Time for Choosing Sides Again 

“Off-year” elections get under way; Memphis looking at major pension reform.

Lakeland mayor candidates Wyatt Bunker and Scott Carmichael dueled at a forum held last week on the eve of city elections.

Jackson Baker

Lakeland mayor candidates Wyatt Bunker and Scott Carmichael dueled at a forum held last week on the eve of city elections.

Technically, 2013 belongs to the one year out of every four in the Shelby County election cycle that is relatively election-free. But the bottom part of this year's calendar features a number of voter choices. Indeed, the 2013-14 electoral season will have kicked off this week with Thursday's municipal elections in Arlington and Lakeland.

The Lakeland mayor's race, featuring challengers Jim Bomprezzi and Wyatt Bunker and incumbent mayor Scott Carmichael, was being closely watched. Bomprezzi, a former mayor, was attempting a political comeback, Carmichael was seeking a fourth term, and Bunker, a term-limited member of the Shelby County Commission, was scouting out a new political arena.

At a candidate forum, sponsored last week by the Northeast Shelby Republican Club at the Refuge Church in Lakeland, Bomprezzi was absent, but the other two laid out their thoughts — Carmichael espousing his view that growth will inevitably come to Lakeland as a result of the city's forthcoming creation (in tandem with Arlington) of a municipal school system and that regulations are needed to control growth, while Bunker emphasized a harder push for industrial and business recruitment to fuel growth.

Four candidates for commissioner's seats also attended — Donald O. Barber, Sherri Gallick, Clark W. Plunk, and Cecil Tompkins. Another candidate, John Wilkerson, was absent. The two highest finishers were due to take office.

In Arlington, there were three contested races for alderman: Oscar L. Brooks Sr. vs. Brian "Brian Elder" Groves in Position 4; Joshua Fox and Harry McKee in Position 5; and Larry M. Harmon Jr. and Brian Thompson in Position 6.

On November 7th, Arlington and Lakeland, along with four other Shelby County suburban municipalities — Collierville, Germantown, Bartlett, and Millington — will hold elections for their soon-to-be-created school boards. Numerous petitions have been issued by the election commission so far. Filing deadline is September 26th, and the Flyer will publish a complete list of candidates as of that date.  

• On October 8th, there will be a Democratic primary to determine that party's nominee on November 21st for the right to succeed the late Lois DeBerry as state representative in House District 91. Eight candidates filed valid qualifying petitions. They are: Raumesh Akbari, Dwight DeBerry, Doris A. DeBerry-Bradshaw, Joshua R. Forbes, Kemba Ford, Terica Lamb, Clifford N. Lewis, and Kermit Moore.

There has been one candidate forum to date, held last Friday night at Cane Creek Baptist Church under the auspices of the Democratic members of the Shelby County legislative delegation. State representative Joe Towns presided. Two of the candidates were missing — Ford and Forbes. Former state senator Roscoe Dixon, a supporter of veteran community activist Forbes, attempted to speak on behalf of his candidate, but Lamb and a contingent of her supporters objected strenuously to the substitution, and ultimately Dixon was forced to step aside.

Several of the participating candidates were given good marks by audience members — particularly lawyer Akbari, county employee Lamb, and DeBerry-Bradshaw, a sister of state representative John DeBerry (no relation to Lois DeBerry). But most political observers consider the obvious front-runner to be Ford, daughter of former state senator and Tennessee Waltz figure John Ford.

Ford, who ran impressively by finishing second to city councilman Lee Harris in a 2011 council race, has boots on the ground, many of those belonging to the members of her highly influential, extended political family. In addition to a generous number of resident Fords, Joe Ford Jr., son of former Shelby County interim mayor Joe Ford, a former congressional candidate, and an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles these days, said last week that he plans to be in Memphis for much of the campaign season.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face libertarian Jim Tomasik, listed on the ballot as an independent, in the November 21st general election.

On the same date, Memphis voters will cast ballots on a referendum to raise the city sales-tax rate half a percentage point from 2.25 percent to 2.75 percent — the proceeds going toward funding a pre-K program for Memphis children, with any leftover monies to be used to lower the city's property-tax rate.

George Little, chief administrative officer of the city of Memphis and a recognized spokesman for Mayor A C Wharton, let a somewhat major cat out of the bag last Wednesday in a luncheon talk to the Memphis Kiwanis Club at the University Club.

The secret, as first noted last week in the Flyer's online edition: The city administration, on the basis of a study commissioned from the PWC consulting firm but not yet released until the weekend, had resolved to convert city pensions to "defined contribution" plans.

At present, city employees are enrolled in "defined benefit" plans, in which factors like seniority determine a precise value of benefits paid out to retirees or their dependents or to disabled former employees and theirs, and those benefits are guaranteed on the basis of a city escrow fund funded jointly by the city and employees in a given, predetermined ratio.

"Defined contribution" pension plans, in contrast, are basically predicated on employee contributions amassed and held in reserve over the time of their employment, usually but not necessarily matched to some degree by their employer, and invested on the stock market. The money reserved for an employee's pension will vary according to the fate of the chosen investments.

In a defined benefit plan, the essential onus is on the employer; in a defined contribution plan, it shifts to the employee.

Little told the Kiwanians that the city's current defined-benefit plan "is not sustainable" and that transition to a defined-contribution structure is necessary "to make sure that the money is there" for current and future vested employees. He said the administration had "not made a decision about a particular approach or a particular plan."

As many employees as possible, whether vested or non-vested, would have to be brought into the plan to make it viable, Little said.

Under the current defined-benefit plan, said Little, "we are not putting enough money into the program, particularly with the economic downturn of the last several years." He pointed out that the city's pension fund had been funded "at 104 percent" just before the crash of 2008, plummeted to as low as 74 percent in 2009, and had hovered at a level of just under 80 percent since.

Kiwanis member Sam Cantor asked Little if the current shortfall of $650 million would not "jump tremendously" during a transition from defined benefits to defined contributions "because the guy you hire tomorrow is not contributing to the retirement of the guy who retires the next days out."

With a wry grin, Little confirmed the existence of such a potential problem that would need to be resolved: "No one said this was going to be an easy trip. ... It's not like we flip a switch and go to defined contribution and everybody lives happily ever after. That's only fairy tales."

The city council, of course, will have to vet whatever proposal the administration emerges with, and there is no guarantee that there is a majority on the 13-member council for whatever the administration settles on. In any case, discussions on the matter could take months. Representatives of AFSCME and other labor groups were already being critical of the PWC report and the administration's response to it. Indeed, at the time Little spoke, council members had not yet received even as full an accounting as the Kiwanians were getting.

Some council members, notably including Jim Strickland and Kemp Conrad, have been publicly critical of the administration's close-to-the-vest method of releasing information. But at least one, Lee Harris, said this week, "I'm not concerned about their timing, so long as their product is good." Harris said he expected some major reforms to come on the pension front.

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