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VOL. 132 | NO. 31 | Monday, February 13, 2017

Strickland and Luttrell Mark Different Points in Mayoral Tenures

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland was 13 months and nine days in office when he delivered his second State of the City address last week at a Frayser church.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, left, and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, right, are at different points in their terms of office with different perspectives and goals displayed in their respective top of the year speeches given separately last week.

(Daily News)

The day before, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell was more approximate as he gave a State of the County address at the Memphis Kiwanis Club on what’s ahead for his last 18 months in office.

Each admitted to surprises and frustrations at very different points in their political paths.

“I am proud to say to you today that the state of our city is strong and getting even stronger,” Strickland told several hundred people at Impact Baptist Church.

He cited $7 billion in “recently completed, under construction or on-the-drawing board” development within the city, part of $9 billion in development in the Memphis area.

Luttrell cited some of the same projects Strickland did – Crosstown Concourse, Shelby Farms Park, ServiceMaster’s headquarters move to Peabody Place.

For Luttrell and Strickland, there were the familiar financial milestones mayors – city, county and suburban – tend to note throughout their tenure.

In Luttrell’s case it was reducing the county’s debt by 10 percent with no tax hike, a pay raise for county employees and increased county funding for public education.

He talked of working between now and Sept. 1, 2018 – when his term of office ends – to “institutionalize” some of the blueprints he’s led across two terms, including the regional Green Print plan for greenways, greenlines and parks as well as health care prevention programs.

The goal is a general livability for the area that draws economic development and homeowners. And if “the wrinkles” in some aspects of these blueprints can’t be worked out by Sept. 1, 2018, when a new mayor takes office “then it’s justifiable that they change it out,” he said.

“How can you be affordable, yet be progressive?” was how Luttrell framed it. “We are going to have to continue to be an affordable community that has a fair tax rate that’s providing essential services in all of those areas ... and we must do it in a coordinated fashion.”

Five years into the creation of EDGE – Memphis and Shelby County Economic Development Growth Engine, the keeper of most local financial incentives for economic development – Luttrell wants to refocus the agency.

“It’s time that we really kind of refocus on what we need to be doing in that area. That was a huge paradigm shift for us,” he said. “It kind of redefined the roles that people play. We’ve got to get used to a redefinition of the rules.”

Strickland isn’t stuck on one issue. But the mayor whose path to office has been paved with a call to be “brilliant at the basics” doesn’t go as broad as Luttrell.

And the challenge Strickland talked most about at Impact Baptist Church in Frayser was violent crime.

“No question about it, the most important role for city government to play is to provide for public safety,” he said in noting the city’s record homicide count of 228 in 2016 and a rise in violent crime overall of 3.2 percent compared to 2015.

Strickland said more police officers is part of the answer and touted the graduation Friday of a police academy class of 31 recruits along with two more academy classes this year.

“Yes, we inherited a challenge on that front,” he said of an exodus from the police ranks in recent years. “We’re hoping that in the next 12 months, we will have a net increase in police officers for the first time in six years. We are taking long-term actions to restore the pipeline of police recruits so that we don’t face this situation again.”

Luttrell and Strickland each caution against expecting immediate change for the better.

For Luttrell, it is getting the Shelby County Health Department more focused on community health care and preventative health care programs in the county’s comprehensive plan “Healthy Shelby.”

“That’s a very gradual process,” he said. “It’s not one you can turn around immediately. It’s not one you can tactically go out today and expect to see results tomorrow.”

For Strickland, that is the same advice on the crime issue.

“I think most people understand it takes a long time to turn that ship around. We are taking immediate action and we need more police officers,” he said. “It’s going to take some time to turn around the violent culture in Memphis.”

In his upcoming city budget proposal to the Memphis City Council, Strickland said he will include another pay raise for Memphis police officers, but ruled out any move to restore benefits cut by the city and council several years ago when Strickland was on the council.

Strickland wouldn’t talk percentages on the raise, which would be the third for police in two years.

“I promised our police officers last year that we would take many steps to better compensate them,” Strickland told reporters after his speech. “Those were only the first steps. I’m committed to future steps, including in this budget to better compensate them.”

Luttrell is putting to bed a partisan debate about a $115,000 federal grant, passed on through the state, to Planned Parenthood for a free condom distribution program approved in a party-line vote of the commission last week.

Commissioner David Reaves, who voted against the grant, has called on Luttrell to veto it – something mayors, city and county, do very rarely.

“I can’t veto. I’m not going to veto it,” Luttrell said. “The critical needs of Shelby County in public health are significant. … It’s unfortunate that this issue gets so wrapped up in an issue like condom distribution. We’ve got some critical needs that have to be addressed and HIV and AIDS is a very critical issue.”

Rejecting the grant could have cost the county not only that money but other grant money from the state health department.

“Although I agree the county health department could have handled the condom distribution easily, legally and the way the grant is structured, we are compelled and I’ll live with that,” he said.

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