Bunker: Taxes, Schools Governed Lakeland Election

By Bill Dries

The new mayor of Lakeland wants more economic development in the heavily residential suburban community to boost its tax base to support its own school system.


Shelby County Commissioner Wyatt Bunker upset incumbent Lakeland Mayor Scott Carmichael last week in the unofficial results from the town’s municipal elections.

During Carmichael’s four-year tenure, residents of the town voted to raise their sales tax rate, and the town’s first property tax rate was implemented to provide the minimum funding necessary under state law to start a municipal school district.

“Our municipal schools are staring us in the face, and we’ve got to have someone in there who has got the experience and determination to give that school system the support it needs to be successful,” said Bunker, who was a member of the Shelby County Schools board when it only covered schools outside Memphis. “If you do not allow economic development in our city, then our taxes will continue to rise.”

Bunker’s emphasis on commercial and retail development was a theme in the open race for Arlington mayor won by Mike Wissman two years ago. Bunker said the theme also resonated with Lakeland voters for reasons that are connected to the coming of suburban school districts, but also for another practical reason that has nothing to do with schools.

“The people of the city of Lakeland were tired of taking their weekly grocery money and having to go to surrounding municipalities and spend it,” Bunker said at the end of a short vote count election night. “The lack of economic development in our city has led to a higher-than-necessary property tax.”

Bunker’s election means there will be a vacancy on the Shelby County Commission that the body will fill by appointment for the less than one year remaining on his second four-year term of office there.

The county charter forbids commissioners from holding another salaried elected position and gives them 90 days to resign. That puts his resignation effective date at no later than mid- to late-December depending on when the Shelby County Election Commission certifies Thursday’s election results.

Bunker says that in the interim, the commission may make some decisions on the pending federal court case in which a majority of the commission is contesting the formation of the suburban school districts. Bunker is not among that majority.

“I see the County Commission’s role in this winding down. We’re working on agreements,” he said of talks between the commission and its attorneys and the suburban mayors and their attorneys in the federal court case. “Our goal is to drop the lawsuit. We are working with the municipalities on those agreements. It is very possible that will be the case. But as time ticks along, I think the issue becomes less and less controversial.”

Bunker also will be familiarizing himself with the agreement approved recently by the Arlington Board of Aldermen and the Lakeland Commission to work together on shared services for their two suburban school districts wherever possible. That could include a common superintendent serving the two school boards to be elected Nov. 7.

“It looks like there are some good agreements on the table,” Bunker said of the pact. “I want to look it over to make sure that when we commit the city, we are committing them to the best plan for education.”

Bunker expressed confidence in Wissman, with whom Bunker is friends. Like Bunker, Wissman is also a former member of the old Shelby County Schools board. Wissman served on the transitional 23-member school board that took office in October 2011. He went off that board this month as the transitional board was pared down to seven members.

Meanwhile, early voting is underway at the Downtown Election Commission office, 157 Poplar Ave., in advance of the Oct. 8 election day for the State House District 91 Democratic primary.

The early balloting expands to three satellite sites Friday, Sept. 27, through Oct. 3.

The winner of the primary advances to the Nov. 21 special general election against independent candidate Jim Tomasik. No Republican candidates filed for the state House seat.

And Thursday, Sept. 26, at noon is the filing deadline for candidates in each of the six sets of school board races in the county’s suburban towns and cities, including Lakeland and Arlington.

Nov. 7 is election day for the school board races.