Memphis’ Oct. 3 municipal elections for mayor and city council begin Friday as early voters decide the fate of Memphis’ first successful tax referendum to be formed by petition.

Those who vote for the referendum will support a 0.5% tax increase to ensure health care and retirement benefits for public safety workers, including Memphis police and fire departments. Proceeds exceeding the 1978 City of Memphis Pension Plan would be used toward public prekindergarten and street maintenance. 

The referendum would enact a sales and use tax already effective in all Shelby County cities except for Memphis.

John Covington, Chief Steward of the Memphis Police Association (MPA) and principal organizer of the referendum process, said that the tax would help strengthen public safety while not becoming a burden to citizens.

“People aren’t even aware that this is happening everywhere else,” Covington said. “People don’t say ‘I won’t go eat in Germantown or Bartlett’ over the half-penny tax.”

Between 2014 and 2016, over 500 police officers were cut from the Memphis Police Department. Health care and pension benefits promised to public safety workers were also changed. Covington said that these cuts and changes led to an increase in violent crime.

Covington and the MPA are determined to find funding not only for public safety workers but for public safety for citizens as well. When the Memphis city council rejected the MPA’s request to have the referendum appear on the ballot, the Election Commission granted the MPA permission to petition for a spot on the ballot.

“We could put it on the ballot with 10% signing the petition, about 36,000 signatures,” Covington said. “It took us about a year and a half, but we got roughly 140,000 signatures, well past the magic number.”

Covington said that the state of Tennessee has never seen anything like this before. Despite the rejection from the city council, the MPA put the referendum “in the hands of the people,” and the decision to enact it will remain in the same hands.

If enacted, the tax would generate about $52 million per year. It would require about $36 million to provide the benefits promised to public safety workers, leaving an estimated $16 million to fund prekindergarten and road maintenance, including pothole repair.

“Every penny would be accounted for, used and rolled into public safety,” Covington said. “Pre-K is a long-term way to prevent crime.”

The sales and use tax would be capped at $1,600. Covington said the maximum amount collected for the tax would be roughly $8, even if the purchase well exceeded $1,600.

“We really believe it will have a positive impact in the long run and result in a safer Memphis,” Covington said. “We feel good that we put it in front of the people and let the people decide.”

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