Memphis Fire Fighters Association [MFFA] officials said they have advised the union's members against any type of massive "sick day" protest during the Independence Day holiday weekend in favor of more organized protests against changes in city employee benefits.
The Memphis City Council recently voted to reduce healthcare benefits of most city employees and retirees. On Tuesday, the council will discuss changes to employee pension benefits that could cut those benefits for many employees.
Recent Internet chatter shows that some members of the Memphis Police Department and the Memphis Division of Fire Services wish to rally against the changes by staging a mass "sick day" during the weekend holiday.
MFFA officials said they had heard the rumblings of such a protest, mostly on Facebook, and sent a message to their members advising them against such a protest. But they admitted they couldn't stop any member from doing what they wanted.
In a news conference Monday, MFFA leadership questioned the benefits changes when a new report shows the city abated more than $42 million in tax break for corporations last year.
MFFA president Thomas Malone said the "corporate welfare" could more than pay for the proposed cuts to the city's employee benefits. He promised his union members would unite in public protests, not in any kind of job action like calling in sick.
"We do not support any kind of job action (against the changes)," said Malone. "What we're doing here is the way we'll get our message across. We're not supporting job action but we will be in the streets."
The report was published this month and is from Washington-based Good Jobs First, a policy research group from the National Public Pension Coalition. Malone said his organization did not commission the study and does not support Good Jobs First financially.
The study says payment-in-lieu-or-taxes (PILOT) deals in Memphis cost it about 14 percent of its total tax base. Also, more than 63 percent of the 64 PILOTs approved in Memphis are not meeting job creation, wage, or capital investment goals, the study says.
"Giving all this financial assistance to big businesses costs more than the ongoing cost of providing pensions to city workers, which has averaged about $33 million annually in recent years," the study says. "Annual subsidy costs (PILOTs), which in 2012 were $43.7 million, are running about 131 percent of the pension cost."
The Memphis and Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine [EDGE] was formed in a joint venture by the governments of Memphis and Shelby County, which also approved the use of the PILOT as a tool for economic development. EDGE released a statement on the new report Monday afternoon and noted that the PILOT is the "No. 1 tool for creating jobs and tax revenue for Memphis and Shelby County."
"Recognizing the extremely difficult situation that all city of Memphis employees currently face, the statements made today by the Memphis Fire Fighters Association on PILOT tax incentives will hurt, not help city finances," EDGE officials said in a statement. "All PILOTs approved in Memphis — including projects for Downtown redevelopment, low-income housing and industrial development — incentivize investment that would otherwise not exist in the city of Memphis. Losing these projects would exacerbate current fiscal challenges, as more investment jobs locate elsewhere."
Still, Malone said Monday that Memphis citizens are being "ripped off by PILOTs" and said the $42 million in tax abatements were "corporate welfare."
"Now they're trying to put our people — the retirees — and trying to put them on real welfare," Malone said.