County Commission Back Morgue Site, Prepares To Talk Spending Cuts

By Bill Dries

Shelby County commissioners gave their blessing today to a site for the new Regional Forensics Center. The resolution approved at today's session refers generally to county-owned land between Poplar Avenue and Washington Street that is now parking for Juvenile Court.

The chairman of the board of trustees of Collins Chapel CME Church, which is next to the site, said church members voted over the weekend to back the site. But Scott Blake, chairman of the Victorian Village Community Development Corp., said the morgue wouldn’t fit in with plans to bring back some residential development to the neighborhood.

“We need more live bodies, not dead ones,” Blake said.

The remark prompted County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. to urge commissioners to vote the project up or down but not further delay a project that’s been three years in search of a site. Because the land is county-owned, they won’t have the expense of a property purchase.

The state will fund construction to the tune of around $14 million dollars, which is expected to be the bulk of the bill for the state of the art forensics center. Wharton had considered a site near Shelby Farms in East Memphis but also considered sites in and near the Medical District, including the site picked and announced last week.

In other action, the commission approved nearly $460,000 in funding to design road improvements along Holmes Road from Riverdale to Hacks Cross roads in Southeast Shelby County. But Commissioner Mike Ritz said the project is un-necessary given the $16.5 million budget shortfall projected for the county in the upcoming fiscal year.

“How hard is this to figure out? If we don’t quit spending money, some of you are going to have to vote for a tax increase. I’m not. I’m going to remind you all of these votes,” said Ritz, who has been a frequent critic of the planning process for county road projects, claiming some are wasteful and don’t solve traffic problems or make conditions safer.

His comments came against the backdrop of budget forecasts by the Wharton administration forecasting no growth in tax revenues for the coming fiscal year. But the remarks also crossed a line as far as Wharton was concerned.

“Quite frankly, I think these people in the public works department have lost their minds – absolutely lost their minds. I’m talking to you, Director Fox and the County Engineer,” Ritz said referring to County Public Works Director Ted Fox and County Engineer Michael Oakes.

Neither Fox nor Oakes responded. But Wharton did respond, saying if any member of his administration used the same tone, “They will be history.”

Commission chairman David Lillard said the project, which is near Highland Oaks Elementary School, is necessary for the safety of students.

The commission also approved a mixed-use planned development on eight acres of vacant land at Billy Maher Road and Egypt Central Road, near Bartlett. St. Elisabeth’s Episcopal Church plans to build 11 single-family homes as well as some commercial and office space.