The Herenton Factor

The entry of former Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton into the upcoming mayor’s race has the potential to blow up all political conventional wisdom.  After all, he received 30% of the vote in his unsuccessful 2019 race against Jim Strickland, and with a dozen candidates vying for the office, 30% could be formidable. 

The consensus has been that attorney and NAACP President Van Turner, Downtown Memphis Commission President Paul Young, and Sheriff Floyd Bonner were best positioned for strong races. However, the number of deaths in the jail could affect the sheriff’s run, the poor condition of downtown could be a negative for Mr. Young, and Mr. Turner has to prove he can broaden his appeal.

That said, it seems reasonable that Mr. Herenton is now one of the leading candidates.

But, and it’s a big but, things are no longer as simple as they seemed.  An attorney for Shelby County Election Commission that happens to be its former chairman has ruled that all candidates must abide by the five-year residency requirement in the City Charter.  Private attorney and City Council lawyer Allan Wade has delivered an opinion that it was no longer applicable.  If the residency requirement is indeed a condition of running for mayor, it appears Mr. Bonner, Mr. Turner, and Mr. Herenton would be ineligible to be on the ballot.

The Election Commission has not yet said that it will apply its opinion to determine who qualifies to be on the ballot and the fact that the body has a Republican majority doesn’t help its credibility on this issue.  

Ultimately, however, attorneys’ opinions are just that – opinions.  It’s up to a judge to rule on who is right, and at this point, no one has said a court case will be filed.  The Election Commission seems the best bet for doing that.  

Lacking Good Options

Shelby County Government is grappling with how to pay for a new $350 million Regional One.  Mayor Lee Harris revisited a favorite idea (once advanced to fund better public transit): to increase arguably the most-hated tax in Shelby County – the wheel tax.  Surrounded by myths about its use, its length, and its passage, it has been vilified although the cities in Shelby County have their own.  

Here’s the scope of county government’s fiscal challenge: the yearly cost of the bonds for the new hospital would be about $26 million.  That would require an increase of about $41, or a 50 percent jump in what most people pay in their wheel tax.  Or it could instead be about a 10-cent increase in the property tax, which amounts to $50 a year increase on a $200,000, which would be deductible from our income tax returns (unlike the wheel tax). With so many families with two cars, the property tax increase would ultimately be the bargain.   

County government is left with two options and both are regressive, meaning low-income families pay the same percentage as high-income families.  Of the two, perhaps the property tax is somewhat less regressive since families’ tax bills are based on the value of their property.  Neither is perfect, but in Tennessee, we don’t have progressive tax sources, thanks to state law. 

The debate on which option to pursue will undoubtedly raise questions about the care that Regional One is providing to residents of Mississippi, Arkansas, and other Tennessee counties and how Shelby County taxpayers are subsidizing them; about the willingness of State of Tennessee to contribute funding directly to the project (or is it only interested in funding sports facilities?); and whether state government would help create a new revenue stream dedicated to Regional One.

The Vilification of Trans Kids

The hate-filled right wing rhetoric and the vicious legislation passed by legislators like those in Tennessee who quote Bible verses awhile attacking God’s children because they are different.  It seems that the Christian Taliban always need a scapegoat to assault as part of their grievance political machine.  One of them even suggested transgender people should be eliminated.

It’s part and parcel of their grievance politics.  When you think of all the problems in the U.S. and the challenges of Tennessee, how many times do you trace them to trans kids as the cause?  One right wing activist said Jesus would be cheering him on for his attacks on trans children.  That’s the same Jesus who said, suffer the little children and let them come unto me, but instead these bigots ignore what Jesus said and use their faith as a cudgel to spread hate against the most vulnerable among us. 

TIFs – How About Real City Services?

Remember when Tax Increment Financing (TIF) was strictly a way to pay for “blighted and deteriorated areas.”  It sounded good, but politically connected developers seemed able to squeeze the camel’s nose in the tent with almost every project.  The poster child for how far this has come is yet another TIF District for Lakeland approved recently by Shelby County Board of Commissioners.  

The irony of ironies is that the commissioners are propping up Lakeland which doesn’t even provide the services of a real city.  It has no fire department or police department.  Those services are provided by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department and the Shelby County Fire Department,  arrangements that help Lakeland keep its property tax rate at $1.04, the lowest of all the cities in Shelby County.

If the commissioners are going to provide significant incentives for Lakeland, which will benefit from the Ford manufacturing plant up the road, maybe it should look for an equity position in return for its TIF District.  

City Hall’s Transparency Problem

It’s hard to think of a time when elected officials in City Hall talk more about transparency and do less to provide it.  There’s Police Chief Cerelyn Davis who seems to go underground so often rather than face tough questions about violent crime.   It’s not like the mayor’s office has a sterling reputation itself for answering media calls and even picks and chooses which reporters it will deign to answer, but this is the wrong time for the police chief to follow suit. .

Meanwhile, City Council attorney Allan Wade – apparently appointed for life – is closing redistricting meetings to the public on justifications that fly in the face of the Tennessee Sunshine Law.  At the same time, he plays a pivotal role in the process that extends far beyond what is reasonable for a city lawyer, but it is an untenable role he has played for three decades.

August 15, 2022 Post: City Council Members Limited to 8 Years; Attorney Now in 30th

While City Council members come and go, limited to eight years in the office, Mr. Wade soldiers on, raising periodic questions about political wheeling and dealing to keep his job amid complaints of conflict of interest.  Despite all that, no RFP (request for proposals) has ever been issued to see what lawyers might be interested in applying for the City Council lawyer’s job.  And the cynical among us suggest that if he’s successful in managing the redistricting in ways that protect incumbent Council members, his job will again be safe for the foreseeable future.


It was shocking to read lately that downtown office occupancy in San Francisco is down about 25%.  Downtown Memphis Class A vacancy space is about 15%.  But a sign of simmering concern was seen when Belz Enterprises announced that it wants to convert more than 100,000 square feet of office space at Pembroke Square and 50 Peabody into apartments.  Downtown Memphis Commission will undoubtedly waive 75% of its taxes with a PILOT although the apartment occupancy rate downtown is 95%, suggesting that the apartment market doesn’t really need incentives at this point.

Ironically, while the downtown office market in other cities is creating a seriously negative impact on their city government budgets, here, so much of downtown has PILOTs that waive property tax and all of downtown is a Tourism Development Zone grabbing sales taxes that the baseline is essentially built into the budgets of city government. Who could have imagined that waiving tens of millions of dollars in taxes could help with budget stability?



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