It took about three county elections longer than expected, but when it came last Thursday, it was no blue wave.
Rather, it was a tsunami.
It swept over every Republican elected official in Shelby County Government, ushering in a new era for a government that for too long had failed to represent the demographic diversity of the county.
It may have taken longer than predicted, but considering the demographic trend line for Shelby County, it was inevitable from the time the Republican Party petitioned the Shelby County Election Commission in 1992 for partisan elections. At the time, the local GOP was headed by a plastic surgeon, which seemed appropriate since it took one to put a pretty face on the action.
More than anything, the Republicans’ decision was a desperation move to hold on to power, and they had to know it. Some years earlier, county officials had fueled suburban sprawl as a political strategy to keep white voters inside the county borders.
A Democrat In Every Office
The worst aspect of the partisan primaries – the Democratic Party was forced to add its own in 1994 – was its cynicism, because it was obvious at the time that the decision would institutionalize racial lines in county politics and usher in political purity tests in meeting after meeting of the board of commissioners.
All that said, the Shelby County Republican Party is likely satisfied that its decision at least allowed it to dominate county elections for at least eight years longer than the math would have suggested. But the benefits of this partisan approach to county elections came crashing to its end with a thundering finality in Thursday’s elections that surprised even leaders of the local Democratic Party, who assumed the hard-fought race for the Republican nomination for governor would result in substantial turnout of its voters.
That said, it is hard to overstate the importance of the quality of Democratic candidates, save one, and even more, the turnaround in discipline, effectiveness, and organization produced by the current leadership of the Shelby County Democratic Party that influenced the campaigns of its candidates, an improvement that the Republican Party clearly underestimated.
Now, for the first time in history, every fulltime elected office in Shelby County Government – and eight of the 13 members of the board of commissioners – is filled by a Democrat and a new generation of them at that.
Of course, this new generation is headed by the new county mayor, Lee Harris, state senator and former Memphis Councilman, whose election promises a dramatic break in tone, style, and agenda from the past. For roughly 15 years, Shelby County Government has been running in place, a position demanded by its skyrocketing debt of almost $2 billion that brought it to the brink of bankruptcy.
More Than Money
With the serious stress caused by yearly debt payments, county mayors have been rightly obsessed in restoring county government’s financial stability. It dominated the overall county agenda and strangled most of its ability to make key investments, particularly as a partner with City of Memphis, in programs that could move the community ahead.
The diligence with which former Mayor Wharton and Mayor Mark Luttrell have addressed this pressing financial challenge is reflected in the progress with the debt, which, as of June 30, 2017, was $989.7 million. While this still requires debt service payments of $150 million a year, the lower debt provides some flexibility for Shelby County to get more involved and consider some of the investments (for example: public transit) discussed by Mayor-elect Harris during his campaign.
That is not to say that the Harris Administration will be flush with cash. Like City of Memphis, it is dealing with the slow revenue growth that comes with a slow growth economy. From FY 2014 to FY 2018, the total revenues for Shelby County Government grew by a mere 4.4%.
That is not to say that being mayor is all about the money. Just as importantly, it is about a bully pulpit and how to use it to articulate a vision for Shelby County, how to tell compelling stories that motivate people to action for a shared future, and to inspire confidence that there is a plan to create a brighter, fairer, and more equitable future.
Mr. Harris becomes the youngest (he’ll be 40 years old in four days) and most highly educated mayor who has ever taken the oath of office. How that plays out for a $1.3 billion government remains to be seen, but it promises to be more assertive in local issues, to return county government to the days when it served as a think tank on innovative policy, to assess its priorities with fresh eyes, and to bring more young people into county appointed positions.
There are a multitude of items on the new mayor’s agenda, and here are few that we recommend:
Department of Justice Oversight of Juvenile Court: Despite a full-court press by the current county attorney and settlement coordinator Paul Summers to end DOJ oversight before a new mayor took office, the issue remains to be resolved. On the campaign stump, Mayor-elect Harris proposed for the issue to be handed to the new mayor, and with a DOJ visit scheduled for two months from now, he will need to determine whether he continues with Mayor Luttrell’s support for an end of oversight or if he believes there is more to be done with DOJ help.
The letter from Mr. Summers to the DOJ was an embarrassing mixture of egotism, bigotry, and misinformation, and it has been predicted that if nothing else, Mr. Harris will notify the feds that it does not speak for his administration.
Appointment of Public Defender: The resignation of Chief Public Defender Stephen Bush leaves a giant gap in knowledge and experience for the state’s largest criminal defense firm. Called by The Commercial Appeal editorial page as the “conscience of the criminal justice system,” Mr. Bush has been recognized nationally for the programs and representation that the 101-year-old office provides to those who cannot afford an attorney to mount their criminal defense.
A major legacy from his eight years as chief public defender – with equal credit going to Mayor Luttrell – has been the transformation of a department treated merely as just another buried in the county org chart into a law firm with the independence and zealousness that it needs to give voice to the voiceless. In this context, the naming of the public defender is more than just another of the dozens and dozens of appointments by the new mayor. It is pivotal.
School Funding: As we have blogged previously, in 2007, county government – in a change recommended by Mayor Wharton and Luttrell and supported by the county commissioners – capped school funding by adding a sentence to the tax rate ordinance that fundamentally upended the way county government had funded schools for decades, moving from sharing the annual growth in property taxes with schools to limiting the school districts to a specific amount of funding. Since then, millions of dollars that otherwise would have gone to schools have been diverted to the budgets of other county services and debt service.
Somewhere in those years, Shelby County also broke out the school debt into its own category although it had always been part of the Capital Improvements Project (CIP) budget. It apparently was a way to inflate the percentage of property taxes going to schools, and it thrust schools into the political deal-making that is needed if it is to get an increase in funding.
It’s time to reevaluate this policy. In addition, the current PILOT program waives about $10 million a year in taxes that otherwise would go to fund schools. It is time to make schools whole.
PILOTs: In the past 10 years, about $500 million in taxes have been waived in the form of PILOTs, and they came at a time when Shelby County Government was in dire need of increased revenues. We’ve never been an “end PILOTs” advocate, but we do believe that long ago they ceased to be incentives and became entitlements. We also think they too often treat real estate development as economic development, and that the economic analyses, particularly related to the so-called retention PILOTs, are fatally flawed. We also think that it was a mistake to expand the program to include hotels and apartment complexes.
The program needs serious, independent analysis, determining once and for all what kind of incentives are needed here, how they can better focus on priority targets, and what economic development really means to us. When Mr. Harris was a city councilman, he said that if taxpayers are going to waive taxes for real estate projects, they should have an equity position in the event they make profits. It’s an idea worth pursuing. Another good idea is to appoint some board members who represent the people whose taxes are being waived so there is a broad-based, diverse (in opinions) group to evaluate projects.
Health Department: We call it the Health Department but it is actually a division made up of many parts. Once City of Memphis quit treating it as a joint city-county operation, it also stopped its funding. Because of Mayor Luttrell’s brand of stable, nonconfrontational leadership, it became a county-only operation with a minimum of disruption.
It remains a cornerstone for public health in our community, and with health outcomes that are troubling, its work needs to be amplified and accelerated. Out of the 100 largest U.S. Cities, Memphis is #88 in fitness, and among the 95 counties of Tennessee, Shelby County ranks #49 in health outcomes, down from #39 in 2015. With a $26 million budget and a 536- member staff, the Health Department can be a visible champion for improving health outcomes in this community.
Crime Prevention: Although the county mayor has no law enforcement officers, Mr. Harris will have a major role in the development of crime prevention policies, and offices under his authority – public defender, pretrial services, and corrections center – must be part of working for an efficient – and fair – criminal justice system. There are reentry programs that need to be expanded at the Penal Farm, where about 2,600 prisoners are held; there is the pressing need to reduce the amount of time that defendants are staying in the Shelby County Jail before trial; and there is the need to address the mass incarceration that takes place here.
Then, too, Mayor-elect Harris will no doubt be met with crusaders pressing for the creation of the Juvenile Assessment Center, a concept that is not so much an intervention for children and youth as juvenile court and probation before juvenile court and probation. Wrapped in language about an “alternative” system and juvenile court “reform,” it obscures the fact that is police-driven, that the youths are without legal representation, and that it turns due process on its head. If there is to be such a center, it must not be about reducing police processing time, but about providing young people with genuine alternatives to juvenile court. There are models that do this, and they should be given more serious consideration.
Other Opportunities: There are of course other options for the future: 1) Ensuring that the Office of Sustainability and its work become central to county policies and is funded directly; 2) Considering a comprehensive plan for the area outside Memphis that could interlock with Memphis 3.0; 3) Reforming the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), one of the most unrepresentative organizations of its kind in the U.S., to mitigate new infrastructure with life cycle costs bequeathed to future taxpayers, to support public transit as much as new roads, and to make Memphis the priority of its work; 4) Rebuilding the checks and balances between the administration and legislative branches after the deterioration that took place in recent years; 5) Resuming support from the county hotel-motel tax to support the convention center, and 6) Supercharging the ambitious and bold Greenprinting plan, which addresses green space, but also long-term housing and land use, resource conservation, environmental protection, accessibility, community health and wellness, transportation alternatives, economic development, neighborhood engagement, and social equity. There is also the perennial question that is raised with every election of a county mayor: the possibility for merging information technology, engineering, and the fire department. It is regularly thrown out as something each mayor will pursue but each time, it loses momentum.
But first and foremost of all the priorities for the new administration is Poverty Reduction. It is hard to think of a county department, program, or project that cannot part of reducing the 21% poverty rate for Shelby County. We expect the new administration to be an outspoken advocate for more ambitious programs to attack the concentrated poverty that is a birthright for so many children in Shelby County.
In this vein, we predict that the Harris Administration will not treat the $15 an hour wage often cited by economic development officials as the benchmark for moving people out of poverty when a yearly living wage in Shelby County for one adult and two children is $51,829 and $57,977 for two adults and two children.
Based on his comments made on the campaign trail, Mr. Harris understands the price our community pays for economic segregation and inequity, and those are the right targets for his administration. There’s no issue where his bully pulpit will be more needed, and perhaps it could begin with asking all of the departments of Shelby County Government to consider their respective roles and to assemble a plan that has the reduction of poverty as its goal.
A New Day
The election ushers in a new day for Shelby County Government, and it is well-positioned to present a new face to the nation late next year. Lost in the emphasis on Memphis’ bicentennial is the fact that county government will celebrate its own 200th anniversary on November 24 of next year.
It’s worth remembering that when the first meeting of the county quarterly court – forerunner of today’s board of commissioners – was held on May 1, 1820, among its first actions was to levy a property tax – 6.25 cents per 100 acres – to help the poor and set up a commission to “inquire into the state of the poor.”
In other words, there’s no more appropriate historical priority for the Harris Administration than to revisit his government’s early commitment to address the plight of poor people at a time when the total population of Shelby County was slightly less than 400 people. It is no less important today with a population of 956,961 when 195,000 of our neighbors live below the poverty line.
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