Behind the Headlines – May 3, 2019

Behind the Headlines – May 3, 2019


– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines is made possible in part by: the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like you.
Thank you. – Shelby County Mayor
Lee Harris on the budget, spending, and more, tonight
on Behind the Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] I’m Eric Barnes, President
and Executive Editor of the Daily Memphian. Thanks for joining us. I am joined tonight by Shelby
County Mayor Lee Harris, thanks for being here again. – Sure thing thanks
for having me. – Along with Bill Dries, reporter with
The Daily Memphian. You have submitted a budget, your first budget
as county mayor, you’ve been through
budget processes before obviously up at the legislature and back when you
were on city council. We’ll walk through the
budget until we get tired of talking about the budget, and other things
you got going on, but let’s start with one of the
things that was striking, at least in this initial
operating budget proposal was there was no additional
funding for MATA. Something you talked about I
think on the campaign trail. The MATA supporters had been
very excited about the prospect that the County would be
funding over and above what it’s received in the past. Where does that stand
additional funding for MATA? – Sure, so I was
surprised by the surprise because I think I’ve been pretty
consistent and transparent in my tenure in office. And we’ve always said
that we’ll present a plan with respect to how the
County can thoughtfully invest in MATA in September. There are a couple, at least two or three things
that need to be done first. One is you’ve gotta
make sure that whatever investment
the County makes, because that will be
a historic moment, a new initiative that
the County would take on, whatever investment we make
we have to make sure that the investment is used
to increase ridership and frequency of service. A lot of times you invest in some of these
public organizations and the investment actually
disappears into the ether. So you’ve gotta have some
sort of parameters in place to make sure that the investment
goes to the purpose expected. At the same time the County, and the folks I represent, have an expectation that
they’ll be at the table. MATA has a board of directors, and not that the County
wants to control the Board of Directors,
not at all, but I think County representation
on the Board of Directors is something that
needs to be discussed, and so we’ve gotta have some
time to try to work out that. As far as I know there’s no
answer to that quite yet, but I think we could get there. The other piece of the puzzle
is this is a new initiative of which requires
community engagement. That means that
you’ve gotta have at least a couple of town halls one in the suburban community
to talk about the issue, and one in the urban core
to talk about the issue. I mean that’s how you
approach new initiatives. So we need time to do that,
and that was always the plan, so in September I
will present a plan to the County Commission
around how to invest in MATA, but also make sure that
the investment is tied to increases in ridership, make sure that we have
a seat at the table, and make sure that the community
gets a chance to engage over a very important issue. – So budget wise that would
mean next year’s budget, if things came together, if all those questions
were answered appropriately or to your liking,
yours and others liking, it would be a next year issue. – As I said in the State
of the County it would mean a phase-in approach. It would be the same
approach we would take with respect to pre-K. Pre-K is a top, shared,
community concern, and for the first time this
year, the city of Memphis for example, is expected
to really participate in a heavy way in pre-K. They phased in, so there’s
been talks going on that predated my administration, and now during the coming
budget year we’ll be at that first year where we’ll
actually see investment, substantial investment,
from city, county and the school system
in favor of pre-K. That’s the approach that
I talked about in the State of the County. State of the County
that we have a phase-in approach to MATA, and that’s the expectation that I’ll talk about in September. – So before we go to
Bill, or as we go to Bill, Pre-K funding. In your operating budget, what’s in there and
how does it work in terms of the County funding
pre-K along with the city? – So if you, my campaign
website is still up, and this is the thing I talked
about on the campaign trail most often, and my campaign
website represents that. The two things that are most
important are education, particularly pre-K, and pulling people
out of poverty. With respect to pre-K what
we’ve done in this budget cycle is make one of the largest
investments the County, our local government
has ever made, in favor of pre-K. So we have about
$6 million in favor of pre-K in this budget. $5.5 million
goes to traditional pre-K programming the other $500,000 is a investment in Porter Leath, which runs early start
start programming, so that’s the zero to
three year-old population. That $500,000 will
be paired with about $4.5 million more dollars
from philanthropic sources and federal investment. So we’re able to really leverage the County investments there and also of course
the $5.5 million we paired with investment
from the city of Memphis and an expected investment
from Shelby County Schools. – Bill. – Mayor, you had
another surprise that you noted in
the budget address and it’s helpful to point
out, I think, that the fiscal year that this
budget would take effect that we’re talking
about begins July 1st. You’re operating now
on the budget in effect of your predecessor and
of the County Commission before the elections last year, but the projections for
revenue were off a bit, more than a bit would you say? – No doubt about it. So we’re currently
in FY-19 budget year, and I’ve proposed
the budget for FY-20, without getting into the weeds
the FY-19 is at a deficit. And the deficit is to the
tune of millions of dollars. That deficit will
extend into FY-20 and into the years beyond, and so this budget year
we’re gonna have to try to address those deficits
from previous budget years and so that is tough,
that is very tough. But we’re gonna do it. The most important
part of the puzzle is the deficit in
the education fund. We just didn’t collect enough
in property tax revenues to meet what was
pledged to the schools. We’re gonna make sure that
the schools get every dollar, every dime that was pledged
to them by the previous County Commission and the
previous administration even though property tax
collections were off, estimates were off, the
education fund is short. We’re gonna do the
same thing with FY-20, because the FY-19 promises
extend into the future because maintenance of
effort requirements, so whatever was promised
with FY-19 continues to be our obligation well
into the future, and we’re gonna make sure that we live up to
those obligations and that our schools
get every single dime that has been pledged to them. So yeah we start
in a very tricky place, a very tough place, with estimates that
were a little too rosy, and we start at a place
where the past budget cycles there was really, really
excessive spending. No doubt about it. I mean the CIP last year
was over $170 million for a fund policy. – CIP is? – CIP is our
construction budget. Our construction project budget
was over $170 million last year and so we’ve
gotta come in line with what’s a reasonable
CIP investment range, which is $75 million So the CIP budget
was extreme last year and the year before that. We’ve gotta come back into
reasonable spending levels. We’ve gotta make sure that our debt is at a
reasonable range, make sure our credit
rating is high, make sure that our OPEB
and pension obligations are paid for. We’ve got some real
challenging head winds y’know looking forward but I
think we can take care of it. But yeah we don’t start
with a surplus, right. We don’t start with a surplus. – The school shortfall
was $4 million? – The education fund is
$4 million off for FY-19, yes that’s correct. – And other operating
was off as well? A deficit separate
from school spending? – So property tax collection
is our major source of revenue and so it’s our major source
of revenue for everything the County government does,
including fund the schools. So the amount of
property tax revenue allocated to the schools was
about $4 million off. But property tax if it’s off, it’s off for every single fund
including the general fund. – You think it’s another four,
five million across the board? – It’s another three
or four at least that’s associated
with the general fund, and it is at least $4 million associated with
the education fund, because the source
is the property tax. That’s what’s off and that
supports all our funds. – Right, back to Bill. – So do you use the reserve? Do you cut things? Do you, as you mentioned,
bring CIP down to around $75 million, or is
it a combination of those? – So we’re getting
into the weeds, the short of it is we’ve got some challenges in
property tax collections, but we also have some opportunities
overall in our budget, and so I think we’ll be
able to make it work. So when I say overall property
tax is not our only source of revenue we also obviously
get sales tax revenue and there are other
sources of revenue, and so maybe we’ll be able
to make up some of these shortfalls with sales
taxes and so forth, and moving some things around. But the point is we are
unlikely to be able to go on a spending spree
this budget cycle. I mean I have to defer
to the County Commission. I present the budget, put it in the hands
of County Commission, and they decide from there. But it would be hard to go on
a spending spree this cycle, and so we’re gonna
have to, in my view, really have to laser
focus on our priorities and my perspective is our
priority has to be early childhood education which
leads to high literacy rates, early social skills,
ultimately to higher levels of high school graduation
and employability. That’s my perspective. Focus on, we gave a raise
to all our employees so make sure that we are
able to partially offset the cost of living increases
that our employees face, and making sure that the
citizens don’t suffer by us raising taxes for
no obvious reason, right? For no obvious reason, right? So we delivered a budget
that has no tax increase, that has a raise for
every employee, that makes significant investments in
early childhood education, that also cures the shortfalls
that the schools face because property taxes
collections were off, and there’s a whole host of
other things from investments in start-up technology firms,
to strategic investments in our criminal
justice reform focus. – Let’s come back to
a couple of those, but stay for a
second with schools. Which a huge, what is it
400 something million? I mean it’s a huge part of
the budget, the County budget, is going to schools obviously. That pre-K funding, you talk about Porter Leath
doing the zero-to-three, who will do the
pre-K programming? Is that gonna be done through
Shelby County Schools, I mean how is all that
going to be managed? And how is that effort going
to be held accountable? Because it’s a huge
increase in spending. – Sure. – Will it work the way
you want it to work? I’ve never had
anybody at the table who didn’t want pre-K to work, but how do you hold
people accountable? – So you’re right,
Shelby County government is not currently involved
in schools, right? We have a Director of Education and we’re building
out our expertise with respect to schools. But we don’t ordinarily
operate in that space. So if we have a school or
education related program, we are gonna rely on the
expertise of a vendor. And in this case we hired
a third party intermediary, Seeding Success is who
we expect to hire, to administer this
new education program. So they will be tasked with
identifying where classrooms will open, where classrooms
can be preserved, and assessing whether or not the program has been successful. We think that when
it’s all said and done, most of those classrooms
will be classrooms that Shelby County Schools
opens or preserves, but Seeding Success will
be our representative through that process. Because again it’s
something that Shelby County
government doesn’t do. and so in the first
year of a major program you should bring in an expert to kind of help
run and administer. That is what we have done
and the Commission has voted that that is the right approach. – You also, as you
mentioned before, you talked about technology
and the role it’s playing. So talk a little bit about
the fund that you’ve been able to carve out of this
difficult budget year, and what that start
means for the future of what jobs are here, and one of our biggest
industries is logistics and what that means for our
economic development strategy. – So we have an investment
in a start-up technology fund in the budget proposal, and we’ll see where
County Commissioners land on that investment. It’s an investment of
about $1.25 million. It is a fund that
others are starting, and Shelby County government,
if this is approved, would just participate
in that fund. But it is a fund to growth
start-up tech companies here in Memphis
and Shelby County. That’s critically important
like you mentioned, because we are a logistics
and distribution hub and there is no area of
industry that is subject to more disruption because
of technology and change and innovation than distribution
and logistics, right? Think of Uber, right? Think of the robotics that
Federal Express has just rolled out for package delivery. Think about Amazon,
which is a tech company, which now is building
out a fleet of drivers and package delivery operation. Think of autonomous vehicles
and autonomous trucks. It is critical, it is
critical, that our community have an approach to
this impending change. A lot of the highest paying
jobs in our community right now are truck driving jobs. Those opportunities to drive
a truck, in the next 50 years, I don’t want to be dramatic, but it is quite clear that
over the next 50 years most of those jobs will be gone. There are a lot of people
that tell you it will happen a lot sooner than that, but we know over the next
50 years most of those truck driving jobs will be gone. Given that we need to
really start thinking about what are the jobs of the future? How does that economy look? And what I told County
Commissioners in my address was, well what were gonna really
need is land drone pilots. People that drive the
truck remotely to get it onto the dedicated lane and
into the interstate, right? That will be a real job. That will be something that’s
played out over and over again that you have
these land drone pilots, and so we gotta
prepare for that. Part of that is growing
a tech community, growing it right here. Really tee-ing up some of
the things that are happening at FedEx which is our
most important employer and some of the things we
know that are happening around the country. – So does this all lead
to a broader discussion about whether we should
remain a logistics center, I suppose we are
because of our location. But as you well know we’ve
had this whole economic development discussion
about re-doing our strategy and there had been some
question about whether we should continue to focus
this much on logistics. – I think we should continue
to focus on logistics I mean with our
heart on America, so our location, our
access to rails and roads, and runways is really critical. So I think we should
remain a logistics hub, and I think we should
continue to invest in that and make sure that we
are on the frontier of innovation in that industry. But we do need to have
a broader discussion on economic development. We haven’t had that. I mean I think people
just hear the word jobs and they jump up
and down, right? We need to have a more
serious discussion than that around economic development
more generally speaking. And that probably has not
happened in this community and certainly that
needs to happen, but again I do think
we are a logistics and distribution hub, I do think we have some
comparative advantage there, and I do think we should
make further investments in logistics and distribution. But the general idea
of economic development of whether we should be
chasing manufacturing jobs or whether we should be so
excited about all these things that are gonna fade away, right? Because of automation
and so forth with respect to
manufacturing for example. That’s a broader
discussion we should have and we have not had it. – You mentioned this briefly but
let’s go deeper into the office of re-entry and funding
for the public defenders. Let’s start with re-entry. These people, ex offenders,
who trying to get them back into the workplace. What does that involve? Expungements and assistance
what sort of investments are you talking about there? – So we know that people
that are in prison now will return to our community, and so what we do I order to
really promote public safety is a bunch of things and nothing
is more important than the idea of that you’ve
gotta create more meaningful opportunity for people returning to your community to succeed. That’s the re-entry process. So we have an office of re-entry and we’re seeking to expand
that office of re-entry. So we’ll pick up
a few employees, a handful of new employees,
in the office of re-entry. We’ll expand the campus
both south and north. The campus right now
sits in south Memphis we need to grow that
campus a little bit more. We’ll add some vocational
classroom opportunities at that campus. So the idea is that not
only can we already offer soft skills training, which we already
offer classrooms and instruction around that, and we also offer case work
experience and so forth. But in addition to that
we’ll also be able to deliver hard skills training. So we’re in the process of
building out a classroom on that campus where we
will offer a vocational skills training opportunity. So we gotta do a whole
lot more with that. We gotta continue to grow that. At the same time we need to move to more permanent
expungement services and drivers license
reinstatement services. Right now a lot of
it is real ad hoc. You know you see an
expungement faire over here, an expungement faire over there. – Talk about, and go
back to your legal roots, what is an expungement
for those who don’t know? – So an expungement is
an effort to try to clear the record of somebody
with a criminal history. The goal is to make sure
they’re in a better position to get a job if their
record is expunged, that’s really important. There are a lot of things really
important to getting a job. Another one is having a license, having a drivers license. We believe that between
100-150,000 people that live in Shelby County
don’t have a drivers license because of some court debt
that they have not paid off. And so that’s a huge
part of our population, and so we’ve gotta go
through the process of trying to get those people
their license back. Because the court debt exists,
they don’t have a license, they’re vulnerable to
more negative interactions with law enforcement. So there’s a lot of
services like that, expungement services, services
to deliver reinstatement of licenses that we’d love to
see on a more permanent basis. We’re taking an incremental
approach, right? A careful approach. So the first step we’re gonna
do is to hire an attorney devoted solely, if it’s approved
by the County Commissions, hire an attorney devoted
solely to expungement services. That is what this
attorney will do. And we hope to build on
that and eventually open up an office of
expungement obviously, I mean we’re talking
long range thinking, but open up more resources
devoted to expungement and reinstatement
of drivers licenses. – Do people hear that, to
clean up someone’s record, I mean I think some
people might hear that as, wait you’re gonna hide
the fact that this person committed some sort
of horrible crime. Is that what
expungement is about, or is some other
philosophy there? – You know you gotta
do a whole lotta things on a whole lotta fronts if
you’re gonna get these folks employed and meaningfully
reintegrated back into society. Expungement is only one
piece of the puzzle, there are other
pieces to the puzzle, like the reinstatement
of drivers licenses. Because like you say it doesn’t
necessarily cure everything, for one thing because the
employer could simply ask and you may be on the spot. For another thing, records
never really disappear. The person who had to
make the records disappear still exists, right? The newspapers like the
busted magazines, still exist. Google, if you Google
the person’s name, Google doesn’t eliminate
some of their pages just because an
expungement’s taken place. So there is no cure all
and that is not a cure all but it is just one step in
the process to put a person in a position to apply for a job and maybe get a
follow up interview. We also gotta make sure
they have a drivers license, we’ve gotta make sure
they have the opportunity to get vocational
skills training. There’s a lot of
work to be done. – About how many,
then I’ll go to Bill, about how many people with
this office do you serve now and are you trying to serve? – The Office of Re-entry
probably has a couple handful of people like ten people – No no I mean how many
people come through? – Yeah so I’m not thousands I mean I don’t know. This issue of people
with a criminal history and the fact that they need help affects thousands and thousands
of people in our community. So the issue of criminal
justice reform is a top priority and one of the most important
issues in our community. I know people think, oh it doesn’t affect me. It affects thousands and
thousands of individuals in our community we’ve
gotta do something about it. And moreover the costs
of it are astronomical. I mean we spend over
$100 million just to house people waiting for a trial
at the Bailey Justice Center. Those are people not
convicted of anything, that are just too
poor to pay bail and don’t know anybody who
will come vouch for them to get them out. And so we just pay to keep them. – Yeah, Bill. – So Mayor you talk
about expungement faires and efforts that
generally look at, okay this is the process,
it’s on the books to do this, and so let’s just
follow this process make more people aware of it. Since you’ve been mayor,
what has been your experience with the reaction of other leaders in the criminal
justice system, some of whom are
elected just like you, when you start going further
and start talking about actually changing things, particularly on the front
end with how people wind up in court and in jail
in the first place. Is there still resistance to
making changes in the essence of our criminal justice system. – It’s the toughest
work that we do. I don’t know if I would
say it’s resistance, a lot of resistance. I think people just want
to know and understand how this helps to improve our
community and move it forward. I think most of us
are at the table and most of us operate
in collaboration. There are all kind of
groups working on this, and everybody you can
think of as a player in criminal justice has
a seat at that table and is working
proactively to try to get some of these
criminal justice reforms to have real meaning
at this point. I think we kind of all agree. I mean the best
case example of that is even on the
driver license thing. Amy Weirich recently announced
that she was gonna stop prosecuting many of the
drivers license cases. And that’s one of the top
volume of cases we see at the Bailey Justice Center
as related to drivers licenses and being caught without
a drivers license. So we immediately saw a volume
at the Bailey Justice Center go down with that announcement. So you have her leadership, you’ve got the
juvenile court judge, I mean all these folks
are at the table. All the clerks, the Sheriff, and the Memphis Police
Department, city of Memphis. I can think of just so many
different kinds of groups where we are all at the table
working toward the same goal, and I think everybody’s
working pretty hard so. I don’t think there’s
much resistance. I think sometimes people
have a different perspective, but I don’t think
there’s much resistance. But it is hard work because there’s a lot
of decision makers. – Let me go back to the
relationship with the city for just a second and the
point you made about MATA. Currently if the County
gives money to the Memphis Area Transit Authority, is MATA in any way
obligated to use that money the way that you want it? Or does the city control
how that money is used? – So our goal is to have some
sort of funding agreement between the County,
the city, and MATA. We will see where
that comes out, but if we have a
funding agreement, and this is something that
is done in other places, then we can have some
sort of memoralization of how that money
is to be spent. I think the good news is this, and we’ll see if we get a
funding agreement or not, but here’s the really good news is MATA already has a
transit vision plan, and that transit vision plan
is in line with my thinking around how transit
investment should be used. So to the extent the
County Commissioners and everyone else
at the table agree that funding the transit
vision plan is a good one, we’re in a pretty good
place to then kind of turn that into a funding agreement
or some other kind of way we can reduce our
understanding to a writing. – And that plan
basically is a concept of one way trips no longer than
one hour, less if possible. – The big debate
in this is probably frequency versus coverage. And so the frequency is you
want people to be able to take a bus easily and
reduce the wait times and those kind of things. The coverage is you just
want to play politics, and you just want to
cover a huge massive area and make everybody feel
like they’ve got a bus stop all over the community, right? So that’s the coverage issue. And those two things are
more or less in conflict. If you do frequency you
probably can’t do coverage. So I believe we
should do frequency and that’s what the
plan mostly says. But coverage is something other
people will believe, right? If you live in some
of our far-flung areas and that includes White
Haven on the south, or Frayser, Raleigh
on the north, or Germantown on the east
or Collierville on the east you may say, I don’t care about
this frequency. Let’s invest in a route from
Collierville to Downtown. Forget the frequency stuff. Let’s invest in a route from
Frayser to Federal Express. These are all
legitimate arguments, but that’s where the
debate will be played out. But I’m kind of on
the side of frequency but again it will come out, because you gotta have
the community engagement, you’ll get the feedback, and that’s how this
thing comes out. But if you kind of
rush through it, the money can be
misspent in a second. It happens all the time. – With just a minute
left here, rush through Joris Ray looks at I think
is now the new superintendent the Shelby County Schools
decided not to go through a national search. Should they, I mean the County’s
a big funder of the school, should they have gone through the process of a
national search? – Yeah I don’t care
about that kind of stuff. All I care about are issues, and we’ve got a lot of
issues in our school system and in our County that
we need to resolve. So the issue that we’re
working on right now is the cafeteria workers. We’ve got about 680 cafeteria
workers that make between $11.50 and $14.50 an hour. They need to make
$15 an hour. It’s my belief that you
cannot work in a job as a public employee
and still be in poverty. And some of those folks
are still in poverty so we need to lift their wages. So I don’t care if it’s
Joris Ray or whomever it is, I like him fine, but that’s
not what I’m in office for. I’m in office for to get
some things done on behalf of the public interest, and we have workers making
less than $15 an hour. That’s what I’d like to see and I think there’s room
to form a partnership with whoever the superintendent
is and the School Board around that issue
and issues like that. – All right, thank you. We have more questions
but we got through a lot. Appreciate you being
here, we’ll have you back. Thank you Bill. And thank you for joining us. Join us again next week. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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