Economic development incentives including property tax breaks look to be the real dividing line among the three contenders for Shelby County mayor in the May county primaries.
That’s where Deidre Malone, Steve Mulroy and Kenneth Whalum showed the most friction in a Thursday, April 10, forum and debate in the airport area sponsored by the Shelby County Democratic Party.
The trio is competing in the primary for the right to challenge incumbent Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell in the August county general election. Luttrell has token opposition in the May Republican primary.
Mulroy, a county commissioner, complained that companies getting payment-in-lieu-of-taxes property tax breaks aren’t making enough local hires, either while building their plants or once the plants are up and running.
“Too much of it is given to outside-the-county contractors,” he said as he asked Whalum and Malone if they agree with his criticism of the Economic Development Growth Engine of Memphis and Shelby County, the appointed body that grants many of those tax breaks.
“EDGE is doing an adequate job,” said Malone, a former county commissioner who serves on the EDGE board.
She cited $344 million spent with local minority-owned businesses by those companies granted tax breaks.
“We do have a lot of work to do,” she added. “We’re looking at how to change those incentives. … I believe that it’s very important to look at hiring locally and making sure that that’s something that EDGE does regularly.”
Whalum, a former Shelby County Schools board member, saw the problem differently, advocating that the companies receiving PILOT incentives should continue to pay the portion of the property tax that goes to education.
“We haven’t given EDGE or the other PILOT-granting entities guidance. … We need to enforce the provisions,” he said, adding EDGE doesn’t do a good enough job of collecting delinquent payments from the companies. “I think we need to enforce the PILOT contract. If the mayor appoints members to EDGE … the mayor should insist about these things and tell them, ‘If you can’t follow the will of the people, I’ll just have to disappoint you.’”
Mulroy said he didn’t agree about a lack of guidance, based on his nearly eight years as a county commissioner.
“We’re asking all the time about local hires, about local contracts. … And they are always promising, ‘Don’t worry,’” he said. “And then you check back a year or two later and it’s just not happening. It’s not like there’s a lack of guidance. They know what we want to do; they just don’t do it. For years now it’s been going on, and people who sit on the EDGE board had a chance to work on this. They should have been doing it all along.”
Malone later said she believes the president of EDGE should be hired by, and report to, the EDGE board, not the Memphis and Shelby County mayors.
the president of EDGE should not be hired by and report to the Memphis and Shelby County mayors but should instead be hired by and report to the EDGE board.
Meanwhile, Mulroy said he still considers the formation of suburban school systems to be a racial resegregation of public education in Shelby County.
“Forming municipal school districts did racially resegregate the school system. You can just look it up,” Mulroy said in response to several questions from Whalum. “Because only people who live in Arlington and Germantown and Bartlett and Collierville get to go to those schools, naturally they’ve become more racially resegregated as a result compared to when we were one countywide school system. There’s no denying that. That’s an unmistakable reality.”
The Shelby County Commission pursued the claim of racial resegregation in the schools court case in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, but the issue was settled with the set of agreements among the suburban governments, their school boards, the county commission and the Shelby County Schools system.
Suburban leaders and their attorneys vehemently denied the racial resegregation claim, which likely would have taken years to litigate in court without the settlement.
Whalum also questioned Malone’s vocal support of the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter that led to the merger with Shelby County Schools, as well as her support of the demerger that begins in August.
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” said Malone, who added that she stands by that judgment as a way to force single-source local funding of public schools and block leaders of the legacy county schools system from forming a separate school system for the county outside the city.
“I still feel like an integrated, a combined school district would have been in the best interest of all of our children,” she said. “I can tell you, though, that after the merger, that it is very disturbing that people are losing their jobs. And as a part of change, that happens.”