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Updates from the Shelby County Commission

Shelby County responds to the COVID-19 emergency

So much has changed this week, it can be hard even to keep up with the news. But because our legitimate concerns and uncertainty can be made worse by rumors, anxiety and panic, it’s important we make a serious effort to identify solid information. Toward that end, here are some quick links and updates you may find useful.

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for helpful information about the pandemic, its origins, its characteristics and severity, the risk it presents, how government leaders are responding to it and what everyone can do to help prevent it from spreading.

Local experts. The Shelby County Health Department is our local authority on COVID-19 and has a website filled with information and updates available online at shelbytnhealth.com/coronavirus. I’m thankful for the dedication of Dr. Alisa Haushalter and everyone on her team as they seek to contain and mitigate this outbreak.

Local government. The Shelby County Board of Commissioners plans to hold its regular committee meetings this Wednesday, but Chairman Mark Billingsley has announced a number of changes.

All meetings will be held on the 1st floor chambers so that the proceedings may be viewed online at shelbycountytn.gov. Meetings can also be heard on radio WQOX 88.5FM.

According to a March 12 press release:

“Media is welcome to attend; however, there are specific measures that are being put into place to minimize person to person contact during the meeting. Any citizen interested in providing public comment or who may have questions related to items for action, please submit via email to BOC.email@shelbycountytn.gov. Additional tools are being prepared at this time and once finalized, will be implemented immediately to ensure the public has the ability to comment upon items before the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.”

Local action. For many of us, it seems there’s little more we can do that watch and wait. But that may be the best course of action for now – the action of inaction. The CDC has advised Americans to limit movement and avoid crowds, among other recommendations.

I am hopeful that most citizens will follow this advice so that we can stop the virus from spreading and reduce any strain on our medical system.

A personal note. My wife and I both work in the healthcare industry. Alison is a pediatric ICU nurse at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, and I work for Youth Villages, a non-profit organization that provides mental health and behavioral health services for young people and their families. Both organizations are taking measures to protect patients from harm, as well as their own employees.

We appreciate every step you are taking to keep yourself and others safe. Every time you wash your hands, cover a cough or reschedule social plans, you are helping our medical professionals win this battle. So thank you. Together, we can do this.

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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.

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Media

Informed Sources 2/29/2020

It’s always a pleasure to appear on Informed Sources. Other guests this week were Dr. Kenneth Whalum, Jr. and Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Michael Harris. Topics included Constitutional Carry, paid parental leave and potholes. Watch here.

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Updates from the Shelby County Commission

Commission update 2/24/2020

There is much going on in county government, but here’s a brief look at today’s meeting agenda.

Quinn Road development. This item came up early in the term, having been vetoed by Mayor Mark Luttrell. The commission upheld the veto, but the developer is back again now.

I tend to defer to the commissioner who represents the area in question, which in this case is David Bradford. That’s a policy I picked up from David Reaves, and it seems to be one shared by several on the board now. For me, that means there needs to be a really strong reason to object to what the most representative member of our body has determined is in the area’s best interests. I gave similar preference to Commissioner Mills when a gravel mine was up for approval in her district.

In this case, the plan seems to have been rejected by every board that has heard it. I toured the area myself last week.

Residency requirements. The latest compromise on this issue is sponsored by Commissioners Mills, Billingsley and Ford, and would exempt public safety employees from the charter requirement to live in the county, through April 1, 2022, and requiring those living beyond the county line to forfeit $2,500.

This proposal does not go nearly as far as it should, but the support wasn’t there to let voters decide whether to lift the requirement entirely, an opportunity voters in the City of Memphis will enjoy later this year.

But hopefully this will help the Sheriff and others who are facing a shortage of qualified candidates, to the extent anyone bothers to follow the residency requirements anyway, seeing as how they are currently not enforceable on anyone with the means and inclination of getting around them.

Because it was amended in committee, this resolution will need to appear yet again after today, for a fourth reading.

Records management consulting. This is a resolution approving a contract with a consultant that would help the county, including all departments and elected officials, develop a plan for digitizing, categorizing and dealing with records.

The board was divided on this in committee, and it’s doubtful enough votes are there for passage today. But there is universal agreement on the plan among department heads, it has the administration’s support, and the IT department and IT governance committee want this in place as part of the larger strategy to moderinze county government’s operations.

There was some thought among members that these funds could be redirected toward the new voting equipment we need, but that does not seem to be the case. These are restricted funds collected under contract from the various departments for the specific purpose of internal information technology support. My take: if these moneys cannot be transferred to the general fund, there’s no sense in denying IT’s request.

Groundwater resolution. I was glad to see universal support from commissioners in committee for a proposal that would defend the county’s ability to protect our water supply through the work of the Health Department and the Ground Water Control Board.

The county’s authority is threatened by a caption bill in the state legislature, over concerns from agricultural interests that farmers’ water rights are at risk. The Health Department says it is in the process of revising its well permitting process to correct an unintended consequence of recent updates to the rules, exempting such uses from an automatic appeals process.

If we can get the parties together, we may be able to work things out without the interference of any legislation or resolutions. To that end, I may move to return the resolution to committee to allow for those conversations to take place. What’s important is that we protect our water and our ability to safeguard it from pollution.

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Year in review

What made us safer, stronger and smarter in 2018

What follows is a report card of sorts for the 2018 calendar year, offering highlights from my first four months as Shelby County Commissioner.

It has been an honor to serve you in this role, and I look forward to seeing many of these projects implemented and built upon in the years ahead.

The highlights below are organized chronologically under headings representing the three focus areas of my campaign: enhancing public safety, strengthening our economy and improving our system of education.

This is the framework I have used to examine every item that has appeared before us. For each one, I have asked myself if this makes Shelby County safer, stronger or smarter.

To these three focus areas, I have added a fourth category to also account for ways in which we have made government more responsive to your needs.

A SAFER COMMUNITY

Sponsored a $100,000 grant to the City of Bartlett, with half earmarked for the completion of a 40-foot training tower to improve the training capabilities of the Bartlett Fire Department, and the other half helping to replace the antiquated stage lighting at the Bartlett Performing Arts and Conference Center. (Oct. 15, 2018)

Toured 201 Poplar with District Attorney Amy Weirich and Commissioner Amber Mills to assess safety concerns at the Walter Bailey Justice Center. (Oct. 19, 2018)

Approved funding for the Fed Up anti-crime media campaign, which has been statistically proven to reduce criminal activity. (Oct. 29, 2018)

Selected Assistant U.S. Attorney Taylor Eskridge as Judicial Commissioner, a role responsible for setting bonds, reviewing misdemeanor citations and probable cause findings by police and sheriff’s deputies, reviewing and signing arrest warrants and search warrants, reviewing orders of protection, presiding over asset forfeiture hearings, handling preliminary hearings on felony drug cases, and sitting in for General Sessions Court judges when they are absent. (Oct. 29, 2018)

Sponsored a $25,000 grant to provide the public match of the Boyd Foundation Dog Park Dash grant to build a dog park in the City of Lakeland, improving the amenities at Zadie E. Kuehl Memorial Park, expanding its use and enhancing the area’s safety. (Dec. 3, 2018)

Approved the Sheriff department’s purchase of an armored vehicle for search and rescue, detection of hazardous materials and protection from radiation exposure. (Dec. 3, 2018)

Joined unanimous votes in favor of updating Shelby County’s building, electrical, mechanical, energy and plumbing codes, to better ensure safety in newly built homes and commercial buildings. (Dec. 3, 2018)

A STRONGER ECONOMY

Spoke to the Bartlett Area Chamber of Commerce about Shelby County’s comparative advantage and what makes our community uniquely situated for economic growth. (Sept. 11, 2018)

Supported match funding for the yearlong Memphis and Shelby County Bicentennial celebration, contributing to an anticipated increase of tourist activity and Memphis being named one of Frommer travel guide’s “Best Places to Go in 2019.” (Oct. 15, 2018)

Voted against adding debt through the issuance of an additional $80 million bond for FY2019, an amount well in excess of the county’s CIP budget policy. (Oct. 29, 2018)

Sponsored resolution to enable the Lakeland Commons development at Highway 70 and Seed Tick Road in Lakeland, which is projected to support 736 jobs, generate $30.7 million in new annual wages and have an immediate economic impact of $63.3 million in construction. (Nov. 19, 2018)

Supported resolution providing tax increment financing (TIF) to the Union Row development, a nearly $1 billion investment that would transform a blighted and largely vacant area of downtown Memphis into a thriving community featuring retail shops, a hotel, residential and office spaces, parking and recreation; the project is expected to create more than 4,000 construction jobs, support 4,000 permanent jobs, and increase tax revenues during the repayment period by more than 1,000 percent. (Dec. 17, 2018)

A SMARTER FUTURE

Approved the creation of an education liaison position in the Mayor’s office to help coordinate countywide efforts and to provide strategic guidance concerning the capital and operational needs of public education throughout Shelby County. (Sept. 24, 2018)

Sponsored a $10,000 grant to the Bartlett Education Foundation to subsidize its annual fundraising banquet, allowing funds raised by the foundation to directly benefit teachers and students and to expand the number and size of awards to educators seeking help with a variety of instructional and programmatic needs. (Oct. 29, 2018)

Toured Bartlett High School with Superintendent David Stephens, Principal Tim Jones, Education Committee Chairman Michael Whaley and others to observe the district’s innovative vocational training programs. (Nov. 1, 2018)

Joined Superintendent Ted Horrell, Principal Joretha Lockhart, Mayor Mike Cunningham, Board Chairman Kevin Floyd and others at Lakeland Elementary to celebrate their National Blue Ribbon School 2018 achievement. (Dec. 7, 2018)

Co-sponsored a resolution calling on the State of Tennessee to devote attention to successful implementation of its troubled TNReady testing program. (Dec. 17, 2018)

A MORE TRANSPARENT, RESPONSIVE AND PARTICIPATORY GOVERNMENT

Approved the creation of a new Communications Coordinator position in the Mayor’s office. (Sept. 24, 2018)

Supported resolution allowing the Division of Planning and Development to implement a new software system to improve, modernize and speed up the building permitting process, providing online access for homeowners and contractors to apply for permits, set up inspections and monitor the status of inspections. (Oct. 15, 2018)

Co-sponsored a resolution to move the start of Commission meetings from 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. to allow for greater citizen participation and involvement. (Nov. 19, 2018)

Sponsored a resolution calling on the State of Tennessee to cease switching between Daylight Saving Time and standard time and relieve families suffering from the bi-annual disruptions which result in negative health consequences, vehicular accidents, poor educational performance, seasonal depression and reduced productivity. (Dec. 3, 2018)

Thank you for being an interested and engaged citizen, and for giving me an opportunity to communicate the work that is being done on your behalf at the Shelby County Commission.

Alison and I wish you happy holidays and a safe, prosperous and blessed New Year.