In his first State of the County address, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris voiced his intention to ask the Shelby County Commission to invest in public transit for the first time.
“Public transit is one of the most important assets we have,” Harris said in a packed theater in the Halloran Centre on South Main St. on Friday afternoon. “It is one of the best ways to spur economic development. It’s one of the only ways to have a broad impact on thousands and thousands of citizens in our community.”
Harris said his plan would address levels of investment in Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA) and “set some reasonable expectations. MATA, he said, as seven million riders a year and demands for millions more. He put that in the context of about 1 million annual visitors to the Memphis Zoo, about 500,000 to Graceland and three million to Shelby Farms.
“Thus, if we can increase revenue to public transit we can change the lives of many, many families,” said Harris.
His proposal to the commission will recommend a phased-in approach, similar to investments in other shared community priorities such as pre-K.
The county wants a seat on the MATA board of directors, said Harris, but the city should continue to control and run the service. Some times when two governments are in charge that can mean, “no one is in charge,” Harris said.
What’s been done
Frequently interrupted by applause, Harris listed some of his administration’s early accomplishments.
“We have recruited top talent in important leadership positions, including our CAO Patrice Thomas,” he said. “We have raised the pay of our part-time county employees to $15 an hour and we plan to push to make sure that more county employees — like the Shelby County Schools cafeteria workers — are paid a living wage.”
The county has eliminated the cost of phone calls for children in detention, Harris said, “because we want to make sure kids who are caught on the wrong side of the law get a chance to stay in contact with their parents.”
Harris said he has worked with the City of Memphis to submit a plan to make sure that every child, regardless of household income, has access to high quality, early childhood education.
On jail overcrowding, Harris said he is looking at ways that the bail bond system can be improved. He said many of the inmates in the county jail have been judged as no risk to the public, but don’t have the money for bond.
“This means that in many ways we are punishing people for merely being poor,” Harris said.
On ways to reduce crime and recidivism among ex-offenders, Harris said the Office of Re-Entry, which helps offenders who are returning to communities after prison, would ask the county commission for new investments later this year.
“We want to be in a position to start new programs to help these ex-offenders get the training they’ll need to get a job or create a job,” Harris said.
Also later this year, plans will be announced to turn part of the campus at the Office of Re-Entry into a place where ex-offenders can learn a vocational skill and earn certification that makes them more job ready.
The jury is still out on whether government officials can create more jobs, referring to tax breaks and other incentives that governments provide to help sweeten the pot in attracting new industry.
“Call me an old-fashioned, free-market conservative Democrat who represents working people. I don’t believe governments should be in the business of picking winners and losers,” Harris said.
He favors investment in public assets and in people over tax breaks when it comes to economic development.
“That means we should invest more in work force. … We should make sure that our community is full of individuals with skills that employers find in-demand. If we do that, the rest will take care of itself.”
His administration is prioritizing the work of WIN and the American Job Center in its effort to help job-seekers, said Harris, noting that the county recently opened a third American Job.
Harris said his administration is working with the Shelby County District Attorney’s office on using a new tool – the Public Safety Assessment – that is designed to help courts determine if someone is a threat to the public or unlikely to show up in court.
And for juveniles, “…we’re working hard to eliminate detention and when we have to detain we’re going to focus like a laser on rehabilitation,” he said.
The county also will use a Youth Assessment Center, a pilot program, as an alternative to the juvenile justice system for some children who commit minor offenses.
Overall, the state of the county is strong and “there are communities all over the country that want to emulate us,” Harris said.
Shelby County County Commissioner Willie Brooks said Harris gave a great speech. “We will be working with him to be sure we are doing our part.”
Zeroing in on juvenile justice reform, Brooks said, “It’s important that we partner with organizations that have that expertise and be able to measure and track. Otherwise, we will be back in the same situation.”
The Rev. Dr. Earle J. Fisher, senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church and founder of #UPTheVote901, said Harris “hit all the right notes” in his speech.
“…I am from a grassroots perspective … concerned about which line items get priorities over the others,” Fisher said. “I think the juvenile assessment center is much more critical right now than another juvenile detention center. I would like to see that moved up front.”
Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer said, “I appreciate that he talked about ending cash money bail. …I appreciate that he announced that he’s bringing a proposal to the commission about funding for MATA. For me, these are starts that are good….”