‘A game changer’: First responders react to reintroduction of city’s 1978 pension plan

Published: Sep. 28, 2022 at 10:42 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Public safety leaders expressed their joy after the City of Memphis announced it is taking a major step forward in hiring first responders, and making sure they stay in the Bluff City.

Mayor Jim Strickland unveiled a plan on Wednesday to bring back the city’s 1978 pension plan, saying more money and better benefits for first responders means safer streets in Memphis.

Think back to the municipal election in October of 2019...

On the ballot was a yes/no question: do you support raising the local sales tax to generate money to take care of our police and firefighters?

If you are one of the 49,699 voters who answered “yes” on that referendum, the leaders of the police and fire departments have a message for you:

“First of all,” said Memphis Fire Chief Gina Sweat, “thank you to the citizens of Memphis, because without you, this would not be possible.”

Mayor Jim Strickland’s plan is to allow police, fire and dispatch employees hired on or after July 1, 2016, to participate in the City’s 1978 Pension Plan.

With this change, Memphis first responders will be armed with another key tool in their recruitment and retention arsenal as they seek to beef up their respective ranks.

“I can’t say enough about the work this administration has done on behalf of public safety,” said Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis, “this change is truly a game changer.”

Employees who qualify for this plan can contribute up to eight percent of their salary and the city will match at no less than six percent.

”Our experience with the sales tax referendum over the last two years shows that we can afford to make that available,” Strickland told reporters during a news conference at Memphis City Hall, “although we do not have the exact cost yet, our financial analysts tell us that this plan is affordable under the public safety sales tax referendum.”

In 2019, Memphis voters approved a referendum to increase the sales tax from 9.25 percent to 9.75 percent, the issue passing with 52 percent of the vote.

Strickland says this small bump generates between $60 million and $70 million a year, enough to restore the 1978 pension plan to all employees after city council cut it from the budget for new hires in 2014.

”I can’t tell you what this means to me as the leader of the fire service here in Memphis,” said Sweat, “that you supported us, that you came out and voted to make this happen.”

”This is going to be paramount in retaining our firefighters,” said Todd Conklin, vice president of the Memphis Fire Fighters Association. “We can recruit them, but the other cities with pension plans are taking our firefighters away. This will help keep our firefighters home.”

The police and fire unions worked hard for this day, gathering 140 thousand signatures for the referendum three years ago and working closely with city hall to take care of first responders so they can take care of Memphis.

”It goes to show that when we can get together and collaborate, we can work out any issues,” said Lt. Essica Cage-Rosario, president of the Memphis Police Association. “We can do what we can to make this place better because we all want the same thing.”

During exit interviews, the number one reason public safety employees said they were leaving Memphis was because the 1978 pension plan was gone, according to the mayor.

The Memphis City Council has the final say in its restoration.

Strickland will submit the plan, along with his budget, to the council in April of next year.

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