Behind the Headlines – August 30, 2019

– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines
is made possible in part by: the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like you,
thank you. Memphis Mayor Jim
Strickland on his record, and his run for reelection tonight on Behind the Headlines. [dramatic, orchestral music] I’m Eric Barnes with
The Daily Memphian. Thanks for joining us. I am joined tonight by
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, thanks for being here again. – Thanks for having me. – Along with Bill Dries, reporter with The
Daily Memphian. I should say at the top here,
just a note of fairness, that we had Tami Sawyer,
Shelby County Commissioner and candidate for Mayor
on the show two weeks ago. People can get that
on the WKNO website or download the podcast
on We’ve also reached out to
former Mayor Herenton’s campaign and asked him to be on the show. They have so far
declined to attend. Thank you for being
here, appreciate it. – Thank you.
– As we get close to, early voting is some weeks away. – (Strickland)
Yes. – The campaign gets more
heated, and two weeks ago when Tami Sawyer
was on the show, I won’t try to go point
by point of what she said, I don’t think that’s fair, but she did accuse you
of not doing enough, and I’ll paraphrase
lightly, to combat racism, to not use the Office
of the Mayor enough, and strongly enough
to combat racism, and also to combat sexism. Do you have a response
to those accusations? And she said things to
that effect elsewhere. – Well I think her more
pointed comments, I think you softened ’em up. Her more pointed comments
don’t deserve any response. I let my record
stand where it is. We have an extraordinarily
diverse administration. Fact, we have more women
in leadership positions than city government
has ever had before. I think my record in
improving education, and services to the
public for all Memphians stands on its own, and I
think the response I get throughout the city,
people understand that, and they know that I’m
serving everyone equally and better than they
were four years ago. – Do you, is there a
particular onus on you as, I mean, we are a majority
African American city, majority female city,
you are a white male and I talk about
this on the show and we try to talk
about issues of race and prejudice and so on. I’m a 51 year old white guy
talking about those issues. Do you feel a particular
onus as Mayor of this city to address those issues
because we are a majority black and a majority female city? – No I feel an onus on me to
better serve the public. When I took over, we said we’re gonna increase
our MWBE spend. When I took over it was
12% of our contracts, we’re now up to 20%, the all
time high for city government, and we had the
largest MWBE project in the history of the
city with $49 million going to MWBEs at the
convention center, and you know what, you know what County
Commissioner Sawyer’s MWBE number over
at the county is? Three. 3%, and that program is run
by County Commissioners. So this election’s about
results, not rhetoric, and the results show
we’re makin’ a difference and she is not. – And MWBE stands for,
for people not so sure? – Minority-owned Women-owned
Business Enterprise. – And the $49 million, that
project is which one? – The convention center.
– Convention center, okay. Bill. – Do you think that the
discussion of this should involve national issues–
– (Stricklnad) No. – or is this race just about
what happens in Memphis? – It’s about what
happens in Memphis. Our challenges in Memphis are
great, meaning they’re large. We have real challenges. The violent crime
rate’s too high, poverty is too high, our educational
achievement’s too low. We have to unite in Memphis behind attacking
those challenges and that’s what I’ve done in
my 3 1/2 years in Memphis, as Memphis Mayor,
I’ve united the city as much as I can to
tackle those challenges. If the public wanted
me, or if I wanted to address national issues,
I’d run for Congress. I’m not runnin’ for
Congress, I’m tryin’ to solve Memphis problems and
serve Memphians better, and that is a difference and I think most of Memphis
agrees with my position. To really reduce violent crime and to increase the
educational achievement level in the city and reduce poverty, all of us, Democrat,
Republican, white, black, Hispanic, business
leader, labor leader, retired person, Millennial,
all need to be behind increasing that third
grade reading level and driving down violent crime. Those, if we can do that, that’s how you
revolutionize this city, and that’s what we focused on. – Do you think that there are
legitimate differences to be discussed about, specifically
about fighting crime? Because one of the most
profound differences here is you say more police
equals less crime. Commissioner Sawyer says
that she doesn’t think that that’s the case,
that in fact more police means more people arrested. – Well, the more people arrested
that are committing crimes. I mean, that’s illogical to
me, but that is a difference. We need more police
officers, she says we don’t. Also, Mayor Herenton said
when he was faced in 2006 with the highest crime
rate the city has ever seen before or after, he said the
next year, runnin’ for Mayor, that there’s nothing he or
any Mayor in the United States can do to reduce crime. So I disagree with
both those candidates. We need more police officers,
and there’s certainly what the Mayor can do can
help drive down crime. The Mayor alone can’t
drive down crime, but you can make a difference, so we’ve increased, shortly
after I became Mayor we dropped down
to 1900 officers, when we had 2400 eight
or nine years ago, we’re now over 2000,
we’re gonna get back to 2100 later this year, our goal is to 2300
by the end of 2020. Everywhere I go people
want more officers patrolling the streets, ’cause
the more officers we have, the more community
policing we can do, the more Blue CRUSH we can do, the more patrols that we can do, the more investigative
work we can do, so I’m committed
and when we got, when we were at 2400
officers in 2011, 2012, that was the recent low
of crime in recent memory. Crime had been reduced from 26% from the Herenton high of 2006. – You’ve been in
office 3 1/2 years, you’ve added a net
approaching 150 it sounds like based on your numbers
for the low of 1900 we’re over 2000 now,
hope to be at 2100 by the end of the year, okay?
– Yes. – So let’s give you the end of
the year number which is 200. Why is it taking so long? – For a long…
– When it has been, you’ve talked about it every
time you’ve been on the show, when you campaigned, why does
it take so long to rebuild? – Two reasons. Number one, what we
inherited was no process for retaining and recruiting
police officers, none. You had to physically
go to a police precinct and hand write a form to
apply to be a police officer. Well as you know, a 22 year
old, they all apply online and on their phones, and
so we had to revamp that. Then we had to go through a
campaign of the Best in Blue, to really go out there
and recruit and market, and that recruiting and
marketing and background checks and physical tests takes
about, took about 6 months, and then the class itself
takes almost 6 months. That class being the training – At the Police Academy. And not everyone
makes it through? – No, I mean–
– Okay. – I’m guessin’ 80%
only make it through because it’s tough
physically, and academically, and you have to be
able to shoot a gun so all that, that whole
process takes at least a year in and of itself, now we have
shortened that first 6 months to about 4 months, and the
second reason it’s tough, it is tough to be a
police officer nowadays, and every other city is out
there tryin’ to recruit, well one other thing, with
that low unemployment rate, young people have other options. – Well is part of
the problem money and 2 is, is there
money in the budget, if you could get
to 2300 immediately could the city afford that? – Yes, because our overtime
budget would go down – Okay. and then that could help
pay for those salaries. Second is, looking
back to before when you were on the
Council, City Council and Mayor Wharton was in,
he made and the council made very deep cuts to benefits and for city employees,
police officers included, changes to pension, the
whole pension reform. First of all, did you
vote for those cuts as a City Councilperson,
and in hindsight was that vote,
wherever use you’re on, was it a mistake? – No I did vote for it, and
even though it was very tough, and I wish we didn’t
have to do it, financially it was required
because also remember, our pension plan per
year was underfunded by about $50 million,
it was upside down, which the underfunding
of the pension started under Mayor
Herenton in 2005 or 2006, so he left us an
underfunded pension and we’ve had to make up for it, and those changes to benefits did contribute in part to
the loss of police officers, but the biggest problem was
there was no recruitment effort. In 2014, zero police
officers were hired, so we had to create
a whole mechanism, an operation from nothing
and we have done that. In fact the Best in Blue
campaign is so good now other cities are starting
to copy the marketing. – In hindsight, just one more
and then I’ll go back to Bill, in hindsight though, there
was a cost associated with losing those
police officers, and there was a cost associated with funding the pension plan and balancing the
budget in a recession, I mean there were costs but
if you look at those costs there were a lot of
police officers left, the people say that the unions almost encouraged
people to leave– – They did.
– sort of a protest, again was that cost worth
it given what has been the reduction in crime
fighting efforts, I mean there’s a cost
associated there, right? Let alone the personal
harm for people, but the economic hit, or the
perception hit from Memphis, again was that cost worth it? I think it was a
necessary change, because our pension, it’s
easy to brush aside that but the state passed a law saying we had to fully fund
our annual pension cost. At the time they passed
it, we were putting about $20 million a
year into our pension. The required payment
was $75 million, so you either raise
taxes dramatically or you cut expenses, and we
cut expenses, and we had to. I wish we didn’t have
to, I wish Mayor Herenton hadn’t started that ball rolling by underfunding the
pension, but we had to deal with that problem, and
I think we dealt with it the best way we could, but I
think we’ve gotten over that and we’re now on
the upward swing. If we can, as you pointed
out the last two years we’re averaging roughly
a net increase of 100, and we need to amplify
that even more. Bill, about 15 minutes left. As we record this there is
this thing called Project IRIS– – Yes! – which is out there, which is on the land that
Belz Enterprises has across New Frayser Boulevard
from the Nike plant. You’ve talked about this
in kind of guarded terms because this goes to
the Board of Adjustment in mid-September, I think. What does this project mean for that particular
area of the city? All I can really talk
about is the potential because I don’t think
it’s a done deal, but the potential is
huge for that area. It’s over 3 million square feet, according to the
document they filed it’s over 3 million square feet, and has over 1800 parking spaces for we have to
presume employees, so we’ve worked really
hard to bring in business in all areas of town. J&J Trucking is a good
example off American Way. 700 new jobs right there in an
area that had disinvestment. Frayser, we’ve
worked really hard to improve the
housing stock there, the last two years for
the first time in decades home values are goin’ up. This would complement
it incredibly well, that we could have
a lot of jobs, a lot of investment there, and in fact it’s relatively
close to neighborhoods. People could actually walk
to the work, you know. I hear a lot of stories about International Harvester
and Firestone, they helped build the
adjoining neighborhoods, really build up
those neighborhoods. We’d like to do sort
of the same thing and it has huge
potential impact. – Are these distribution jobs? – I can’t confirm any of that. I can only confirm
what’s in the document. We have marketed
this property before and one thing I think I’ve
changed about city government is I’m personally involved
in economic development, trying to push it,
taking property and really actively
trying to sell it with the cooperation of the
private sector and the Chamber, so we have marketed
this property before, hopefully this one
actually happens. – The reason I mention
the distribution jobs is because County Mayor
Lee Harris has talked about some jobs that, in
distribution and logistics are a mainstay of
the Memphis economy, he’s talked about
some of those jobs becoming obsolete
because of automation. Do you have concerns about
our reliance on distribution for that reason? – In part, I mean yeah. Every mayor should be
concerned about automation no matter what your industry is,
and that’s why Memphis and Tennessee is so
uniquely situated with the free tech school and
the free community college, which then Senator Harris
supported and voted for gives us a unique opportunity because if you were better
trained for a job today you are more likely to be able to evolve into the new industry. You know I often brag
about airplane mechanics, you can get a degree, or
certificate from the TCAT, Tennessee College of
Applied Technology, for free in Memphis,
it takes 18 months, and people our age think
of an airplane mechanic with a tool-belt and wrench. It’s very computer driven, so if you can be an
airplane mechanic, or a machinist
building hip implants and starting at Smith &
Nephew at $19.50 an hour, if that industry
changes and evolves you are more likely to be
able to get more educated or evolve with those changes, so that’s why Tennessee,
that’s why I’m optimistic about the future of
Memphis and that we can, we can accelerate this momentum
that we have with this gift, we’re the only state in
the country with this. – Bill mentioned Project IRIS, and over the years, back to
when you were in Council, since you’ve been
Mayor projects come in so, you know, FedEx
Logistics is moving downtown, ServiceMaster has
moved downtown, other warehouse, distribution,
different types of jobs, Indigo Ag which is a high
tech employer downtown, all those I am 99% sure, all of those have involved
incentives of some sort, and critics of your
administration will say the city has the
wrong priorities. They’re giving away
taxes to corporations when they should be
spending money on crime, or on education, or on services, and so if you look
at your record, and we’ll just stay with
the 3 1/2 years as Mayor, are you comfortable that
the incentive packages and the tax breaks given
out to these companies have been to the
benefit of Memphis? – 100%.
24,000 more Memphians are working now
than 3 1/2 years ago. 2400, and for someone to
suggest that we should pause? No, we should accelerate. Very few of those incentives
have involved cash. What they are is
reduced property taxes, and most of them involve, we’re receiving more
taxes during the PILOT than we received
before, think about it, Union Row is a perfect example. That’s a mostly blighted
piece of property that’s getting very little
property taxes, very little. When they put an
office tower there, the property values would go
up and the taxes would go up, but they’re not
gonna pay those taxes ’cause any other city, or any
other state’s gonna let ’em get a reduction, so we give
’em a reduction to here, which is still higher than
the taxes they’re paying, so it’s misinformation that’s
being spent, put out there. We’re getting more tax dollars, we’re getting more jobs, and
we’re cleaning up blight. We’ve gotta keep our
foot to the pedal and accelerate this momentum. – You say, talk about taxes,
there’s a sales tax referendum on the ballot this time
that would dedicate… It’s a little complicated
but the gist of it, the intent of it is to dedicate that quarter point
in the sales tax to fire, police… why do I do this
without Bill’s help? – Fire and police benefits.
– Thank you, Bill. Are you in favor
of that referendum? – I’m not gonna take
a position on it. I’m not gonna endorse it in any Council race
or judge’s races, and I’m not gonna take
any position on that. We did do an analysis,
we hired someone to do an analysis and
gave that to the Council a week or so ago on the
cost and the revenue of it. I’m worried about my race. Even though it’s
not legally binding, if it passes and I’m Mayor I will fulfill the
intent of the voters. – On the agreement, okay. – Bill, go ahead. – If it passes and
if you’re reelected does it complicate the first
budget of your second term? – I don’t believe it does. I believe for the
first budget for sure, the revenue is higher
than the expense. – Okay. There’s been a whole
other discussion about funding for
Shelby County schools. In a second Strickland
term, would there be a move for the city to directly
fund Shelby County schools in some kind of ongoing way beyond what the
city is doing now with Pre-K and other
education initiatives? – Well let’s not
roll over Pre-K. That is revolutionary what
we’ve been able to do. Couple years ago
with Mayor Luttrell and Superintendent
Hopson, we created and Mayor Harris has joined in, we created universal
needs based Pre-K for the first time
ever in the city, let’s not roll over that. Quality Pre-K, followed
by quality K through 3, which the schools are
really workin’ on, can revolutionize this city,
so instead of 25% roughly of third graders reading
at third grade level, let’s get up to 75% and so
many of our problems disappear, so we’ve really focused on
early childhood literacy. The challenge with
funding anything new is where does the
money come from? As you know our
budget only increases by about $10 million a year. A 1% raise for
every city employee is about $4 1/2 million. Insurance costs go up,
so that $10 million, and we have to fund, we’re looking for more
funding for transit, so there’s limited
amount of money. Anyone promising
significant more money to Shelby County schools
out of the city budget, you better hold
on to your wallet. There’s gonna be a big tax
increase comin’ to do that. – Is the tax, I had asked
Commissioner Sawyer who was on the
show two weeks ago and I should say it’s
available online, and we’ve reached
out, I should repeat, to Mayor Herenton’s campaign
to have him on the show, he’s so far declined, but she said that tax
increases were on the table and if you win reelection, are
tax increases on the table? – I’ve never taken
a no tax pledge, although in my 8
years on the Council and 3 1/2 years,
we’ve not proposed a property tax increase. The reason is our property
tax rate is already higher than anywhere else in the state, our combined city county tax
rate, dramatically higher and I think that retards
any kind of growth in business and population so we’ve gotta try to
keep the line on that. Now I will never say
never, but I think we oughta do everything
we can to avoid that. Population growth, as you know, I think is our
number one challenge. We’re trying to grow our city, and raising our taxes so much higher than
our suburban cities, or Nashville which we’re
at least 50% higher, that hurts us. – But could you find the money
by changing priorities, and do you feel
like there is a way to change priorities
in your budget or are the priorities
where you want them? – Oh the priorities… What we’ve done is we’ve
focused on public safety, and intervention with kids doing more in our libraries,
community centers, summer camps, summer
jobs programs, that’s what we’ve focused on,
and with roads and transit. Those are the
priorities we have. The county could
give more to schools. In fact, the budget that
Commissioner Sawyer voted for cut the Shelby County
schools’ request for money by $26 million. They asked her for more
money and she said no. Again this is about
results, not rhetoric. Let’s look at the
results of what you do, not what you’re gonna promise. You know, she could
have funded schools over on the county
side, and she didn’t. – Look, we’re talking
about spending and taxes and priorities. Tom Lee Park, and
the riverfront, there’s a $70 million proposal for a completely transformed
Tom Lee Park, the cobblestones, that’s in mediation
right now to some extent. We’ll talk about that,
but is it appropriate for that $70 million
to be a priority? Critics of that
proposal will say, why aren’t we putting
that money towards police? What aren’t we putting
that money towards schools, to other priorities that
we’ve talked about today? Why is that such a priority
for your administration? – I’m sure The Daily Memphian
has pointed out the fact that those funds cannot
be used for that, or at least I hope y’all have. Don’t just repeat false
information, correct it. – We have written that. – The city… – And I’m sure you’ve
heard this criticism – but the question
doesn’t reflect that. – No no no, but I mean look
you gotta ask the question that this is what
people come out and say, and they come out and say that and they wanna know
how you respond to it. – It’s a false narrative. The money that the
city’s putting in is basically state sales
taxes generated downtown that are limited by the
Tourist Development Zone by law to tourist attractions,
which is where the money went for the pyramid for Bass Pro, money for the convention center, and money for improving
the riverfront because that’s a tourist… could be a tourist destination which other
riverfronts have shown, so that money, one time money, could not be used repeatedly
for police and fire. – The other money is
being privately raised. And about that, you came
out a couple weeks ago, the party, the Memphis in May, and the Memphis River
Parks Partnership, formerly RDC, have
been in mediation. In the midst of that mediation, you came out with a statement
that this is mediating, effectively, I’ll
paraphrase what you said, this is simply mediating
how Memphis in May stays in the park, not
whether it stays in the park, and prior to that a lot of
people, people on the show, people who wrote guest
columns in The Daily Memphian and in elsewhere, were
saying this is all about booting Memphis in May
off the riverfront. Was that ever a
possibility to you? – (Strickland)
No, in fact I– – But, so where did
that narrative come from and let me put it this way, did mediation hurt
the public discourse because we couldn’t have
Carol Coletta on the show and talk about
the details of it. We can’t have Jim
Holt on the show and talk about the details. You all are somewhat limited, and so all these sort
of stories get out there because of the silence
around mediation. – Again, all this is driven by, a lot of it’s driven
by social media, and I don’t know if, this
may be shocking to you, [Eric chuckles] everything on social
media is not true. I said from the get go, if you
go back to my original quotes they said, “We want a better
Memphis in May in the park “one month a year,
and a better park the other 11
months of the year.” What I put in
writing, people acted like it was breaking news but
it was really no different from whatever I said. – With 45 seconds here, why not redevelop other
parts of the riverfront? A lot of people
point to Mud Island, people point to MLK. I mean is this money, the
TDZ money a one time shot that we’re using
it all on Tom Lee, and leaving other things in
their less than perfect state? – Well, you haven’t been to
MLK Park in a long time. – Yeah. – MLK park is in really
nice condition, in fact it’s underutilized, but there are plans for those
two parks and those two areas so you just gotta take,
we cannot fix every, we can’t put $50 million
into every single park. Tom Lee is used most, and that’s where most
of the money’s goin’. – Are you gonna do any debates? – When Mayor Herenton
changes his mind, and will agree to a debate
I’ll be happy to join. – All right, thank you for
being here, I appreciate it. – Thank you.
– Thank you, Bill. Thank you for joining us.
Join us again next week. [dramatic, orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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