Behind the Headlines – May 5, 2017

Behind the Headlines – May 5, 2017


– [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. – City and county budgets,
an offer for the Germantown schools, and it’s
Memphis in May, those stories and more tonight
on Behind the Headlines. (fast orchestral music) I’m Eric Barnes, publisher
of The Memphis Daily News, thanks for joining us. I’m joined tonight by
Bernal Smith, publisher, New Tri-State Defender,
thanks for being here. – Glad to be here. – And Bill Dries,
senior reporter with the Memphis Daily News. Well Bill, I’ll start with you. It is budget season. We talked a bit about
the budget last week. We talked more about the
Improve Act and the impact that the state changes had
and how that rolls down to the local level, but let’s
start with the county budget. It’s a 1.2 billion
dollar budget. What’s in it and what’s the
direction for the county? – What’s in it is not
a property tax hike, and not a property tax rollback which several of the
county commissioners who have been talking about
this for several budget seasons are making some more noise
about possibly calling for maybe a cent, maybe I’ve heard
up to five cent rollback. once we get the recertified
property tax rate. And in talking with
Mark Luttrell, the Shelby County Mayor
about his budget proposal. He made a strong defense for
keeping the rate where it is. He says that the county needs to keep the rate right where it is, keep the finances flowing
even though at this point the county has its debt
under one billion dollars. It probably won’t stay
there for very long but the debt is under there
because the debt plan has worked so now what you’re seeing
in the internal workings of the budget and how it’s
financed is that some sources of revenue are moving to
other things, other purposes that keep the county’s
financial machine running. – Right, on the debt, I
think that it hit a high of 1.8 billion– Wharton,
when he was county mayor, former mayor, A.C. Wharton
put a plan in place, got it down under a billion. Harvey Kennedy the
what, the chief finance–? – [Bill]
Chief administrative officer. – Chief administrative
officer at the county had said, “Look, it’s
probably gonna go up because of schools, in part.” Schools have big
requests, they have a lot of deferred maintenance. The county’s funding,
obviously, the suburban schools and the big Shelby
County School System. So, it’s interesting, I
mean, in a couple points. One, the schools’ requests,
and especially on the capital side but also
the fact that you’ve got a Republican county
mayor, Mark Luttrell, who’s been on this
show years ago said, “Look, I never signed a
no tax increase pledge, I never signed–” He’s not gonna get
consumed with cutting taxes for cutting taxes’ sake. – No, I don’t think so. And one of the points that
both he and Harvey Kennedy made is making sure that
they manage the cash flow and the reserve properly and
so, to roll the taxes back, it may look like it’s
a good time to do it, but based on the ebbs
and flows of collections, that might be a challenge. And then also looking at
the fact that there are requests to build
some new schools, there’s a ton of
deferred maintenance that’s gotta be done
on existing buildings. Of course schools are the huge– – 450 million, is
that right, Bill? Give or take of
almost half of the– – Yeah, almost half
of the budget so I think that they’re
trying to really manage this process smartly although
across both in the state and county-wise, there’s
surplus and things look good now but the ebbs and flows
could create some issues and I think it’s smart to
be fiscally conservative. – And again we’ve talked
about on the show recently, we had the trustee and
the assessor on, Bill. Residential properties,
on average, up 13% across the county, the commercial
property is up as much as 20%. So there’ll be an adjustment
down in the tax rate just because of
the way that works. But again you’ve got
elected officials saying, “Look let’s cut it further
if we’ve got this much cash.” – And you’ve essentially
got two things that are in play here. One is you have an
administration among administrations who are extremely nervous
about what the next economic downturn is
going to look like given the fact that we’ve
just been through the worst one since the Great Depression. So there are those
kind of jitters. And the other thing is
the schools’ capital needs for all of the schools,
all seven of the systems. Because this money
is distributed based on
daily attendance. And with the historic changes
we saw in public education, a merger to a de-merger
and other changes in it, during that period, you
really didn’t see that much in terms of capital request
from Shelby County schools because there was a holding
pattern and there was this thought of, okay, have
the changes stopped? Can we now start to
look at the needs of a stable school system? – Well I think that also
reflects those changes in terms of the recent
negotiations between Germantown and Shelby County Schools. You’ve got a 25 million
dollar offer to purchase just the three schools– – Germantown Elementary,
Germantown Middle School, Germantown High School that
with people who got lost, and I can’t blame them,
in the shuffle of schools over these last few years,
they were Germantown suburban schools that
Shelby County School System held onto, the only suburban
schools I believe that– – No, Lucy Elementary
in Millington– – Thank you, Bill, but go ahead. – And so I think at the time,
because of the high demand and high population
in that Southeast corridor of the county, Shelby County School smartly
said, “Hey, we’re gonna hold on to these.”, whether
this offer is accepted, whether it’s accepted
in part or countered, in some kind of way, it
does reflect the ongoing right-sizing, if you
will, of all the districts including Shelby County but the
municipal districts as well. – Well, it also reflects
the rising property values and the better economy, right? I mean the original offer,
didn’t Germantown offer, Bill, what, five million
was the first offer? – Five million for the
elementary and the middle school because for the
Germantown school system, that’s where there student
bulge is at the moment, in the elementary going into
the middle schools there. So what Germantown’s
school district has is essentially a dual track
that they’ve been pursuing. That’s why you have a May 22nd
deadline that the Germantown folks have put on their offer
to Shelby County Schools because that’s when they
have to fish or cut bait on the contract that
they have on the land for a new elementary school. – That Germantown
would build for itself within its own school system. – Yes and so it would
either be that new school for 750 students or it
would be buying Germantown elementary, middle and high
school from Shelby County schools or possibly some
combination of that. – Did we get any reaction
from the school board, or from Dorsey Hopson, the
Shelby County Superintendent? – Yes, I talked
to him yesterday. He said that– first of all,
his phone started ringing as soon as word of
the offer came in. He got a lot of calls
from parents of students who are currently
there who said, “What happens to my
child in those schools next school year?” And he explained to them
that if, and it’s a big if, if this happens, it would be
phased in over several years and there would probably
be some guarantees there that those students
finish out their time at that particular school. But his reaction
is, it’s up to the Shelby County Schools
Board to weigh this. They will take it up
and they will decide, but he says the
facilities are fine there. It meets the school systems’
needs at this point. And so, he said, on his
side of the equation, their priority is what’s
best for the students and what’s best for
Southeast Memphis where you’ve had this shift
in school-age population out of the West
and into the East. – Which is a far cry from an
outright rejection, right? I mean if you read the
politics of it and so on. But the other part,
and Bill brought it up, and Dorsey Hopson I guess
really brought it up. It does remind you that all
these changes in these schools ultimately affects kids in
the classrooms and families. I mean it’s amazing
to think about. From charter schools, school
closures, new operators, iZone – [Bernal]
Voucher proposals. – Voucher proposals, right. – All of that, it’s been
essentially since 2012, 2013, there’s been radical
continued evolution and change of what public
education looks like. Certainly in Memphis. Memphis has essentially
been ground zero for most of what you call education
reform or changes. Not only in the
state, but really, arguably across the
country when you look at some of the experimentation
that has happened here and has had to be–
even for me as a parent with school-age students, one
who’s in a charter school, that it’s been a
confusing landscape. And part of it is, I think what
gets missed in all the talk about buildings and money is
the impact on children and families and I think
that’s the most important thing. – Well even the
Tennessee ready testing which just didn’t go well. The whole, common core
which there were so much political pushback on that
and then almost rebranding of common core because
the standards were gonna change, Again, everybody’s
in the classroom. Teachers are trying to
teach and I think sometimes we on this show lose sight of
that because we’re talking about the big picture,
budgets and so on. We talked about budgets and
education, segue a little bit. We talked again last week
about the city budget, Bill, but more, the council sort
of looked at the proposed, the Mayor’s proposed budget. And we had one council member
say, “Look, let’s pull out some of these expenses that
do go towards education.” They are responding to
the call that went out, what, a week or two ago
of the city should start funding, putting money into the Shelby County School system. Mayor Strickland and now
the councilor is saying, “Look, it may not be direct
funding to Shelby County Schools but we do more
than you understand or you’re giving us credit
for youth and education.” – Right, there is city funding. Essentially the argument
is that may not go directly to schools and may not be on
a continuing basis to schools but that it does affect students
with after-school programs, programs at
community centers, and the libraries in particular. So Patrice Robinson of the
City Council said at the outset of this what she noticed was
a line item in the capital improvements budget that went
to two schools in particular. And she said, “Wait a
minute. We’re getting hit with people being critical
of us for not funding the schools, so let’s just
keep a running tally.” And that they will, as this
program airs, they’re into the operating budget now
and will be for about the next week or two. But she said, “Let’s
just keep a running tally of how much funding the
city does put up that goes towards that end.”
And so, I think we’ll have more discussion about the
concept that the city needs to step up and do more
for local education. – You also, go ahead– – I think part of it is
also fear of the dreaded maintenance of effort,
notion when they start to commit dollars specifically
towards education or towards the school district,
then there’s a process by which that gets codified
relative to what they have to continue to maintain. And I think that the
mayor and the council are careful about how
they allocate dollars and not getting caught in
that particular quagmire. – It is also interesting
to watch, you compare this budget season, last year was pretty
uneventful, this one. I mean they’re talking
about things like this, which are very important,
but they aren’t the kind of crisis issues like the pension
funding and the cuts to employee benefits,
the cuts to employee– no raises and so on. Again, they’re living with that. The mayor would like to get
back to police complement in the 2300-2400 range but
a lot of the discussion, it was interesting,
it was small stuff. It was little stuff of how
do you tweak the budget, which again reflects a
lack of crisis and more, not that the city
is flush with cash, but a little bit
more flexibility. – And what you have seen
toward the end of the capital budget discussion
was you actually saw Berlin Boyd, the chairman
of the council, talk several times on several line items
about what he feels is a need to balance the city’s
priorities and not have so much spending
on public safety. In particular, on police-
although police and fire combined constitute 65-70% of the spending
in the budget. And police is the largest
division by those standards in the city budget.
So there’s beginning to be some interesting pushback on
that and Boyd is basically making a
brilliant-at-the-basics argument but with a very
different criteria for what the basics are. He says the basics should
be programs in the community centers and libraries and
not so skewed toward police. – And we should say Berlin
Boyd, the current Chairman of the Memphis City Council. The other thing that’s in
there and we’ll kind of segue into a big rollout that
the Mayor’s office did on a big pilot project for
street reconfiguration downtown. People have seen some of
this, there’s some in the medical district, where
they, they really do. I mean, they are aesthetically
a whole lot nicer. The bike lines, which
get to be controversial, they kind of change the traffic. Some people really
like them, some people push back against them. Council apparently, did not. Is that right, Bill,
push back against the bike lane money that was put
into this budget. So that’s kind of
a transformation too from where we were
some years ago. I remember Wharton talking
about the pushback he would get on bike lanes and why
is that a priority. Seems that that is
changing so much, it’s not just bike lanes. It’s also a symbol of what the
city was on these lists of, the least bikeable community,
the least fit community, no exercise, no path. It’s changed a lot, starting
with Wharton and now into the Strickland administration. – There are still some
questions about all of this. But I think what has
happened is you have enough critical mass and you have
enough projects in the pipeline. This particular one
is a pilot project that essentially establishes
a bike and pedestrian corridor between FedEx Forum
and the Riverfront. And so what they’re
going to do is re-stripe some of those streets. Peabody Place, most
notable on there. And create basically a
more visible corridor for folks on foot and
people who are on bicycles to get between those two areas. There is some city support
for this but it’s also privately funded,
it’ll go for a year. At the end of a year, the
city will see if it can pursue federal grant
money to sustain it on a permanent basis
if it works out. But it’s like planters,
it’s barriers that protect the bike lanes, it’s some
urban art commissioned work. There’s also laying
this out so that people can see it and
it’s more apparent. – But it is interesting too. You think about this as just
this esoteric sort of thing that Eric is fixated on,
cause I do get fixated on these things, but it’s no
coincidence that some of that goes right around
where ServiceMaster is moving its headquarters. If you look at ServiceMaster
moving its headquarters downtown, some, what is it– 700-1000 people,
high-tech jobs coming from East Memphis because they
wanted to be in an urban environment, to hire people,
to hire young people. This is part of that. This isn’t economic– they
will argue and people who push for these things that
this is part-and-parcel of getting people
like ServiceMaster to come to downtown with all those jobs and
all that economic activity. – Sure, I think that when
you look at how some of this began under Wharton, that
was funds from Bloomberg and those kind of things that
helped to kind of usher it in. I think that where
people took issue is– In some communities, outlying
communities, not necessarily core downtown communities, you were putting in bike lanes
that didn’t necessarily make sense based on traffic patterns,
etc, in those communities. In this particular instance,
when you talk about the core of downtown, you talk
about adding that many more people there when you
look at activities like Memphis in May and the
flow and how many people walk from different
components of it. It makes sense to have an
easier path from parts of downtown to the river to make
the river more accessible. And I think, in this
particular instance, that particular component
makes a whole lot of sense. – Well it goes even too, and I think you
did a story on this Bill, I know we did on the River
Play event which is a part of Riverside that’s
been blocked off for kids. So you think of Memphis in May,
you think of the Barbecue Fest with a lot of adult activity. You think of Music
Fest, a lot of adults having a lot of fun. This is a thing for kids,
which hasn’t always been part of this, and I walked
past it and it’s remarkable to look down
on what they’ve done right at what
they call now Fourth Bluff. – Yeah, I’ve got some photos. There’s actually one, the
young lady who is my event manager’s working with
them on that component and she sent me photos
and the way they painted the street and the
basketball goal there. There’s seating, it’s
bright, it’s colorful, it’s engaging, I
mean I think it’s… Riverside Drive is gonna
be blocked off anyway, so why not use the span
of it and have something more engaging for
families and for kids. – For families, yeah,
which is different than what Memphis in May
sometimes is– – Because if you think about
this, if you’re an adult with small children, you
know that the music festival and the barbeque– not that
they are Pagan rituals, (laughing) – They’re known to become such– – But it’s not something
that you want to take small children to but you
might want to be in the general environment and Riverplay
seems to be a perfect place to do that on a
manageable scale. – And it is also really
interesting just to look at that from Fourth Bluff and
see, it is this weird transformation of the city. You think the city– and see
it through a different lense and gets back to the
bike lanes, it gets back to the urban art, it gets
back to Overton square and all that urban art that’s
kinda peppered through there. It’s not just a
district of restaurants. It’s also kind of an experience
of walking the street and so on. We’ll stay downtown
for a second and talk– We have not talked on the
show about continued changes at Beale Street, and maybe
I’ll start with you, Bill. The council did what recently
in the ongoing effort to get better management,
I guess the goal that everyone shares is
they want Beale Street to be more successful. How they get there,
there are a whole lot of different opinions. – Well, I also think everybody
agrees that the first step toward getting there
is to hire some kind of management firm to run the
street on a day-to-day basis so that the city or
whatever entity the city has is free to look at the long-term
vision for the district, possibly expansion
of the district. So at the end of 2015, the
city, with the council’s approval at that time, put
in place, the Beale Street Tourism Development
Authority to do that. And earlier this year,
just a few weeks ago, the council abolished
that authority. Which at the point
that the council voted had still not hired a
firm to manage the street after two rounds of
request for proposals. – And you have strong
feelings about this. You’re a tenant too, but
your take on where we are? – There was a meeting
on Monday of this week which we reported on, it’s
in this week’s edition of TSD where the Mayor actually
met with a group of concerned parties which
includes the principles of 21 Beale Street which
was the entity that ultimately was the last
man standing at the end of those rounds
of RFP’s that were put out. As well as Lucille Catron
who runs the Beale Street Development Corporation,
which was instrumental in the early re-development
of Beale Street, and argues through her
attorney, Larry Parrish that they still maintain
and have the master lease, which was essentially
a 52 year lease that the city, back then
gave to them to ultimately be the entity to manage
the leases and so forth. That they originally
had subleased or hired, essentially Performa which
was run by John Elkington to actually manage
the day-to-day. And then of course,
that went away. And now there’s a legal
argument that Randle Catron, who was her husband,
never signed off on the consent agreement
that actually lead to the authorities, to the tourism
authority’s development. So they wanted to lay all
the cards on the table in front of the mayor. They’ve done that, the
mayor’s heard their story. We asked for a comment
from the mayor. The mayor basically
said two things. One is that they intend
to within 60 days to hire, if you will, a
manager of the street. Whether that withstands,
the legal, the litigation that’s there, I don’t know. The other component that
we spoke to is his ongoing commitment to minority
business, in particular African-American owned business. We have a majority
African-American entity in 21 Beale who’s at the table and
whether he looks at that, I mean, they basically quoted
their, the standard that “Hey, we’re committed to
minority business growth and development, we’ve got a
30% increase in the last year Hey we’re still going
down that route.” – And where is the Downtown
Memphis Commission is this? – Well, they are still
currently the interim manager if you will, which was
initially a six month appointment that’s turned
into a three year appointment and so I think it’s at a point
where everybody involved… the city is going to have
to really make some real long-term decisions about
the ongoing development of the street and
how it plays out. – Just a couple
minutes left here. We started to talk last
week and I mistimed it but a bill that honored,
some people would say, Nathan Bedford Forrest,
a Civil War general and the founder of the
Ku Klux Klan and a very controversial figure,
let’s put it that way, was honored in what is
generally considered a routine part of the tail end of
the legislative session. There’s a lot of honoring,
a lot of things that just go through, people don’t– – Essentially a consent agenda
where things are put that– you just know that
stuff is gonna be clean. You don’t necessarily
have to read it. And so this particular
representative who had put a bill on the table that
got chewed up and spit out. – That was gonna
honor Bedford? – Right, that was gonna
honor Nathan Bedford Forrest and all the nefarious
aspects of his history. And I guess that his point
of argument was his evolution, what that got pushed
out and then ultimately, he found a way to bury it
under this consent agenda and it got approved,
essentially unanimously. I think 90– – [Bill]
And signed. – And so now we’re in
the State of Tennessee, we’re sitting in a place
where you have someone like him who’s being honored. – And you had African-American
representatives, Antonio Parkinson from
Memphis, very upset. You had white non-Memphian
Republican house members who did not like it. They didn’t like how it was
done and they did not like that it was under
the table, that it… They maybe did not speak up as
vociferously as some would like but I don’t think there were
many people who were too happy about how this went down. – No, and one of the things
that I heard from our state representatives and
senators here in Memphis is that this was unprecedented. That basically legislators
take each other’s words for it that these things are
not controversial. – All right. We’re almost out of time. A quick thing that
was announced today. Louis Graham editor of The
Commercial Appeal, leaving. He is, I’ve only gotten
to know him a little bit, a really good guy and did
great work for that paper. What, 38 years? So good luck to him
as he moves over to a new position
at a new place. Thank you all for joining us. Thank you all for being here. Join us again next week. Goodnight.

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