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VOL. 133 | NO. 160 | Tuesday, August 14, 2018

County Commission Considers Changes To EDGE Near Term's End

By Bill Dries

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With only one more regularly scheduled meeting left in their four-year term of office, Shelby County commissioners are considering some changes to the joint city-county Economic Development Growth Engine – or EDGE.

Commission chairwoman Heidi Shafer added a resolution to the agenda of the Monday, Aug. 13, commission session that would take the power to hire or fire the president and CEO of the organization away from the county mayor and Memphis mayor and instead give that power to the commission.

The resolution, which was delayed Monday for more discussion in committee sessions next Wednesday, would also create a joint city-county committee of county commissioners and city council members along with the chairman of the EDGE board to select new EDGE board members. The EDGE board is currently nominated by the mayors and those nominations voted on by the county commission and city council.

“It is the process that is the problem,” Shafer said of the work that EDGE does, primarily granting tax abatement incentives. She described it as “a bureaucratic problem.”

She also said city council members are considering breaking away from EDGE and forming a city Industrial Development Board that would have the power to issue the same kind of tax abatements.

“They are willing to take 90 days to study this,” Shafer said of her discussions with council chairman Berlin Boyd. “But they would like to see some movement on our side. We’re not going to be shoe-horned in by anybody.”

Shafer said the reforms outlined in the resolution are a “modest piece” of larger changes in the city and county government approach to attracting economic development that would likely continue to be discussed into the terms of new county mayor Lee Harris and the new county commission.

Harris and a new county commission with eight of the 13 members serving their first terms take office Sept. 1.

“We were flying in the dark when we set up EDGE,” said county commissioner Terry Roland, who is among the commissioners leaving at the end of the month. “The main problem is the board should have the authority. It shouldn’t be appointed by two men and two men who can override both bodies.”

But commissioner Steve Basar objected.

“I find it troubling that we are adding this on when we have another commission meeting,” Basar said. “We have a new mayor coming on board.”

Basar said the reforms proposed could ultimately limit the powers of Harris at the outset of his four-year term of office.

As the commission discussed and debated the matter, county commissioners-elect Tami Sawyer, Amber Mills and David Bradford were sitting nearby watching the proceedings and sometimes huddling with current commissioners.

Shafer said there would be more discussion starting with committee sessions at the county building next week.

Changing EDGE was a major topic of discussion when commissioners and council members held a joint meeting in March. That discussion among 20 of the 26 council members and commissioners was followed by Greater Memphis Chamber chairman Richard Smith calling for a change in the city’s economic development pitch including making EDGE more of a salesman for the efforts instead of responding to requests for information once site consultants or other representatives of a company come looking at the city.

He also suggested and later withdrew the idea of taking minority business goals and percentages out of the requirements for getting tax abatements.

EDGE president and CEO Reid Dulberger has said when EDGE was created in 2011, it was with a memorandum of understanding that the chamber would be in the role of a salesman of the city to business prospects with EDGE providing the technical assistance.

“We agreed it made sense for the chamber to be our marketing and sales arm. That’s the way pretty much everyone does it in Tennessee,” Dulberger said earlier this month on the WKNO TV program “Behind The Headlines,” describing EDGE’s role as “We try to close the sale.”

“And it’s really a reflection of our open records laws in Tennessee,” he added. “When you are wooing a company from outside they don’t want to read about it – no disrespect.”

Because EDGE is a public body, its records are considered public records.

Meanwhile, Shafer said the commission will make available a summary of a legal opinion from the county attorney’s office requested by county commissioners Eddie Jones. Jones requested the opinion on what role and authority the commission has over EDGE.

Shafer says legal opinions are confidential because of the attorney-client privilege and the commission will instead release “a document for the public.”

Legal opinions requested by state legislators of the Tennessee Attorney General’s office are also considered confidential for the same reason. But those legal opinions are frequently released in their original form once the lawmaker who requested the legal opinion consents to the public release.

The commission, in the last year, has contended that billing records of its legislative policy advisor Julian Bolton are also confidential records.

PROPERTY SALES 28 290 16,197
MORTGAGES 33 165 10,087
BUILDING PERMITS 184 608 38,544
BANKRUPTCIES 33 125 7,597