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Behind the Headlines – January 10, 2020

Behind the Headlines – January 10, 2020


– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines
is made possible in part by the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like
you, thank you. – Shelby County Mayor
Lee Harris on funding MATA, refugee resettlement,
and much more tonight on Behind the Headlines. [intense music] I’m Eric Barnes with
the Daily Memphian, thanks for joining us. I am joined tonight by Lee
Harris, Shelby County Mayor, thanks for being here again.
– Sure, thanks. – Along with Bill Dries, reporter with The
Daily Memphian. Let’s start with
MATA and funding, it goes back to your campaign, you campaigned heavily on
raising more money for MATA and for public transit. You had proposed, and
maybe it’s still proposed, we’ll get to that, a tax on the third vehicle, that that money would be a
dedicated source to go to MATA. In a budget committee this week, the county commission
squeaked by and passed a $20 Wheel tax, all cars, not just
the third car, that would go towards MATA, I believe I got
that right, Bill, I should have let
you do that front. – Well and that also
it’s a committee vote, which is not binding
on the full commission. – Got it, your
stand first on that, is that a good direction
that you would support? – All right so first, there’s a lot there, and I think it was all accurate, but I campaigned
primarily on education. So we, I’m happy to say
that the County Commission was able to allocate historic
funding in favor of Pre-K, since we have
entered into office. I campaigned on
vo-tech education. We have started a pilot
program to bring vo-tech education back
into the community, and in addition to that, like you say, we campaigned
on investments in transit, so I brought a plan to
the County Commission that would put
$10 million every year, into public transit, that plan
is still under consideration but in the last several weeks
we’ve had a new proposal, we’ve actually had several, but the latest new proposal
that really has some momentum is the proposal
by Willie Brooks, and I think it brings together a lot of different perspectives, and I think what Commissioner
Brooks has tried to do is to create a framework, or compromise to try
to get this thing done so that we can
invest in transit, because it’s so important that we get people
access to jobs, that we do something about
our worsening poverty rate, and for me, that we protect and preserve our
shared environment. And we know that one
of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions
is passenger vehicles. So you’ve gotta do
something around that. And so transit, buses,
are part of the solution. So right now the proposal by
Commissioner Brooks and others, it’s also co-sponsored
by Commissioner Turner and Commissioner Sawyer,
made it out of committee and it’ll be considered
by the Commission for the first time on Monday. – On Monday, Bill? – So there are
other proposals too, I believe that I heard
some commissioners talk about using TIF funding
possibly for MATA, from the tax increment financing
districts that we have. Is that viable or is the game
plan here that everybody sees what the commission does
with the Wheel tax ordinance? – So I think what the proposal
Commissioner Brooks has is to create a transit fee, the Wheel tax as
it currently sits is it creates about
$35 million, and that $35 million
dollars per year is allocated in favor
of the school system. I believe the Commission
as it sees things, wants to leave that in place, but what’s been proposed
by Commissioner Brooks, and what’ll be considered here
on Monday in just a few days, is a $20 fee on the
registration process, that’s a transportation fee, that goes in favor of MATA. Whether or not we can reform our economic
development programs, like the TIFs or the
PILOTs like you say, in order to create
funding for MATA, still remains to be seen. If, but I will say this, that would be an up-hill climb. I mean if we think that
registration fee’s an up-hill climb, reforming our
economic development programs for all of us who’ve been
around this for a while, know that that is
an up-hill climb. I don’t know if the political
will is there or not to do that, I know my
position I am all for reforms of our economical
development programs, I am not a believer that
our programs work in the way that is commonly
presented to the public, so I’m all in favor of it, but I’m just one lever in this
kind of democratic machine, and you gotta get a whole
lotta people on the same page, and usually it is
nearly impossible to reform any of the economic
development programs, the PILOT program or the
TIF program, et cetera. But again, if the will is there and the Commission can generate
some momentum around that, you know, we’d be
happy to bat that. But I think right
now the momentum is around the Brooks proposal, let’s see where that goes. – The business
community, the Chamber, Richard Smith, former
head of the Chamber, obviously top
executive at FedEx, a lot of the business
community came forward in favor of this Wheel tax, does that bode well for
potentially a next step of reforms of the
economic development plan, at least in terms
of how some money might be peeled off for transit? – So I think that
Commissioner Brooks would refer to his plan
as a transit fee plan. Wheel tax is separate, and the Wheel tax is
$35 million, that’s allocated in
favor of the schools. Whether or not, now with respect to the Commissioner Brooks plan, I do think there is broad
support for that plan. We have the largest
crowd to ever attend a County Commission
committee meeting here just a day or so ago, and they were almost to a person in favor of millions of
dollars in favor of transit, and for the Brooks plan. – Did you have any sense, and again, you may not, but I’m just saying would the
next step be that that group, that business
community which is very integrally involved–
– No, no they’re not. In the engine, PILOTs
and TIFs and so on, you don’t think that they
would want to touch that? – I don’t think that
anybody’s gonna be in favor of economic development reform. But it is an option and
if it were to develop some momentum, I’d
be happy to then, but I think these
are up-hill battles, I think they go nowhere, and I don’t think the
political will is there for economic development reform. – Okay, let’s go back to Bill. – But opponents
are going to call Commissioner Brooks proposal
an increase in the Wheel tax, and you know the Wheel tax
is arguably the most divisive and controversial local
tax that has existed in local government in
at least our lifetimes. What do you say
to people who say that this tax was originally supposed to go for
other purposes, it’s changed, it’s morphed, it was supposed to be temporary, and now you want to increase it? – So I would say this, and again this is
not my proposal, and so I’m, but I’ll
try as best as I can to answer your question. I would say that there
is no tax or fee, or any proposal that’s gonna
come out of any process that has a majority
of the public support, at least I don’t think so, at least not in my experience. So that’s not the measure of
how you decide what to do. How you decide what to do
is based on what you think is in the public interest, and we have a public interest
to do something about our worsening poverty rate, to advance the needs
of this community, to protect our
shared environment. So when it comes to transit, and this kind of debate, right, this aggressive
debate around transit has happened in
other communities, you can’t dwell
only on the cost, you have to also
keep in front of mind the benefits of public transit, and I’ve talked about those. Those benefits include
the environmental benefit, the economic benefit,
and the equity benefit, the fact that we have 200,000
people living in poverty in this community, and someone
has to work on that, right? We have millions of dollars
that go out the door every year, in my view, in favor of downtown
development projects. Some of those I support. We can put millions of dollars
into initiatives like transit that help folks who are
trying to get job access, who are trying to get
home to their family in time to spend time
with them, right? Who are trying to
have more opportunity. We can do it, we can do millions
of dollars on buildings, we can also invest millions
of dollars in people. – Do you have confidence in the Memphis Area
Transit Authority to pull this off? And the reason I mention
that is because you’ve said this funding is tied to the
eight most popular routes that are currently
in the system. One of those would be
the Innovation Corridor, the federal funding and
everything else has been rounded up for that
$72 million project, and it’s still gonna take
five years, MATA says, before the Innovation Corridor is going to be up and running. – I have not a lotta
confidence in the capacity of local government to
do a whole lot of things, so you’ve gotta really work
hard to hold them accountable, which is why we’ve been so
deliberate and so careful, about entering into this
discussion around transit. Remember we waited a whole
year before we came out and presented a
plan around transit, that was after making sure
we looked under the hood, kicked every tire
around transit, and really understood
that organization. So having done that, I think we have put
features in place, Commissioner Brooks’ proposal
carries those forward, put features in place that
will hold MATA accountable. Features like Commissioner
Brooks asked for two board seats that Shelby County
Commission will control, to make sure that there
is someone overseeing what is happening at MATA. In addition to that, the proposal would
come to the Commission every single year as part
of the budget process, and so every single year as
part of the budget process the Commission would
get a report from MATA about whether or not
they’re living up to some of what
has been promised. In addition to that, one of the things,
one of the problems, I mean it’s not my proposal, but one of the
recommendations I would make to Brooks around his proposal, is that also we need to see a formal re-authorization
process, because remember, one of the things that
people are so anxious about when it comes to last
Wheel tax process, is that they thought that
would sunset at some point, that there would be some
limitation in terms of timing on that previous Wheel tax, and that never came to fruition. I’ve looked at the Wheel
tax that was passed in ’87, that was never part
of the Wheel tax. That should be part of whatever comes out
of this transit process, we should have a time certain for when funding has
to be re-authorized by a future commission. – Something like five
years, or four years, or ten years, I mean what
kind when you say that? – So the time frame has
to be long enough for MATA to depend on the funding, and for it to plan and
program use of funds. So a time period
that makes sense is probably around ten years, long enough for them to plan, but also not permanent such that a future Commission
can’t come in and say, “Hey, how did you
use that money?” And whether or not that
money was used correctly. – Let me just hit a couple
of things that are in there, you mentioned the
conditional language where the Commission
would get a couple of seats on the MATA board, there’s also exempt
county residents with incomes under $30,000
from the new $20 fee, and amendments to exclude
senior citizens failed, and I can’t remember
if we had said, but this is, the proposal
is up to nine million would go to the
county’s general fund after that nine million, if that $20 Wheel
tax fee, whatever– – Transit fee
– Transit fee, tax, whatever we want to call it, anything above the nine
million would go into the county general fund, I think I have that right. Separately, I think that, am I right with this, Bill, that the same group,
the same committee, said that 1.5% of
the county CIP budget would start going
to MATA, is that? – Yeah.
– Okay. Again, all these are condition
on the full commission taking it up this coming week. – It’s basically separating
MATA’s operating funding from its capital funding, because MATA has
had a huge problem and part of its transition
has been after years of capital funding going
into operating the buses. – Right, that was how the
buses got to be so old, and long past their life. When you say, one, do you have, do
you as mayor now, or do you want in
any future proposal, the ability to control
any board seats on MATA? – Yes, all the proposals that have been discussed,
two board seats. – Separate from the commission. – Oh, no. – Not from the Mayor’s
Office, though, you would not have
control over that. – The charter provides
that all appointments in Shelby County are
made by the mayor, and affirmed, approved
by the County Commission. And so these appointments, should they come to fruition, would follow the same process. – So you have some, in terms of, I’m just getting
back to that accountability, you feel like you have some
amount of ways and leverage to have accountability
over MATA? – When you put $10 million
into an organization, and you’re on their
board, yes, yes, you’ll have some accountability. – And when you say that,
Gary Rosenfeld, correct? Is that the CEO of MATA’s, been in the job, what Bill, two years, give or take? Something like that? Is that a knock on him? I mean, are you
doubting his leadership, or are you talking about
the institution of MATA? – I doubt the ability
of local government to do a whole lot
of things well, and so you’ve really
gotta pay attention, and you’ve really
gotta scrutinize the use of all public dollars. So wherever public dollars
flow I think there should be some scrutiny of their use, so I think that it’s
not a knock on Gary, it’s just a general
perspective I have. – Fair enough, fair enough. Shifting gears a little bit, we’re talking about
tax increases, and I have no idea where
the mayor’s office, what authority you
have over this, but I’m sure you have
some opinion on it, the sales tax increase
that was passed, the referendum that was passed
by the city government last, city residents, in the fall? There’s some question
about whether the county will now hold a referendum, move forward with trying
to take part of that, where do you stand on
that at this point? – I’m against that, I don’t
think that’s gonna happen, I don’t think the
county’s considering that, I haven’t heard commissioners
talk about that. – Ed Ford came on the
show and talked about it, and talked about the
possibility of pursuing it, right after it happened. But I haven’t heard much
about it since then, so I was checking with you. – I haven’t heard
Commissioner Ford talk about– – So you think that money
should just stay with the city? – I think the money should
stay with the city for sure, to restore the benefits to
law enforcement and to fire. – Okay, Bill? – Let’s go back to
MATA for just a second. As I understand it
you’re not giving up on your sustainability fee that you originally
proposed for this, what some folks have
called the third car fee. You’re kind of holding
it to see what happens on the plan for the $20 extra? – I prefer the
sustainability fee, there’s no doubt about it. The sustainability fee applies
to 17% of our residents, and it also reflects the
need for us to at some point, put a price on carbon, and the
emissions from our vehicles. I mean climate change is real, so I’m worried about what
happens at the end of the month, but I can’t be in
responsible leadership and not worry about
the next 50 years. And so our grandkids, my grandkids will
inherit this environment, and I want to make sure
that this is a place that doesn’t completely,
radically transform. We see what’s
happening in Australia, we see what’s happening
in California, their lives are
being transformed. There is no solution in sight, to the dry climate
and the wildfires that you see in California, that result in
rolling blackouts, the shutdown of
communities and stores, there is no solution. And that’s happening
right now in 2020. We are gonna have to get
our minds around that, and we’re gonna have to have
initiatives that reflect the deep issues associated
with climate change. And so I would prefer
the sustainability fee, because what it
does, it says that, look, if you have
three more cars you’re likely using
the roads a lot more. And you’re likely
generating more emissions that degrade our environment. And so please help
us to fund solutions like transit and
other infrastructure. So I prefer mine, I also prefer it because it only applies to
17% of our citizens, and I believe that if
you’re gonna raise a fee, that a broad based fee should
be an option of a last resort. You try as best you
can to not tax or fee the community at large. And so that’s what my plan does, and so yeah, I think
it’s a much better plan, think it’s a much better plan. – But are you gonna
try to pursue both? – I am, yes of course– – I’m saying if the
$20 Wheel tax fee cost, whatever it’s called passes, would you continue to try
to go after the third car? – I am pursuing one plan. Sustainability fee is the
plan that I am pursuing. – And even if the $20 passes
through Commission? The $20 Wheel tax increase? – It’s a democracy, so obviously if the Commission
passes something, the administration’s
gonna execute. But what I will say is with
respect to the Brooks plan, we have feedback
and recommendations about how to make
that plan better, and you know, assume if
those recommendations come into the Brooks plan, then that may be
a different story, but as it currently sits, I prefer the sustainability fee, and I’m currently
pursuing my plan. – Okay, I mentioned refugees
at the top of the show, and you signed a letter, and had a bit of a ceremony, I think in your office, about I guess it’s the extension of the Refugee
Resettlement Plan, it’s a federal program
that over, what, many decades, gave some 300, as many as 400, people would be, refugees, would be resettled
into Shelby County. That number has gone
down dramatically, I think it’s gone from, you know, 56 to 44 last year as the Trump administration, President Trump’s
administration, has curtailed all immigration but the Refugee
Resettlement Program. Why, you not only
signed the letter, but you really emphasized
and made a big deal out of doing that. Why was that important to you? – So for me, refugees are
folks that by definition are fleeing countries where
they’re being persecuted, where their lives
are in jeopardy, where they reasonably fear
death or substantial harm, and all of us have to
do our part to provide safe haven in those
circumstances. If the US, if Tennessee, if Shelby County, if our
community has the resources to take in refugees, people whose lives
are on the line, then I think we have
a moral duty to do it. So that’s why I emphasized it, I emphasized it because the
best of us is not a philosophy of what about me? That’s not the
best of us, right? The best of us is when
we go out and try to help those who are vulnerable
and those who are in need, and refugees are in
dire circumstances. Many of those refugees lose
their lives just in transit to get to a safe haven, family members lose their lives. So we can do something to help, this country, this community, this is, I mean one of the
real features of Shelby County is that we have a
deep abiding faith, and part of that faith
heritage is mission trips, and support of those in
need around the world, so I think it’s an
easy call, to me, and I’d love to see us
open our arms to refugees. I should also mention, because I, you know I just saw
the movie “Harriet Tubman”, we have refugees
where we all know, in a lot of different
circumstances, but what’s little known, and if you go watch the
movie “Harriet Tubman”, it becomes true, becomes plain, that the Underground Railroad
is all about refugees, right? These are escaped slaves
trying to make it to a place where the law will
protect them as refugees. Whether it was along the
East Coast, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts or New York,
or make it to Canada where the refugee
laws were strong, that’s what that whole debate
was about in part, right? It was about whether or not
slaves would be free in America, but leading up to that
was whether or not there was a place
where you could escape to with refugee laws
that would protect you. If not for those refugee laws
we wouldn’t have Philadelphia, modern day Philadelphia, or an African-American
community in Canada. So that’s an important part
of all of our heritage, and that is the best of us, and that is what
we should be doing. – Governor Lee this past
week got what he felt like was some push-back on this, at an event he was
at in Nashville, and defended continuing
the state’s refugee status of accepting refugees
for resettlement here. And he said that one
of the problems is is that people are not
distinguishing between refugees and illegal immigration. Do you think that’s
a problem here, the people confuse
those two statuses? – I think we have a lot of
problems with the rhetoric, and a lot of that rhetoric
comes out of Washington D.C., and a lot of it is
rhetoric of disunity, and rhetoric that is, you know, kind of race-baiting,
and so forth, so yeah, I think there
is a lot of confusion, I think Governor Lee gets
it right on that front. The issue of refugees
should be something we should all embrace, because again, these are people
whose lives are on the line, and we can do something to
save them, and you know, how dare us, to talk
about what about us? When we have the wherewithal
and the resources to help those who
are really in need. – Are there services
that county government can provide that it’s not providing now for
our refugee population? Nashville gets a lot
of attention because of the significant
Kurdish community that is there. What’s the extent of the
need here in Shelby County? – No I think you’re right, we probably do need to do a
lot more here in Shelby County. So I’ve been in office a
little more than a year, and so one of the first
things we took a look at is our Office of
Multicultural Affairs, and so we’re gonna do what we
can to beef up that office, and we’ve got some ideas
right now in the pipeline that are about to materialize as I go into my next
State of the County. But in addition to that, I mean just overall
we want to make sure that our numbers are up, I mean I think
Eric had it right, that we used to accept
10 times the number of refugees that
we accept today, and so the number
now is just a very, very small number when
you look at the globally, the United States of America
accepts less than 1%, I think, is the
last statistic I saw around refugee resettlement. And so we’ve got to do a lot
better to get those numbers up and be more welcoming, and also to advocate
that some of these approaches are changed, so
fortunately Governor Lee, whose wife I understand,
does mission work, and interacts with refugees, and so knows about this issue, fortunately Governor Lee
is in agreement that we need to do our best
and be our best selves, and help those in need. But we also need to bring that
perspective to Washington, because it’s something that
is born of our heritage, and something that I think
that if people understood this, and the rhetoric could
be put to the side, that everybody would agree with. – Just a couple
minutes left here, so we’ll move through a
number of things somewhat quickly, I think
it was about a year ago we had you on the show, and the County Commission
was in the midst of, or had just voted to put, I think it was a
million, million five, towards studying an expanded
juvenile justice center. What’s going on with the
juvenile justice center? Is that going to be expanded, are you comfortable with
what’s happening there? – We’re still working
on that issue, so we have a lot of
needs, substantial needs, and we’re gonna have
to knock those out. We are working right
now to create a culture around carefulness when
it comes to spending, and so that is in process, and making sure
that we are aligned with the County Commission
to spend on important, top priority initiatives. One of the top priorities
as you mentioned, is a new youth justice
and education center, and so we’re gonna come
to the budget process here again soon, and ask
the County Commission to set aside funding for youth
justice and education center. – All right, I think
I’m right in this, that while violent crime overall
in Memphis, Shelby County, is roughly stable
in the last year, it was up dramatically
mid-summer, am I right Bill? It was up something like
50 or 60% among juveniles, it was a huge spike
in juvenile crime. Is that an indictment
of the existing juvenile justice system
that juvenile crime could spike so much? – Yes, it’s an indictment that we are not doing enough
to rehabilitate juveniles, to remind them that they have their whole future
ahead of them, and that there is
still opportunity in this community for them. So in Shelby County
government over the last year we have been able to expand our evening and
reporting center. So evening and reporting
center is somewhere that is an alternative to detention, it’s an after school
programming geared particularly to juveniles that
are justice involved. And so we’ve just opened
up a new one in partnership with Shelby County Schools. In addition to that we’ve
inherited a partnership with UT, to do a youth advocacy
coalition, and that is where justice involved youth
and their families can go to get resources
and get direction around how to get help. So we’ve got to do a lot
more of that as a community, I think everybody’s on
the same page there, and I think everybody’s
on the same page that our youth crime is
too high, and it’s growing. – One of your priorities, and we’ll stay on
criminal justice reform, we could do a whole
show on this issue, but you’ve made a legislative,
legislature’s about to start going to session, out of changes to the reinstatement
of driver’s license. There’s some 100,000 people
I guess in Shelby County, whose driver’s licenses, they’ve
lost their driver’s license, that process of reinstating
is very complicated. You want to simplify it, why? – Right, so I want to
expand the ability of people to get their driver
licenses returned. We have over across the state, according to the state, we
have over 600,000 people that have lost their driver’s
licenses because of court debt, and so these are
instances not necessarily related to their ability to
safely use a motor vehicle, but they just can’t
pay their court debt. We know that over 90%
of them are too poor to ever pay their
court debt, right? Because there was a federal
case that examined this issue, and in that federal
case the court found they’ll never pay it, so they don’t have access
to driver’s licenses. We need to try to
create a path for people to get driver’s licenses, because if they don’t, they continue to drive
and go through the cycle of negative interaction
with law enforcement over and over again. – All right, we
will leave it there. Thank you for being
here, appreciate it. Thank you, Bill. And thank you for joining us, join us again next week. [upbeat music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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