The Memphis City Council budget committee approved $7,000 in next year’s budget for lunches for council members and council staff during Tuesday council meetings.
The move was part of the budget hearings that got underway at Memphis City Hall Tuesday. The hearings are a time for council members to weigh in on the mayor's proposed budget and make changes. The changes (like the money for lunches) are proposed in the budget hearings but they aren’t permanent. They won’t become final until the council passes the full budget, which isn’t expected to happen for more than a month.
Lunches were cut from the council's current budget, a move to show the council was being frugal in the face of big cuts they made to the city’s pension and retiree health care plans. But council member and current mayoral candidate Harold Collins said he wants them back next year. He said the idea came from council chairman Myron Lowery.
“With all due respect, I recognize we’re up here, typically all day and I recognize we’re trying to save money,” Collins said. “But what happens is we go through the day…and I even went to the chair (Lowery) and said, listen, bill us an hour for lunch and he wouldn’t do it because of the schedule.”
Collins furthered his rationale by noting some council member take medication and that the council has to “think of our staff.”
The council’s proposed budget for next year is about $1.5 million, which is about $66,000 lower than the current budget. Still, the new budget added $40,000 for travel for council members and about $10,000 for them to attend seminars next year.
Council budget chairman and mayoral candidate Jim Strickland said “not surprisingly” he opposed the increases for lunches and travel.
“$40,000 for travel and $10,000 for seminars and $7,000 for lunch - that’s a firefighter, that’s a police officer,” Strickland said. “Firefighters work 24 hours and we don’t pay for their lunches. They bring their own and make arrangements for themselves. Every working person in America has to bring their lunch or arrange for their lunch. I think it’s wrong to use taxpayer money to buy (council members’) lunch.”
Halbert said Strickland’s comparisons did not ring true. She noted council salaries have been cut “two or three times” since she was elected but council administrator Lisa Geater said salaries have only been cut once in that time. Halbert said making council staff get their own lunch on Tuesday is an “undue burden” that is “just ridiculous.”
“I know we are trying to show that we are being frugal and trying to be responsible with our spending but this is such a trivial issue,” Halbert said. “Our staff is not able to leave for lunch many times because of the schedule. If we can allocate money for outside services or professionals services we may or may not need, certainly this is not something worth us even haggling over.”
Adding lunches to the budget got a positive recommendation from the committee. Council members Berlin Boyd, Collins, and Halbert voted in favor of it. Council members Strickland and Kemp Conrad voted against it. It was the same vote for the council’s overall budget.