Updates from the Shelby County Commission

Commission Meeting Agenda 3/9/2020

Here’s what’s happening around Shelby County as we head into another meeting of the Board of Commissioners:

This week there are 29 items on the consent agenda and 7 others to consider on the regular agenda. Link to full meeting agenda.

Some highlights from this week’s agenda:

Representative Ron Lollar. Commissioner Amber Mills and I have sponsored a resolution to honor the late Ron Lollar, the state leader who represented parts of Arlington, Bartlett, Lakeland and Millington, with the honorary renaming of a portion of Millington-Arlington Road. Representative Lollar was a beloved legislator, a combat veteran, a champion of education, a man of faith and a great friend. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to recognize his service.

Residency. Last meeting, commissioners suspended the rules to pass a measure that temporarily removes the residency requirement from public safety employees, through April 1, 2022.

Meanwhile, plans moved forward to institute a formal policy for investigating alleged violations of the residency requirements. Toward that end, the commission will hold the first reading of an ordinance by Commissioner Van Turner that came out of an ad hoc committee formed to study the issue. The ordinance defines the terms in the Charter and itemizes the proofs of residency.

My take: None of these rule changes will prevent an enterprising employee from actually living beyond the county line, including the high profile case that brought this issue to the forefront.

I remain of the opinion that we should do away with the residency requirement, for at least four reasons:

1. Fairness. If some employees are exempt from, or are otherwise getting around the requirement, particularly employees serving in leadership positions, it sets a bad example for the workforce.

2. Practicality. We can’t enforce the policy we have.

3. Need. The sheriff’s office and the fire chief in particular need to expand their pool of candidates. And we need to have a stable, consistent policy in place for them to do that effectively.

4. Prudence. The county shouldn’t micromanage its employees by telling them where they can and can’t live. We have much better things to do with our time. And the financial argument is not really much of an argument. If we’re to the point where we need to be concerned about losing property taxes collected from a few hundred county employees, that’s evidence we have much bigger problems on which to focus our attention, such as how to make Shelby County a more desirable place to live.

Groundwater protection. As of last meeting, all commissioners had co-sponsored a resolution to defend the Shelby County Health Department and the Ground Water Control Board against a caption bill in the state legislature that would have eliminated their oversight. However, we were convinced to defer passage so that talks could commence between county leaders and the Farm Bureau, which had gotten the state involved.

Those talks are ongoing, the General Assembly will not take the bill up this year, and the Health Department recognizes the need to update its permitting process. Hopefully we we be able to resolve the situation without further legislative action.

Groundwater is too important in Memphis and the surrounding area for us not to do everything in our power to protect it.

School system audits and budget presentations. The municipal school systems were concerned by two items appearing in committee this past week.

The first is a resolution by Commissioner Willie F. Brooks, Jr. that requests budget presentations from each of the municipal school boards. The resolution was amended to replace “school board members” with “school leadership.” However, it remains the case that the municipal school administrations are required to report to their own school boards and to their own local funding bodies, not to the County Commission.

Shelby County Schools is the only system that reports to the County Commission directly, because it doesn’t have a more local body to report to and approve its funding. The municipal systems merely get an ADA split from whatever the commission approves for SCS. So presenting a budget to us doesn’t really make sense for the municipal systems, and it would be an additional, unnecessary burden on them. But some commissioners feel this is unfair to SCS.

Commissioner Michael Whaley, who chairs our education committee, is working on some compromise language that would request updates from the municipal schools only with regard to its progress in receiving and spending capital funds from the county.

The second item that had municipal leaders concerned was a resolution by Commissioner Edmund Ford, Jr. seeking audited financials from each system. Superintendents in the suburban communities were concerned about the cost of having their auditing teams on hand to present to the commission. However, I believe all Commissioner Ford is asking is for the municipal systems to “provide a copy” of the audited financials that are already publicly available.

Parental leave. In his State of the County address, Mayor Lee Harris announced his desire to offer county employees six paid weeks of parental leave. Many of us were anxious to know how he intended to pay for it. We soon learned he planned to pay for this benefit with increased revenue from internet sales taxes.

The keen observer will remember this is the same funding stream I previously identified we could possibly use for public transit, in a compromise position I had formulated and discussed in multiple public forums. However, I was later told the state’s projections on increased revenues were too rosy, and that it would be difficult for the administration to identify which portion of the sales tax revenues were from online or out-of-state collections.

However, that does leave us with some increased revenue, and more than enough to offer this benefit.

Here’s my take.

First, more and more employers are offering this benefit. My own employer, a non-profit, implemented the policy last year. President Donald Trump extended 12 weeks of parental leave to federal employees in December. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee proposed a similar policy for state employees earlier this year. And parental leave policies have been proposed recently in other Republican-led states, including South Carolina and Georgia.

Going forward, this is something we’re going to have to offer in order to recruit and retain employees. And in Shelby County, that includes the public safety personnel that we’re having a hard time finding. They would be the biggest beneficiaries of this policy.

Second, there aren’t funds available for every proposal, and I don’t support tax increases, but there is a revenue stream identified for this one. Overall, the county needs to prioritize, streamline and make some difficult decisions and sacrifices. We can’t continue to squeeze taxpayers. But we do need to take care of our employees, especially the ones who educate our children, police our community, fight our fires and respond to emergencies. I’m happy to support them and their families.

Third, this is a pro-life proposal. Couples who are expecting are often in a financially vulnerable position. As long as the specter of abortion is present in our society, organizations should make it as easy as possible for their own employees to choose life. Children should be given a chance to be celebrated and welcomed into families. If we can help new parents start their families and create a nurturing environment for babies, we should.