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Mayoral candidates debate fair representation, workforce development

Four of the five Shelby County mayoral candidates contrasted their views on key issues Thursday, April 5, at a Ducks Unlimited gathering in Memphis. Local chambers of commerce provided the questions.

Only the first two questions are listed below. See next week’s issue for additional questions and responses.

The candidates include Sen. Lee Harris and former Commissioner Sidney Chism, both of Memphis, in the Democratic primary and Trustee David Lenoir of Collierville, County Commissioner Terry Roland of Millington and Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos of Arlington in the Republican primary. Chism did not attend the debate.

They were introduced by Harold W. Byrd, a founder, vice chairman and president for the Bank of Bartlett. The emcee was Richard Ransom, news anchor for WREG-TV Channel 3. The event was a production of the Shelby County Chamber Alliance, which represents all six suburban communities.

QUESTION 1: Given that suburban Shelby County comprises 30 percent of the population and contributes 40 percent of its property tax revenue, as mayor what actions will you take to ensure that representation will be equitable and proportionate throughout the county?

Roland: “That actual number is 47 percent, not 43 percent. But just like eight years ago, I made a commitment to the suburban areas that I was gonna make sure they had the autonomy to grow. That’s why me and Jon Crisp actually set up this chamber alliance and worked with EDGE to make sure each chamber got an amount of money each year. We get, I think it’s up to $300,000 this year. Each suburban chamber gets a portion of that money, based on its population. So it’s the commitments like that, and commitments we’re getting behind the municipal schools that I will continue to do what I have done for the suburban areas. And also while we’re doing that, we’re gonna fix Memphis while we’re at it.”

Harris: “I’ve been in an elected office for seven years — three years on the city (of Memphis) council and my fourth year in the state Senate. And I’ve always campaigned across all the counties — I mean, across the whole county and across a diversity of perspectives. So what do I mean by that? I mean that when I was on the city council, I was the only city council member to oppose litigation by the Memphis City Council against the suburban municipal school districts. Because I believe, my leadership style rejects an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. We’ve seen too much of that in Memphis’s history.

“People always complain about what’s happening in the next neighborhood, or what’s happening over here or over there. That is not my leadership style. That is not how I want to be known. Instead, I want to identify priorities and work on accomplishing those priorities.

“What are my priorities here? It’s the same across the county. It’s education. We need to invest more in education. And that will have dramatic impact not just on the core of the city of Memphis, but in all suburban municipalities. We can all agree that there should be more money invested in education, so that is at the centerpiece of my campaign. And I think that is a message that resonates no matter where you sit or where you live.”

Touliatos: “With the municipalities, it’s very important that the county mayor works with all the municipal mayors. We need to provide the funding that’s required, but we also need to meet on a basis where we can exchange ideas. And municipal mayors, with the county mayor, can come up with other ideas. We will always, I will always make sure that we provide the funding for it, but we need to have ideas to, everybody’s concern is crime, is education, and it’s jobs. But we all need to work together in that effort. And we need to have an open line of communication. And that’s my focus, is to be able for everybody to open a line of communication and speak freely with everyone.”

Lenoir: “I believe that things should happen on a local level. I believe in small government, local control, local decisions.

“Fortunately, I’ve been able to build relationships with municipal mayors and municipal aldermen in my eight years as the county’s banker and with the local chambers. So I think in terms of representing from a county wide, I’ve been able to do it for eight years as the banker for Shelby County, and I will continue to build those bridges and foster those relationships.

“My wife and I and our boys have lived in suburban Shelby County, so the interest of the suburban areas is extremely important to us, and how we are represented is extremely important to us. Whether it’s issues related to education, economic development or public safety, I will continue to focus on that as county mayor.”

QUESTION 2: A talented workforce plays a critical role in the future economic growth of Shelby County. What will your administration do to ensure that all Shelby County citizens have the right training and job opportunities to take us into the 21st Century, thereby attracting new business to our community?

Harris: “If we’re gonna make sure we attract employers, what we really need to do is invest in education. I’ve already talked about that a little bit before. Now what do I mean by that? We’ve talked in this community for at least the last seven years about funding pre-K. And that still is not quite done. A solution always seems out of reach. And so I’m committed to making sure that every family, regardless of their income, gets an opportunity for pre-K education.

“We also have school buildings that are falling down around school kids. We’ve got HVAC that doesn’t work, we’ve got leaky roofs, we’ve got about $500 million in deferred maintenance on our school buildings right now. That means that some buildings are too hot to learn or too cold to learn, and our students are not very well served and it is not a fun environment for the teachers. So that also impacts our ability for our students to grow and to have meaningful opportunities for jobs afterward.

“The third part is vocational training. For years, this community has been talking about how we are going to get vocational training back in the schools. We need to solve that, and we need to do it urgently. Nashville did it 10 years ago with Career Pathways. In the last couple of years, I’ll give him credit, Dorsey Hopson (superintendent of the Shelby County Schools district) has been talking about it. But in some sense, we’ve gone backwards.

“Messick (Messick Adult Center in Memphis), which was the place that houses most of our career and technical training, has closed. We need to do a better job of making sure that kids have an opportunity to gain skills and give them an opportunity to get a job afterwards.”

Touliatos: “I think it’s very important that we teach our children another skill. Not everybody is meant to go to college, and we need to start teaching them skills. But we need to teach them skills of the businesses that are in Shelby County so they’ll be prepared to take on those job opportunities that we’ll have.

“My husband is a fine example. He’s an auto mechanic. And that is what his passion is. And he went to school at Ford and had shop class up there, and excelled and went to one of the finest universities to be a mechanic. So we need to focus on what is driving our children and what they are passionate about. And we need to focus on that. Because if we don’t teach our children a trade or if they don’t go to college, then crime is just going to skyrocket. And we all are concerned about crime. So we need to focus on our children and educate them but really focus on what they are passionate about.”

Lenoir: “There’s no doubt that workforce development is the key issue in terms of economic development here in Shelby County. I met with a group of commercial real estate professionals yesterday and the topic of PILOTS and incentives came up, and I’m sure it will come up today. (PILOTS is a type of local property tax reductions, and it stands for Payment in Lieu of Taxes.) And they said, ‘You know what, if we can address the skilled workforce issue, I think we can reduce our dependence on PILOTS and on incentives.’ Which was a breath of fresh air, but at the same time it’s a complicated problem in terms of addressing.

“I propose as county mayor we spend $400 million out of a $1.2 billion budget in Shelby County on education. In my administration as county mayor, we will have someone who I refer to as an education liaison who holds the school systems accountable, that addresses the issues from cradle to career, so that there is someone who is holding the school systems — 10 of our 23 high schools are at 50 percent of capacity. Before we paint walls, and before we put in new HVAC systems, we need to solve the problem of best use of county funds.

“We are spending $400 million now on education. We need the connectivity between the private sector and the education system. Having spent 20 years in the private sector, I have many relationships with the private sector, with the Chamber, things that are going on in Bartlett and in Collierville in terms of the medical device community I think are models of things that we need to do in terms of developing our workforce.”

Roland: “Talking about a liaison with the schools, anybody that knows Politics 101 knows that the mayor and the commissioners can only vote their budget up or down. You cannot do anything to the schools except for advocate. And that’s what I’ve done for the last eight years, is advocate for our schools.

“Let me tell you: When they surrendered the charter, threw the keys in, they gave up on the kids, okay? If it hadn’t been for us putting in municipal schools, then let’s face it: Wouldn’t be enough people left in Shelby County to pay taxes, okay?

“We have set up through Moore Tech (in Memphis), we helped them get a welding school. That’s what I used some of that grant money for. I helped them get the auto mechanic school this year, I gave them the money to get the tools. They want to bring up our community enhancement grants (the Shelby County Commission Community Enhancement Grant Program). Well, when you use that in a way to enhance and help the people of the county to — look, everybody that wants to go to college, I want ’em to go to college, folks. But there’s other people that work better with their hands and their head than they do in books. And I think that that’s going to be the answer filling those jobs.

“Right now we’ve got 15,000 jobs that we cannot fill because — I had the other day say, ‘Hey look, commissioners. I could take 100 people if they could count to 10 and pass a drug test.’ That’s our problem.”

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