Behind the Headlines – November 9, 2019

Behind the Headlines – November 9, 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. – County Mayor Lee Harris
on the sales tax, MATA, tax incentives, and much more, tonight on Behind the Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] – I’m Eric Barnes with
The Daily Memphian. Thanks for joining us. I am joined tonight by
County Mayor Lee Harris. Thanks for being here again. – Sure thing, thanks
for having me. – Along with Bill Dries, reporter with
The Daily Memphian. We have a lot to talk
about, obviously. I listed many things
at the top of the show, and we’ll try to
get to all of ’em. I do, I think I
would like to start. There’s a lot of things
we could start with. MATA’s the biggest
issue right now, and the funding, and we will
spend a lot of time on that, but I think I wanna start with, just ’cause we’ve had a
series of shows about, the outcome of the debate about the sales tax referendum,
and then the outcome of that. What is your take in terms of that tax referendum
being passed? Should the county come
in and take 50% of it? Let’s start there. – So I don’t think the
county should come in and take 50% of the
sales tax revenue. I think that would undermine
the will of the voters. The voters, I think,
expressed their will pretty decisively
on election day, that they’d love to see more
investment in public safety. I mean, it was very clear
what the referendum was about. It was about whether
or not there should be more investment
in public safety. And so, I think it would
be, it would frustrate that kind of popular
will for us to do something other than what
the voters have commanded. If you’re gonna do a referendum,
right, and we did one, you kinda gotta follow
the will of the voters, so I think that it
should go towards investments in public safety. I’ll leave it to
the city to decide when and how to do that. I do think there are
plenty of details that will have to be worked out on their side of Civic Plaza, but I do think that
the public wants to see an investment in public safety. – I mean technically
if it’s just, if it goes to the
city, the city, it doesn’t really involve
the county, how that’s spent. But will you have any
input in any fashion on how they do that, or you’re just gonna
watch like the rest of us? – I’m hopeful that
we just watch, because what the public
said through the referendum as I understand it, is they want to see
the City of Memphis make a significant
investment in public safety. Remember again, I’m not
over there on that side right now.
– Right, right, No no, you’re fine.
– But I think, but this is certainly the number
one issue in our community is crime and public safety. We all know that we have
suffered some morale issues with respect to our
first responders, our law enforcement,
and one of the reasons why there has been
morale and attrition is related to investments
in public safety. We’ve, you know, I
think we all remember the pension cuts and
the health benefit cuts. I was around at that time, I was also–
– Were you on the city council at that time?
– I was on city council at that time.
– Did you vote for those cuts? – I voted against the cuts, and I voted against the
cuts primarily because I thought it would undermine
law enforcement morale, and we would see a lot
of law enforcement leave, and that was the number
one issue in our community, even at that time,
was public safety. And I could not
countenance a cut like that that could put us in peril with respect to recruiting
first responders. – Last thing, and I’m sorry, and then I’ll go to Bill. Again, that debate back in 2012, the vote that was taken in
2014 and the conversation now is in part about
fiscal responsibility and what the increase in those
benefits back to those level, what those would do to
the city budget over time. Do you worry about that? Again, you don’t have a say
in this as County Mayor, but you are, I think you’re
a resident of Memphis. You’ve been involved–
– Sure. – In politics in lots
of different ways. Do you worry about
the long term effect? – So, I think, so now
we’re going back to my city council days, and my
opinion as to the details, is yes, I’m worried about our
long term financial outlook, but I believe there
is a way to do it and still manage that long
term financial outlook. So for example, in
other organizations that have abandoned traditional
guaranteed benefit programs, the pension programs
and so forth, in those organizations,
they have primarily done it with respect to their new hires. And so back in the day
I was of the opinion that if we were gonna
make this kind of change, you could not make it
with respect to the people that are currently part
of your organization, and that had built up reliance
on promises that were made as they entered the organization that you could
only make a change with respect to new hires–
– Got it, got it. – Before the enter
the organization. I thought that was the
most prudent approach, to have this discussion. But what ended up
happening, of course is that some folks who were a part of, who had already signed
up to become cops, or become firemen, saw
their benefits cut, and I thought that was
not, in keeping with our original pledges to those
law enforcement personnel, and I thought that was
very different from how it works out in organizations
across our country. – Okay, Bill. – If the county
commission were to, a majority on the
county commission were to disagree with you and
pass a referendum ordinance to put this to, I believe
it would be voters and unincorporated
Shelby County, as Mayor would you veto that?
– Yes. – You would? – Yes, because again,
I’ve always said that vetoes are reserved
for instances when the popular will is clear and you have a situation
where government does something that is completely
against the popular will. – All right, let’s shift now
to the sustainability fee, what some folks have
called the third car fee. Commission Chairman
Mark Billingsley has said that he doesn’t
see this happening. What’s been your read, because
you’ve made a commitment to, in effect,
campaign for this idea over the next five months, until a vote in
February sometime. – And let me back up just
for those who aren’t necessarily as familiar. This $145 is meant to
raise some $10 million to go towards MATA, an
investment in transit. Go ahead. – So, the idea is to make
a major investment in MATA to the tune of $10 million. MATA, of course,
can grow ridership and we can enter into
that stage of development where we have our
buses on the streets, and more reliable,
traveling more frequently. What’s happened is, is over time we’ve seen traffic
congestion issues, we’ve seen wear and
tear on our roads, we’ve seen a degradation
of our shared environment. The American Lung
Association in 2019 gave us an F on some indicators. One of the highest conditions
in the emergency room at Lebonheur
Methodist is asthma. A lot of those issues with
our shared environment, flow from passenger vehicles, and a lot of the
solution is transit. And so I’ve said let’s
try as best we can to marry the problem
and the solution. If the problem is wear
and tear on our roads, emissions, and the degradation
of our shared environment, and traffic congestion which
will only worsen over time, and the solution is transit, let’s see if we can
figure out a way to create a fee on those
passenger vehicles in some limited cases, that creates a revenue
source for transit. The fee that we talked
about only would apply to 17% of households. 83% of people would face no
new fee and no new taxes. Meanwhile, 100% of us
would get the benefit of the reduced traffic congestion, the improved environment,
and better infrastructure in this community. So that was one of the
things that has happened. And the other things that’s
happenin’ is at some point, somebody’s gotta open up a
conversation around transit. And so I am open to
any number of ideas around how to invest in transit, but transit is a very
important and top priority. There are a bunch of reasons,
I’ve talked about one, the environment,
but there’s also economic benefits to transit, significant economic
benefits to transit, and equity benefits when
it comes to transit, so. – Have you heard any
alternative ideas in the brief time–
– I have heard yeah, just idle talk,
yes, I’ve heard idle talk. Have I heard any specific plan that could serve as
an alternative to the plan we’ve put forward? Not yet, but I am hopeful. Right now, what we are
doing, as best we can, over the next six months, and
I know this is a heavy lift, because it is transit, and
transit is one of those issues that doesn’t affect
everyone right now, right? Only two percent of our
population took a bus today, 98% of our population did not. So 98% of people are kind of
wondering, “What about me?” So we’ve gotta make the case, and I say we’re
gonna make the case over the next six
months to talk about number one, how the
money will be spent. It’s basically to
fun more frequency with respect to eight
routes in the urban core, and also to make the case that transit is an
important thing. I’ve talked about one
reason why it’s important, the environmental benefits, the fact that if we invest
$10 million in transit, we’ll get a million new rides, which means that we will
take thousands of cars off of the streets, and remove thousands of tons
of greenhouse gas emissions from our environment. There are also equity reasons, and this is where I
tailed off a moment ago. The equity reason is our
poverty rate is climbing in this community. So we have a lot
of bright spots, and there is, certainly,
momentum and optimism out there, there’s no doubt about that. But inequality is growing,
and poverty is growing. So of 950,000 people,
200,000 live in poverty, that’s one of the largest poverty
populations in our state, and in the country. And the numbers are goin’ up. There are now 28,000 people
that live in poverty this year, that were not in
poverty last year. One of the ways we get people to finally climb
up out of poverty, is access to jobs,
and one of the ways they get access to
jobs is transportation. – Backing up a little bit. The $10 million would be. Let’s break that down
a little bit more, on eight routes, is that what you said?
– Yes. – You’d be focused on
those and increasing those frequency by a few a
day or something like that, that would then translate into the million more rides
a year, is that correct? – So there are 44
routes on MATA. Some of those routes do
not come very frequently, so I wouldn’t be unusual
to wait an hour or more for a bus.
– Right. – If you wait an hour
or more for a bus, then you can’t use that route
reliably to get to work. So we wanna improve
the frequency on some of those
successful routes, so that people can use MATA
in order to get to work, get around town, and get back home to have
dinner with their family. – This week or
sometime this week, $12 million was announced
from federal money for Bus Rapid Transit,
is that right? Does that mitigate
the problem at all? Does that replace
this $10 million you’re trying to raise, or no? – $10 million in
the scheme of things is not enough to get
where we need to go. But the $10 million plan is
the start of a conversation. – So that’d be on top
of, if this $12 million I think is happening, right? And it’s focused on eight miles linking Downtown, Medical
District, Overton Square, the library and U of M,
28 transit stations, 70 buses, and kind of
high tech electric buses. So this would be on top of that. – Exactly. – And didn’t you, when you
campaigned you talked about a $25 million
investment at the time, or $30 million, I can’t
remember what the number was. – That was the MATA number. – That was the MATA
number, excuse me, okay so you didn’t. How do, if we’re fighting
about $10 million, how in the world, if it’s as
important as you say it is, and I’m not saying
it isn’t but if, how then, do we get to
the $20 or $30 million that MATA talks
about it needing? – One inch at a time, that’s how we get there. Remember that the transit
plan talked about in Nashville is more than $5 billion. So that’s where Nashville is. They’re talking about more than $5 billion dollars–
– The one that’s shot down by the state, right? – They voted to transit. I think they may have
had a referendum, but more than $5 billion
supported by the National
Chamber of Commerce, all the stakeholder groups,
$5 billion, right? $5 billion. Our transit plan is $10 million, $10 million dollars, which
is less than one percent of the Nashville plan. So the point is, we
have a long way to go. Recall, I mean we’re in
our 200th anniversary. 200 years ago this
community was out front, outpacing Atlanta,
outpacing every community you can think of,
Dallas and Charlotte. 10 years ago we
could have claimed to be competitive
with Nashville. None of those things
are true right now, and the only way we
can kind of enter into this conversation, is to
have a transit system work. That’s one of the major ways you can recruit young
folks to your town. And so right now the
county, by the way, is shrinking, right,
it’s shrinking. Nashville is growin’
at 100 people a day. That’s about 35,000
people a year that move to Nashville. Meanwhile, Shelby County,
over the last few years, is actually contracting. So if we’re gonna have growth, we’re gonna have to
make investments, and one of the things that
could lead to more growth in our community, is having
a reliable public transit. – Johnnie Mosely who
wrote an op-ed for us, he’s the founder of
Citizens for Better Service, he’s concerned that
that third car fee would hit too many
poor households, the households in Frayser
and households in Westwood, that there’d be too many people, that it would be counter… it wouldn’t help, because
of its impact there. Do you worry about that, or do you feel like this is, this fee would hit the people
who can most afford it? – I’m open to any
idea that is out there to fund transit, because it has such significant implications
for our community. The environmental implications,
the equity implications, and the economic implications. For years and years
in our community we’ve had thousands and
thousands of open jobs. If you go to jobsfortn.com,
which is our state website, you’ll see at least
16,000 open jobs in this community right now. The vast majority of those jobs, you will see designated as
requiring no skills whatsoever, and the reason why those
jobs are open, right, if you ask people who are
unemployed in our county, “Why don’t you
take one of these, open, unfilled jobs,”
most of them will tell you it is because of transportation, that they don’t have any
way to get to those jobs. So for years we’ve been
talking about the open jobs, and this is one of the ways
you help solve and connect employers and
potential employees. – You talked about
younger folks being more willing to use public
transportation, to use the bus system. What do you think the state of the Memphis Area Transit
Authority’s credibility is with Memphians in general? – Well, with
Memphians in general I think they’ve got
a lot of work to do to improve their brand. So this is what they
said about that. But one of the reasons why
their brand has suffered is because there have been buses that don’t travel frequently, there have been
significant delays, and it takes a long
time for people to move around our
community on a bus. So the start of trying
to turn that around is a conversation like this about how we make an
investment in transit. – Is the $12 million
in federal funding that’s coming in
for the downtown to the University of Memphis
corridor so to speak, is that a test of it? I mean, are people gonna
be watching, do you think, to see if MATA pulls that off? – Oh I think people are
watching transit right now, and I think that’s
a great thing, so that’s why I ran
for office, right? I ran for office because
I wanted to make sure that we had debates
in this community around things that matter
to everyday citizens. So that’s issues
like livable wages, that’s issues like transit, that’s issues like
criminal justice reform. So I to think around
our community right now, everybody’s talking
about transit. So yes, MATA has the
spotlight on them, and right fully so, and I
think that’s a good thing. – And for the county’s
revenue that would be raised by this fee, you want
to see specific things like will happen
in that corridor on these eight routes that are
within the City of Memphis, are in the, what’s referred
to as the core city? – I’d like to see the county
make a significant investment on the order of at least
$10 million dollars into MATA and I think the best place
to make that investment is to follow the plan as
outlined in Transit Vision. So Transit Vision
was an opportunity for various transit
advocates and experts to come together to talk about what the needs are
with respect to MATA, and where investments
should flow. In the Transit Vision plan, which is part of Memphis 3.0, early implementation calls for
investment in eight routes. There are 44 routes in MATA. Eight routes are targeted
for the early money. These are the routes
that are successful, these are the routes
that people are using to get to a job,
these are the routes where we could
improve frequency, and create more job access. – Do you still
intend to take this to a vote on the
commission in February? – Well, I can’t control what
happens on the commission. There are many voices that
hopefully will come to bear. What I’ve said is we’re
gonna try to make the case, and we’re gonna try as best
we can to vet and flesh out any other options that
come to the table. If we can get more options
and more discussion on this, I think we’ll be in a good place around February to
talk about this. We also, the budget cycle
come in right after that, and so there’s also
another opportunity during the budget cycle,
to talk about transit. – You mentioned livable wage. You had made an
effort to condition, I think it was about
a million dollars that was gonna go to the
U of M for a swim center, that U of M committing to raising its
minimum wage to $15. They didn’t make
that full commitment. David Rudd was on the show, the President of U of M a month
ago or something like that and they were talking
about a plan to get there and they’re trying to get there and they were committed
to getting there, but that wasn’t
enough of a commitment that satisfied you, I think. Are you going to try to
condition other money that the county spends
and gives to other groups, to non-profit groups, to
any other kind of spending on that $15 minimum wage? Is that gonna be a
widespread effort, or was it somehow
unique to the U of M? – I’m gonna do everything I can to move the community forward. So the University
of Memphis obviously was a very specific case, and so I never called for
them to raise their wages to $15 an hour, although
I would love to see it. What I called for them to do
was articulate a timeline. So that was a very
specific case, and a specific
case because we had so many members of the community that were so frustrated
by the leadership at the University of Memphis. For the last eight
years they have been fighting with leadership at
the University of Memphis to raise their pay
up to $15 an hour. And they couldn’t get word
as to when this would happen, and so they really
were just, as I said, frustrated that they
couldn’t get a timeline. And so they wrote to
me, so several groups, lots of unions, MICAH,
just a bunch of groups wrote and said, “Can you
please try as best you can “to get the
University of Memphis “to articulate a timeline
for raising their wages to $15 an hour?” Since that effort, since
the veto and the debate, they have articulated
a timeline of two years that they’re gonna raise
those wages in two years. I think that’s a good thing. The wages were just
raised in September to about $11 an hour,
and so that puts the University of Memphis
custodial workers, these are the workers
who we’re fighting for, the custodial workers, there are about 300
custodial workers. That puts the custodial
workers on par with Wal-Mart workers
anywhere in America, right? Anywhere in America, you
can work for a Wal-Mart and you can make $11 an hour. We wanna see it get
up to $15 an hour, and so we are encouraged
that now we have word from the University of
Memphis for the first time that they’ll do
this in two years. – Are you gonna try to
put those conditions and use that pressure
with other groups? – Eric, I’m gonna
do everything I can, everything I can,
to make sure that our community moves forward. So this was, again,
a special case, because the community
reached out to us, and asked for us to give
voice to their concerns, and so yes, if we have
people in our community that reach out to me and ask me to give voice to their concerns, and I have it within
my power to do it, that’s what’s required
of leadership. – Let’s talk about the
elections that have just ended, the city elections. We explored some of
the different themes, the calls for change, the
calls on specific issues that were present in
the city campaign. What do you think the
elections in Memphis said about where we are
as a community? – There’s a lot of
city stuff here. I don’t know. I went out, I voted. I’m on the county side,
and so I don’t know that I actively participated
in that election. I supported three city
council candidates, two of the three won. I was very gung-ho about
the council candidate that was gonna represent
my neighborhood, Davin Clemons, he did not win. He was a police officer, and I am a believer,
just having served on the Memphis City Council, that the Memphis City
Council really needs a lot of diversity. We all know that the real
estate business interests are represented there, but you need some other
kinds of perspectives on the Memphis City Council, and I thought Davin Clemons, who had a career as
a police officer, would have been a great person, a great addition
to that council, to represent the
neighborhood where I live. So that was one of the, that was the one of
the three that we lost. The other two candidates
that I supported won, and you know that’s
kinda where it is. I cared about the city council ’cause I’m an alum
of the city council. But I don’t know
if I’ll participate that heavily in city elections. – But you’ve also articulated your own vision of change here, when we talked on our politics
podcast a few weeks ago. You told me then
that the conversation in Memphis and in Shelby
County is changing. We’re talking about
different issues than we once talked
about before, and you’re a big part of that. I mean, you’re talking about making mass transit here,
the bus system, more viable, and you’re not talking about it just for a specific reason, you’re talking about is
as part of your concern about climate change. So, is there a larger
vision of change that is afoot than we saw
in the city elections? – I think we are talking
about different things in this community. I think that’s a good thing. I don’t know what
the relationship is to the city elections,
so I can’t make a lot of those kinds
of connections, but I do think yes, I
think when I started in elected office in 2011, a lot of the conversation to me, seemed to be about tax breaks, and stadiums, and
ribbon cuttings. And those are the
kind of things that I, that didn’t motivate me. That’s not the reason
why I ran for office. I ran for office because I
wanted to talk about issues that I heard in the communities
from everyday citizens. And so now I do think
we are much more focused on those issues, I’ve
talked about what those are. It’s livable wages, it’s
criminal justice reform, it’s neighborhoods, it’s
public safety, it’s transit, and I think that’s where the
conversation is right now, and I’m gonna do
everything I can to make sure the
conversation stays there. I wanna see more
headlines, more people talkin’ about those issues
and less about issues that only affect 100
people, or 200 people, and don’t really
move the needle. – You mentioned tax
breaks, and let me ask you about tax breaks. They Raymond James is
moving from downtown with a PILOT tax incentive
to move to Ridgeway, to move out east. Did you support
them, and you have, you as county mayor have
some authority over EDGE, you appoint, what, one or two-
– Maybe half. – Yeah, half the
people to that board. Did you support that move? – I don’t get involved
in each one of the tax break instances. Instead, I view my
role as to defer to the Economic
Development Professionals. – But do you think
it was a good idea? – I do not think tax
breaks are a good idea. I do not think the economy
operates in that fashion. I don’t think you can
subsidize private business and make that
business successful. So I think as a general matter, you shouldn’t do tax breaks, if you wanna stimulate
the economic activity. As a general matter
you should do tax cuts. So I don’t believe that
that works, but again– – Is there a chance of a tax, I mean, I’m sorry
to cut you off, just ’cause we have a
couple of minutes left. I mean, is there a chance then of a tax cut at
the county level? I mean that’s what the–
– I would love– – People on the
other side will say, “Well, we have to
have these tax breaks, “’cause we get recruited
by other communities where the taxes are half
or less what they are here,” and that this is the
way to balance that out. – I would love to see a tax cut on the county level. That is a great way to stimulate real economic activity, right? That’s a great way
to grow your economy. I mean we can argue about
how much growth you can get from a tax cut, versus other
things like investment. But there’s no doubt about
it, that that is a way to stimulate economic activity–
– But is it part, I mean, back to
financial responsibility, can the county afford a tax cut? – Yeah we’ve got plenty of
things that could be cut in the county budget. – Like what? – All kinds of things, so yeah, for example, so if you take
a look at the last budget there were significant
increases in some categories. I’m proud to say I’m the
only elected official, I believe, on the county side, that cut expenses from
my first year in office to my second year in office. But that kind of perspective that one can cut can apply to all the divisions of
county government. In fact, when you
talked about MATA it’s just a spitball here, we could do a 2.5%
cut across the board and generate $10 million. That’s another idea, if the
will is there. You could do a tax on businesses,
if the will is there. But the point is these
are tough things to do, so there are plenty
of ideas out there including cuts,
including, as you say, reform of the Economic
Development System. There are plenty
of ideas out there, the question is can you get
some of those things done? But yes, I am all for
tightening our purse strings, I’m all for cuts in
order to create funding for priorities.
– What example, as you go into budget season, what examples will you
bring forward, do you think? – Well I’m not for increasing
the number of folks that we hire, or expanding
the number of people on the county payrolls. I think we can make
do with what we have, and I think there will
always be pressure to expand the payroll
on the county side, and I’m not
necessarily for that. – All right, thank you,
We will leave it there. I’ll note that next week
we have Bruce McMullen and Mike Rallings, Police
Director Bruce McMullen, City Chief Legal Officer. We’ll be talking about
the civilian review board and surveillance, and Carol
Coletta the week after that talking about the Riverfront. Thanks for joining us. Thank you Mr. Mayor,
thank you Bill, and join us again next week. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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