American Councilman abandoned their racial voting bloc. As usual, there was the seemingly inevitable black and white discord that accompanies most major public decisions here.

Hopefully, the residual effect of the budget wars will quickly recede, but suspicions seem to be growing with some members suspecting others with using the process to position themselves for higher office and with some convinced that other members are mired in the past.

Deepest Cut Of All

It would make for a challenging group therapy session, but despite the conflict of the hearings, a vast majority of the Council members profess a desire to mend fences and repair relationships. It can’t happen too soon, because with the economic realities and the regressive tax structure defining city government’s options, budget hearings will otherwise become more and more rancorous as this yearly drama plays out.

If the public questions the wisdom of the three per cent raise, they are absolutely bewildered by the reluctance of local government to reduce their workforce. We’ve seen juries return death sentence verdicts easier than local legislators faced with the idea of paring back the “personnel complement.”

It’s manifested in the attitude by some Council members and county commissioners that workers should be protected at all costs. There’s almost the sense that employees have a right to be employed and that the financial implications on the public are almost irrelevant.

The Promised Land

There’s normally a racial divide that opens on this question that has more to do with history than finances. For decades, government has been the promised land for the African-American middle class.

That’s why any time suggestions are made that workforce of city schools, city government and county government should be cut back, there is a howl of protest. That’s because in a large part of this city, this is more than attack on government spending. It is in fact an attack on the black middle class.

Of the 22 largest employers in Shelby County, 11 are public entities with about 75,000 workers. It’s a safe bet that at least half of them – in government and schools, it’s more like 65 per cent – are African-Americans.

All of this is why an issue like residency tend to explode in ways that perplex the white colleagues of black legislators with its emotions and hostility. And yet, as the local tax structure restricts city government’s ability to fund its services, it may in time erase any racial sensitivity about the size of the workforce and any idea that the workers deserve raises no matter what their performance.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

indeed, when there are few businesses and high income residents left in Memphis to fund the full-employment structure that is city government, they'll find out pretty quick it ain't free money. I had hopes for this council, but with this one decision, they've shown it's business as usual in "special" Memphis. I have an idea for a business: start up a firm that specializes in helping companies and high income individuals facilitate moving from memphis to Nashville. Partner with Nshville's chamber of commerce, you could drain out what's left of a productive private sector in this city. It'd make a killing.

Quixotic said...

You said exactly what I was thinking. Thank you for saying it so well.

Zippy the giver said...

Your whole article, minus the coulda shoulda woulda;
"Mixed Messages
As a result, City Council is sending mixed messages. On one hand, it’s cutting school funding in the interest of tax equity, but on the other hand, it’s not following through by slashing the city’s tax rate.
It’s Step 2 that matters most. Otherwise, as was shown last year, city taxpayers get a token reduction and the bulk of the money ends up feeding the broken business model that is city government."

BINGO!

Right now there are real businesses, big ones, gone into receivership right now,THY DIDN'T GET A THREE PERCENT PAY RAISE, Only people living in the bubble of government got raises and FOR WHAT?
They didn't make anything better. In fact they didn't do anything but be the inert parasites that a government job really is when it doesn't enforce the rules or act in good faith and follow through.
Kinda makes you think they are crooks.
Time to leave them all high and dry.
Memphis City needs to SURRENDER IT'S CHARTER NOW!
MayorS et. al. need to be in jail NOW.
Still fighting about the rape crisis center? Shoulda been solved weeks ago, where's the money going, why doesn't someone DEMAND AND IMMEDIATE AUDIT NOW?
Bring on the federal bulldozers, too hot and no pools with high taxes, bulldoze the dirt into them and put them on Willy's runnin for congress ads, put the "get out if ya don't like it, haters" on there too.
maybe we could set up a fund to have a "justice auction" system where you find out how much they get to let the guilty run free and the city uses tax money to pay more to get them to put a real sentence for crime on.

I'll send a note to the governor about getting the big businesses into Nashville. I'm sure he can put someone on it for free, especially since Memphis is basically OVER.

When will someone with some power stand up to these thugs?

Zippy the giver said...

65% of government workers in Memphis are black? Have you been to memphis before, more like 71%+maybe a much as 80 or 90%.
that doesn't have to be a bad thing, unless they make it one by being people. It doesn't matter what color government workers are if they aren't racists, if your sure that's the case here, there are just too many employees and too many places duplicating services and doing things that are not even called for here.
Waste waste waste.
Fire everyone and start over, somewhere else.

victor said...

Its really nice, I agree to tally with your article,
thanks


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