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VOL. 129 | NO. 61 | Friday, March 28, 2014

Clash of Contenders

County mayoral candidates outspoken in advance of primaries

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy says his political plans last year didn’t include running for county mayor in 2014.

County Commissioner Steve Mulroy addresses the Germantown Democratic Club Wednesday, March 27, at Coletta’s in Bartlett. He is in a three-way Democratic mayoral primary for Shelby County mayor. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

He was on U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen’s short list of recommendations for an open federal judgeship, a White House appointment he said he knew he might not get “the first time.”

But Mulroy told the Germantown Democratic Club Wednesday, March 27, what got him in the three-way Democratic mayoral primary was “pushback” from Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell on his proposal to establish a grant program for “tax dead” properties – blighted properties whose owners owe more in back taxes and related fees than the properties could ever hope to be sold for.

The trial program, which is awaiting legal approval from the Tennessee Attorney General’s office, was later approved by the commission as well as the Memphis City Council.

Mulroy described Luttrell’s concerns and questions about the proposition as “death from a thousand cuts.”

“It seems like when we are talking about corporate America, our purses are open. But if we are talking about the inner city … suddenly we’ve got no money or it’s not county government’s job,” Mulroy said, contrasting the tax-dead proposal with economic incentives for major businesses. “This is a narrow, cramped view of county government, which does not have the right priorities, and they are not Democratic priorities. It was experience like that that made me decide I’ve had it.”

Mulroy has had other frustrations recently, including this week’s commission vote on his resolution to urge Luttrell to rebid the federally funded family planning services contract now with Christ Community Health Services.

The commission voted it down Monday, with several of Mulroy’s Democratic colleagues on the commission abstaining and others absent.

“I’m not going to sit here and say I consulted my Democratic colleagues,” Mulroy said, citing the state open meetings law that makes such private conversations and deliberations illegal. “It was clear that there was Democratic support prior to the resolution being brought. … Something happened between Wednesday and Monday.”

Mulroy said he suspects it was the lack of all seven Democratic commissioners being present for the vote and added that he intends to pursue the issue of the funding and contract further.

Meanwhile, Luttrell outlined his priorities during a March 23 forum organized by the Memphis branch of the NAACP that featured not only Luttrell but all three of the contenders for mayor in the May 6 Democratic primary, including Mulroy.

“Shelby County’s primarily responsible for funding public education, public safety, public health and economic development,” Luttrell said. “Those are the four primary areas.”

And Luttrell defined the county mayor’s role as finding common interests in a diverse county that is a mix of urban, suburban and rural communities “for the common good of the county.”

Former Shelby County Schools board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. vowed that if elected, he would move county services into schools recently closed by the Shelby County Schools board starting next academic year, and laid the blame for the closures on the schools merger.

“It seems like when we are talking about corporate America, our purses are open.”

–Steve Mulroy

That touched off a debate among the Democratic pack.

“We are in a moral and educational crisis,” Whalum said. “Don’t buy the hype. The school board just voted to close nine schools in your neighborhood. Don’t tell me that’s not a crisis.”

Whalum was challenged by former Shelby County Schools board member Martavius Jones, who is running for Shelby County Commission.

It was Jones who introduced the resolution in late 2010 to surrender the Memphis City Schools charter, leading to the merger with the legacy Shelby County Schools system.

“Was (the merger) the case or was it more so because the school system has not received an increase in funding?” Jones asked Whalum.

“None of the cuts would have been required had we not surrendered the charter,” Whalum replied. “Then Memphis City Schools would have been in a negotiating position of strength. When we surrendered the charter we gave up our existence as a system.”

Former county commissioner Deidre Malone said if elected, she would work on finding other revenue streams and to build enough votes on the commission to fund Shelby County Schools “the way it should be funded.”

“Yes, the charter was surrendered,” she said on Whalum’s point. “But the people in Memphis also voted on this. I think sometimes in this debate and discussion we forget that.”

Mulroy added that the merger wasn’t the only factor in the reduced county funding that came with the merger. He pointed to the commission’s decision not to raise property taxes more to provide the full amount of funding the school system was seeking for the current school year.

“We didn’t adequately support public education,” he added.

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