Thursday, April 23, 2009

Where the Jobs Are

More than 38,000 of them are in city, county, schools, and MLGW.

Posted By on Thu, Apr 23, 2009 at 4:00 AM

My part works.

That's what Mayor Willie Herenton told the Memphis City Council in so many words in his annual budget address on Tuesday.

The particulars of the speech (which came after our deadline) included no layoffs, a 3 percent pay increase for city employees, and no increase in the property tax. And a nice surplus in the reserve or "rainy day" fund to boot.

Not bad at a time when most private employers in Memphis, including flagship employer FedEx, are laying people off, cutting pay, and eliminating retirement contributions. Not even a symbolic layoff in city employment, which has grown from 6,570 in 1999 to 7,774 in 2008.

Of course, the council has yet to weigh in on the budget. The Memphis City Schools budget and the amount of contribution from the city have not been set. The Shelby County government and schools budgets have also not been set. And nobody knows how much chipping away there will be in the 2009 reappraisal due to appeals, foreclosures, and no-pays.

All of those things go into determining the final tax rate for the city and county, and if you live in the city of Memphis, you pay both.

But Herenton's part works, so we are told.

The second overriding message of the budget was this: In the recession, government is where the jobs are — and the health benefits and the pensions, too.

City of Memphis and Shelby County governments have overtaken FedEx as the largest combined employers in greater Memphis. Using numbers supplied by websites, communications employees, board members, and annual reports, more than 38,000 people have government jobs.

The 7,774 people who work for the city of Memphis includes 2,385 police officers and 1,721 fire department employees. Contrary to popular belief, police employment is not at an all-time high. There were 2,402 cops in 2001, according to the city's 2008 annual report.

Memphis City Schools has several thousand employees, although the exact number is something of a mystery. Superintendent Kriner Cash's communications office says an open records request must be filed to get that information. MCS reportedly took a year to respond to a records request from The Commercial Appeal on cell phones, so I declined the offer.

The MCS website says there are "more than 6,000 teachers" but doesn't give a total number. School board member Martavius Jones says there are 16,600 employees, including 7,500 teachers. The starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor's degree is $39,456, according to the website.

Memphis Light, Gas & Water has 2,723 employees, according to spokeswoman Gale Jones Carson.

Shelby County mayor A C Wharton says there are approximately 6,000 county employees, only 800 of whom are under his control.

The Shelby County school system has approximately 5,200 employees, including 3,200 teachers, according to spokesman Mike Tebbe. Starting salary in the county for a teacher with a bachelor's degree is $39,468.

Add 'em all up, and you get 38,297 jobs.

Coincidentally, FedEx CEO Fred Smith was invited to speak to the Memphis City Council Tuesday afternoon (again, after our deadline). FedEx has approximately 30,000 employees in the Memphis area. Five hundred of them were laid off earlier this month.

It is somewhat unusual for local CEOs to speak to the council on general topics. Smith said he was responding to a long-standing invitation from Chairman Myron Lowery.

Smith said he will tell the council "government has got to understand that wealth and well-being come from the private sector, so you have got to have a good environment for business." He said government's four top priorities should be safety, education, cost efficiency, and economic development and quality of life.

"Absent a safe and secure environment, all other goals are irrelevant," he said.

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