Memphis police and firemen are taking their push for better benefits directly to the voters with a referendum on the Oct. 3 ballot that would approve a half-cent city sales tax increase.

The increase would restore city benefits to police and firefighters that the city cut five years ago, with any extra funding generated by the tax going to fund pre-kindergarten programs and street improvements, according to police and fire union authorities.

If approved by the voters, the Memphis City Council would still have to vote on the measure as part of the city budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2020.

The campaign to support the ballot item was kicked off with a Saturday outdoor rally along Poplar Ave. The campaign headquarters is in a storefront across from East High School on Poplar.

The proposed increase, which is being supported by both the fire and police unions, is partly an effort to help the city retain officers and firefighters that the city spends years and money training only to see them leave for more money and better benefits offered in other departments, according to John Covington, chief negotiator with the Memphis Police Association. He said the police department lost 500 officers in 2014.

“You can’t recruit your way out of a retention problem,” Covington said. “The process began in 2014 when the city began making cuts to healthcare benefits. …We’ve been trying to get those restored. Basically it (referendum) will restore and maintain healthcare benefits.”

Union president Mike Williams expressed concern about the public getting a false sense about the status of recruitment. Noting references about the recruitment of 450 new officers, Williams said there only was a net gain of 24 officers after accounting for the 426 that left the force.

Williams said fire and police departments in other cities, some within Shelby County, offer better benefits and recruit officers away after Memphis has paid for their training.

He said police and firemen were able to collect 140,000 signatures on the petition needed to have the referendum added to the ballot.

“That shows me that the citizens are concerned about their safety,” Williams said.

Matthew Tomek, secretary/treasurer of the Memphis Firefighters Association, said the reaction from the public has been positive so far.

“We’ve run into only a handful of citizens who were not in favor of it,” he said.

Former Memphis mayor and current mayoral candidate Dr. Willie W. Herenton said he supports whatever the public decides on the ordinance.

“I wholeheartedly support the right of the citizens of Memphis to express their views in regards to the sales tax,” Herenton said, adding that he would support it if elected mayor and would urge the council to do the same.

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who is also running for mayor, agreed.

“I look forward to seeing the community’s response to the ballot item,” she said. “I think it’s important that we play a role in education and take care of those who work for our city in all sectors.”

Through a spokesman, Mayor Jim Strickland said he would “support the will of the voters and will work with the city council to fulfill the voters’ wishes, if the referendum passes.”

A yes vote for the Memphis Public Safety Officer Benefits Sales Tax Initiative is a vote in favor of increasing the city’s sales tax by an additional 0.5 percent, from 2.25 percent to 2.75 percent.

A no vote is a vote against increasing the city’s sales tax by an additional 0.5 percent from 2.25 percent to 2.75 percent.

A no vote would leave the existing total sales tax rate within the city at 9.25 percent.