As we embark on the New Year, our community has a great number of opportunities and challenges ahead.
While the economy appears to be on the way to a slow but steady recovery, unemployment in Shelby Co. still stands at just over 10%. Creating an environment that encourages expansion of existing businesses, attracts investment from companies that currently have no footprint in the County, and fosters the innovation that comes with new businesses is critical to the long-term success of our community. Recent successes in bringing in businesses like Electrolux and Mitsubishi are victories for the local economy, but we have to do more to support the businesses who have long-term investments in our community to help them grow and thrive.
Public Safety, Quality of Life, and Smart Growth
The safety of our neighborhoods is another area local government can directly impact to increase the quality of life for Shelby Countians. Overall, Shelby County has seen a decline in violent crime of nearly 26% since 2006. Property crime has decreased 31% over the same time period. Initiatives by local law enforcement agencies have helped drive this decline. Last year violent crime decreased nearly 4% and property crime was down 8.7%. Building on these successes must be a top priority of all local governments. Forging alliances between local law enforcement agencies and working to inform and empower neighborhoods is an effective way to continue this downward trend in crime. (Source)
Crime is not the only area that impacts the our neighborhoods. Other issues such as abandoned and blighted properties also have a negative impact on the places we live.The 2010 census reports over 47,000 vacant housing units in Shelby County (11.9% vacancy). This is .5% higher than the national average, .6% higher than the state average and 1.5% higher than metro areas of equivalent size. In August, MSNBC reported that the Memphis MSA was the 3rd sickest housing market in the US. More than 50% of those units (24,000) are vacant rental properties, 28% (13,000) are vacant for “other reasons” and just under 13% (6100) were reported on the market for sale.
The Shelby County Land Bank owns over 3600 properties in the County, many of which are in a state of disrepair. While the circumstances under which the County came to own these properties are varied, one thing is certainly true: vacant and blighted properties are safe harbors for criminal activity, a negative drag on property values in our neighborhoods, and bring zero revenue into the county in their current state.
With such a high surplus of vacant residential units and stagnant population growth over the past decade (just 3.36%) County government should carefully consider the overall impact of new developments on virgin land that further stretches our infrastructure in favor of working to re-develop land currently on the grid. Focusing on re-development will increase the quality of life for thousands of Shelby Countians, bring jobs to the core of the community, and help reduce crime associated with vacancy and blight.
Fiscal Accountability and Discipline
In the coming weeks the County Administration will introduce their budget for the next fiscal year. Based on the speed of the economic recovery and stagnant population growth over the past 10 years this will be a difficult process that is fraught with hard choices.As the County government prepares for this process, the administration should seek to provide additional data regarding the realities the County faces going forward. Simply putting a budget agenda together absent a fair and accurate reporting of the impact of those initiatives does nothing to better inform Commissioners nor the public at large of the long-term challenges faced by County government. In order to be a truly accountable actor, the County Government should work to compile and release data regarding the performance targets and impact of outcomes for each of its departments. For too long local government has been allowed to move forward without properly justifying its actions. This trend must stop.
This is particularly true of County Debt, which stands at $1.6b (total debt for the state of Tennessee is just $1.7b) and consumes 14% of the County budget annually (second only to Education at 30.9%). A full, fair, and accurate accounting of county debt is necessary to ensure the public understands where past growth initiatives have been focused, what that debt is paying for, and ways to reduce the overall impact of debt to ensure our tax dollars bring the most value to all of us.
While there are many issues that fall outside the direct control of local government, there is plenty that can be done at the local level to strengthen our community and foster an environment of growth and prosperity. In order to accomplish this, we must set aside some of our long-held assumptions and focus on the things that unite us rather than our differences. We are all Shelby Countians. We don’t have to view things as a zero-sum game. The truth is, that zero-sum worldview leaves us all fighting over crumbs while ignoring the cake that’s right in front of us. This fighting over crumbs has been, for far too long, a feature of local government, and it must stop.
Because the New Year is about new beginnings and new ideas, we should take some time to consider where we see our community in the future. Last October at my personal blog I wrote about 10 Things to Make Memphis Stronger. These ideas apply not only to Memphis, but Shelby County as a whole. The broad principles outlined in this post guide my vision for the future of Shelby County.
In order to receive effective, responsive and accountable government, we must first demand it. I hope you will stand up and demand it with me.
Thank you for your time, and Happy New Year.