There is more to be done.
That is the theme Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris hammered home throughout his second State of the County address delivered Feb. 21 at Collierville High School. He echoed the same sentiments days later when we met for a one-on-one interview in his Downtown office.
Harris considers his office an “advocacy organization that sparks dialogue on issues that matter to the public.”
The mayor certainly has pushed the envelope on conversations surrounding livable wages for county employees, criminal justice reform and a progressive plan for public transit.
He is quick to point out many of the complex issues that still exist, including high rates in poverty and ex-felon recidivism, crumbling school buildings and an outdated public transit system.
Still, he said progress has been made.
Just a few days after his State of the County speech, Harris doubled down on his plans for Shelby County, including an additional proposal for funding public transit, another massive investment in education and the plans to lift thousands of residents out of poverty.
Harris, a Democrat, was sworn in as the sixth mayor of Shelby County on Sept. 1, 2018. He graduated from Overton High School and earned a law degree at Yale Law School. He was elected to the Memphis City Council in 2011 and to the Tennessee Senate in 2014.
Here are highlights from his interview with The New Tri-State Defender:
TSD: You just gave your second State of the County address. How do you feel about the progress made since you delivered your first one in 2019?
Harris: I think we’ve had significant impact and that we’ve been able to drive a conversation — not just within Shelby County government, but across the community-issues that matter to a broad swath of our community. We’ve been able to drive conversations surrounding a livable wage.
We’ve also been able to talk about Pre-k, while also being able to devote a lot of money to it. I don’t know how we found $8.5 million, but we found it to invest in Pre-k. Then we’ve also driven a communitywide debate around public transit.
TSD: We know the County Commission recently approved an annual one-million-dollar-plus investment in public transit. In addition, there’s a lot of conversation surrounding the potential of obtaining additional funds – specifically $9 million more. Some commissioners and residents have thanked you for driving the public transit conversation. Do you give yourself credit for that?
Harris: The point of running for office was to drive a conversation that mattered. It was not to get into office and sit around and talk about the same ‘ole things’. Instead we view this office as an advocacy organization to drive a debate around issues that matter to the public.
Right now we are at the 50-yard line with transit, with about 50 more yards to go. As you said, we were able to get the County Commission to approve the first part of the transit plan that is dedicated CIP funding. We know there is a need out there for shelters and buses that are zero or low emission. That money will be used for all of those purposes and we are very excited.
TSD: If you had to choose one thing you’ve been able to accomplish since taking office that you’re most proud of, what would it be?
Mayor Harris: It would definitely be education. Education is what I ran on. Vo-tech was number two and we were able to launch our Vo-Tech program last year, with the pilot school being MLK College Prep in Frayser.
TSD: Speaking of Frayser, you created quite a buzz during your State of the County when you mentioned the potential in investing $50 million in the building of a new high school in Frayser. Why is this something that you think needs to be done, and specifically in that community?
Harris: Shelby County Schools was established in 2013, but has never built a high school. It is time for us to invest in our facilities. We know that the buildings in the Frayser community are decades old. In fact, the vast majority of schools in Shelby County School System are 40 years or older.
So it’s an opportunity to build a high school for the first time for Shelby County Schools, to bring top-notch first rate learning environment to the kids in Frayser and an opportunity to show that Shelby County government and Shelby County School system can work together for a common cause.
If we can get that done we can move on to a larger and more ambitious plan to get rid of the deferred maintenance and build even more schools around our county.
TSD: Where will the $50 million investment come from?
Harris: Funding will come from the county. The money is there. If the Shelby County School Board agrees to take the money then we have the possibility of a new high school in Frayser. If the Shelby County School Board does not and puts up some issue or challenge then we won’t; but that is where it stands.
TSD: Let’s shift gears to public safety. You’ve mentioned it as another top priority of yours — both as an accomplishment and something you hope to see more progress in. Why is that?
Harris: I am excited to say that we are poised to make the largest investment in public safety in this community. That is if we can get the County Commission to approve an increase in the car registration fees. Part of that money will be used to hire deputy sheriffs.
If we hire deputy sheriffs as planned, it will be the largest increase in our deputy sheriff complement in recent memory. They will be hired to patrol the areas of the county that were de-annexed. And I would love to get all of this done without a tax increase, but we will see.
TSD: Let’s talk about the possibility of increasing car registration fees. It’s part of your “Future for Transit Plan,” where the goal is for Shelby County to invest $10 million per year in public transit.
Harris: Right, but we do not want to think of it as just an increase. It is an investment in public transit. There has not been an increase on car registration fees in 20 years. So what we are saying to the commission is that if you increase the registration fee by $20 we can make a massive investment in transit plus enough to hire 40 additional deputy sheriffs.
TSD: We have to discuss the issue of poverty in Shelby County — for two reasons because the numbers are increasing and also because you ran on the goal of lifting at least 50,000 people out of poverty. What is the plan to tackle the rising poverty issue?
Harris: One of the ways you lift people out of poverty is that you pay them a livable wage. The reason why people are in poverty in many cases is not because they are not working, it is because they are not making a livable wage. So we need to make sure people are making at least $15 an hour.
I was just at an event at Christian Brothers University, where they commended me for driving a conversation around $15 an hour, and they recently made their announcement that they are planning to pay their employees that. That is how you lift people out of poverty — you pay them a job with a livable wage.
Another thing is tackling generational poverty, and the best way to do that is to provide more meaningful educational opportunities. That is why you build a top-notch school in Frayser. Communities that have been too hard hit and have not received enough attention.
That is why we have also focused on a massive investment in Pre-k. Because you want to make sure that generational poverty ends and that the next generation has more opportunities.
All of that is important and that is why we are just going to continue doing those things until we turn this thing around.
TSD: What would you say is the biggest problem Shelby County faces right now?
Harris: Absolutely poverty is the biggest problem. Our poverty levels are way too high and it is time for us to laser light focus on it.
TSD: You’ve mentioned a few plans you hope to implement during your term. What’s your primary focus right now?
Harris: To continue focusing on education. I am tired of seeing crumbling school buildings and kids without enough opportunity. My goal is making sure that kids have more opportunity. My other primary focus is public safety and making sure that we do something to strengthen our re-entry programming because part of the problem is that our recidivism rate is too high.
TSD: You’ve had a pretty full political career — city councilman, state senator and, now, Shelby County mayor. What kind of imprint would you like make during your term?
Harris: My dad used to have a saying, asking what have you done today. So I am only focused on today — how far have I moved the ball today, at this very moment. What will I be working on tomorrow? I do not look back and say, well what did we accomplish, I do not have time for that, it is too much to be done. I am only focused on today.