Electing progressive leaders for a stronger community


Mayor Lee Harris Remarks to Shelby County Commission Regarding FY2020 Budget

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Thank you for giving me a few minutes to address the Commission and deliver the consolidated budget for Shelby County.

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Many people have worked extensively on this. They have worked many hours. They have had too many meetings to count with stakeholders, county leaders, elected officials, and with members of the Commission. They have fueled on coffee and quick lunches. Let me take a moment to tip my hat to Chris McLean, Director of Finance, Valesa Wells, our budget manager, Joshua Spas, Brittney Jenkins, Tammy Winston, Brenda Gipson, Holli Howell, Connie Rankin, and the rest of the team.  

I wish I could say to you that, thanks to your efforts, we were at end and that today the Commission will approve the budget as-is, so rest easy.

But, I know better.

Seriously, though, thank you for your efforts to help prepare this budget.

Commissioners, I will be relatively brief.

The balanced budget I present today proposes we make investments in education and kids, expand workforce development opportunities, continue the work of criminal justice reforms, and focus on public safety. Furthermore, the budget I present today is responsible, with a pay increase for all employees, no tax increase, and proposes to fully-fund our pension and OPEB obligations. The budget I present today is presented earlier than before to give the Commission time to engage in the hearing process to learn any detail about any county function funded herein and, ultimately, with any luck, to complete the process before the end of our fiscal year on June 30.

Our overall budget, which includes full funding for our schools, is $1.3 billion. A budget of that size funds many different functions and includes several sources of revenue.

When it comes to revenue sources, our most important source of revenue is, of course, the property tax. The amount we expect to collect this year from property taxes is flat. Furthermore, the projections with respect to property tax collections from FY2019 were far too rosy. As you can imagine, without revenue growth it is not possible to significantly expand our investments in new initiatives or grow our complement size.

For instance, the property tax collections that support our Education fund were about $4 million off for the FY2019 budget year. Another deficit in the Education fund, because of low property tax collections, is expected this coming FY2020 budget year. We could amend the FY2019 budget to reflect the lower-than-expected property tax collections. That would save us $4 million from last year’s approved budget and millions more in this proposed budget.

But we’re not doing that.

Instead, we are going to make sure that our schools get every dime that was pledged to them, despite the lower property tax collections and the continuing shortage in our Education fund.

As for county functions, Commissioner Jones who leads the Budget Committee has planned for extensive hearings over the next several weeks. I look forward to those hearings and an opportunity to discuss and exhaust any detail of interest to this Commission. Until then, I want to share just a few highlights of our budget proposal.

Let me start by saying that, like many of you, I have been in office serving in Shelby County government for about 8 months. The campaign trail is still fresh in my mind. During that time, I talked a lot about investing in students and in education. The top item in my campaign platform was expanded funding for early childhood education. That’s why, Mr. Chairman and members, I want to start by saying that this budget devotes $6 million to early childhood education. This level of funding represents the largest investment in early childhood education in our county’s history. If this budget is approved by the county commission, we will fund classrooms for 4- and 5- year olds to the tune of $5.5 million in county dollars.

We will also continue a $500,000 investment began by the last administration in early childhood education opportunities for the 0 to 3-year old population. I would note that one of the reasons this $500,000 investment is important is because our allocation will be leveraged with private philanthropic dollars and federal investment. This $500,000 investment ensures that another $4.5 million goes into in early Head Start. In other words, if this budget is approved, the County will be making a $6 million investment in early childhood education, which will be matched by another $4.5 million from various sources. Thus, the total committed investment in early childhood education would be over $10 million.

We will set up the county’s first dedicated pre-K fund to ensure that dollars continue to flow into these vital programs not just for next year or the year after. But our goal is nothing less than to set up a funding stream for pre-K education that lasts into the next administration, the next Commission, and beyond.

This budget focuses attention on our youngest citizens because, as the old African proverb says, you mold the clay when it’s wet.

If this investment in early childhood education is approved, we have a chance to increase literacy rates for our youngest students, teach social skills early, and earn a real shot at some long-term benefits, like expanding high school graduation rates and improving employability.

In order to keep our communities safe, we have to expand opportunities for ex-offenders and reduce recidivism. Our approach to public safety has to include helping more people with a criminal history. That’s what we’re doing in this budget proposal by proposing a significant expansion of the Shelby County Office of ReEntry. By investing in the Office of ReEntry, we will be able to eventually add more programming, including vocational training opportunities for ex-offenders.

Also, I am proposing a smaller but still important expansion of the Public Defender’s office. If approved, through an investment in the Public Defender’s office, Shelby County government will be able to hire, for the first time, a lawyer solely responsible for re-entry legal services, like expungement and the reinstatement of driver licenses.

Furthermore, we know that there are scores of individuals in the community who want to volunteer and mentor youth who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law and end up in the criminal justice system. I have been asked by countless citizens how they can get involved to help our at-risk kids. So this budget proposes hiring a volunteer coordinator to get the community involved in mentorship and expand the positive support network for our young citizens who need help.

I believe in a community approach to law-enforcement, so that’s why this budget proposes putting a youth counselor directly in the police precinct, which expands on the work being led by our Juvenile Court.

Finally, we are also raising the profile of the Workforce Investment Network, our primary go-to for making sure that individuals have the skills that employers desire. This proposal calls for pulling WIN out of the Community Services and having this important program roll up to the CAO and ultimately to yours truly.

We are in the midst of a tough budget cycle. Yet, this budget proposes a pay increase for all Shelby County employees.

And this budget proposes that, for the first time, we take a progressive approach to our pay increases.

In the past, when our employees received pay increases, they received flat-percentage, where every employee received the same percentage. The flat-percentage style of pay increase only exacerbates inequality and the gap between our lowest and top earners. What’s more, that style of pay increase ignored the fact that cost-of-living pressures are more acute for our lowest earners than for our high-flyers.

We have changed approaches in this budget. This budget proposes that county employees who make under $50k will receive a 1.5% increase. Those who make between $50k and $100k will receive a 1% increase. Those who make over $100k will receive a 0.05% pay increase. Thus, if this budget is approved those who earned the least will get the largest pay increase, and those who earn the most will get the smallest pay increase.

It is worth adding that sometimes the pay increase is eaten up by increases elsewhere, particularly increases in healthcare costs. Thus, in addition to the pay increase, this budget proposes that we forego increases in employee healthcare premiums.

Finally, this budget fully funds our pension and OPEB obligations. We want to make sure that the benefits earned are there for our current employees when they eventually retire. We want to make sure that our current retirees can continue to rely on the benefits they have earned.

A final point or two Mr. Chairman and members.

I believe we should invest in creating and supporting a culture of innovation in our community. That means supporting, growing, and developing more start-up technology firms that are founded right here. Now, more than ever, we need more small businesses that use technology and innovation to call Shelby County home.

You see, when it comes to the ramifications of technology and innovation, we have more at stake than virtually any other community in the United States. Within our lifetimes, it’s likely that most truck cargo will be delivered by autonomous vehicles. That will be a massive disruption and moment of change for Shelby County, which is a logistics, trucking, and transportation hub. It may mean the end of many of the trucking jobs as we know them today.

But, the coming changes also present opportunity.

Why can’t the end of trucking jobs, be the start of new jobs in truck drone piloting? And, yes, that will be a thing.

Why can’t Shelby County be ground zero for companies that want to do robotics and drone package delivery?  

Shelby County can.

We need technology start-ups that are based here and that are more likely to focus on problems and opportunities unique to this place. That’s why I’m proposing a $1.25 million investment grant in a start-up technology fund. What’s more, we have identified a non-profit partner that is willing to protect our investment from loss. Yes, that means that our investment in expanding the start-up tech community in Shelby County has almost nothing but upside.

We have a chance to grow the start-up tech community, make an historic bet on Shelby County entrepreneurs and small businesses, and all the while avoid the risk of loss.  If approved, this budget proposes what we believe to be the largest investment from local government in tech start-ups in Shelby County history.

Although our CIP budget has substantially trimmed since last year, we have included critical items that have been priorities of this Commission, including the Youth Justice and Education Center and construction and renovations at Shelby County Government’s only library. We have also devoted significant resources to a new county SkyCop program, another commission priority and rightly so. Shelby county citizens want more focus on public safety and investments in neighborhoods. If the SkyCop Program is approved, each county commission district will have funding for at least 10 SkyCop cameras, which means a total of 130 new SkyCop cameras in our county.

Let me close by saying that when it comes to budgeting, my overall perspective is that show real budget discipline, hold the line on debt in a reasonable range, and meet our obligations to kids, families, and neighborhoods.

I believe that always, always our spending has to connect to the public interest. There are plenty of projects and everyone believes that every initiative, every proposal is critical. I get that. When it comes to spending, I ask during every presentation, every request, how does the public benefit from this expenditure?

I believe we want to keep our debt profile low and our credit rating high.

I believe we should live within our means, particularly this year. The precedents we set this year could set us up for success in future budget years or, quite honestly, end up haunting us down the line.

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You could vote to approve the proposed budget today as-is.

However, I realize we have a long road ahead and I look forward to the process.

I know that this Commission will show good judgement and, most importantly, be guided by conscience.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman and members of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Taken from Lee Harris’s speech to to the Shelby County Commission on April 29, 2019 at 3:30pm 

Robert Donati