Public safety sales tax issue may be left unsettled on election night

Published: Sep. 30, 2019 at 5:47 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Memphis city election is this Thursday and one issue voters must decide is whether to approve a half-cent sales tax increase. But the issue may not be settled on election night, whether the referendum passes or fails.

The Memphis police and fire unions are urging voters to pass the public safety referendum to restore health and pension benefits to first responders.

“We had to go out and work two years to get this put on the ballot. That's why we're fighting so hard. We're fighting so hard for those that have given so much to this city,” said Mike Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association.

In recent weeks, Shelby County Commissioner Edmund Ford, Jr. and Memphis City Council chairman Kemp Conrad have come out against the referendum, arguing the numbers just don’t add up.

“This is going to be underwater day one,” said Conrad. “Day one, there will not be enough money to fund these additional benefits. That’s why we made these choices five years ago.”

Whoever’s elected mayor on Thursday will also have a big say.

On Sunday, Tami Sawyer made her position clear.

Sawyer tweeted, “Bottom line, I will follow the will of the voters. If the referendum passes, I will make sure that the voters will is implemented and that the tax will go to the benefits & pensions of fire & police as requested.”

Mayor Jim Strickland and former Mayor Willie Herenton, who has been endorsed by both the police and fire unions, have made that same pledge.

But even if voters approve it, opponents say the city council has the final say.

"It's our opinion that the city council will appropriate the money every year, regardless of how that referendum is worded,” said Conrad.

Commissioner Ford also plans to propose Shelby County take its share of the tax revenue, essentially nullifying the referendum.

The unions call that a scare tactic.

"I would think that if the county was going to come and try to take this, then the politicians that represent the constituency that put that referendum in place, would vehemently fight it,” said Williams.

The election will be held Oct. 3.

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