Police funding and the importance of city and county governments adopting the tenets of a “moral budget” in spending tax dollars were top issues at the Memphis People’s Summit on Saturday.
Around 70 people attended the in-person event hosted by #UPTheVote901 at Abundant Grace Fellowship Church, while others participated virtually. It gathered the public, community organizers and elected officials to trade thoughts on policy, including local government budgets, education, crime, wages and housing.
During a segment on crime and safety, attendees batted around solutions to violent crime in Memphis.
In June, President Joe Biden’s administration announced changes to guidelines on COVID-19 relief funds through the American Rescue Plan Act. Large cities can use the funds to address public safety, including hiring more police, as the nation sees an uptick in gun violence.
But the sanctuary answered with a resounding ‘No’ when asked if they agreed with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s assertion that more police officers leads to less crime. Memphis has been awarded a $160 million grant, and Strickland said last month his ideas for the funds include hiring new police officers, youth programs and violence interrupters, according to The Commercial Appeal.
“The mayor wants to use ARPA dollars for police … We should start demanding our elected officials invest dollars where our passions are,” said Tameka Greer, executive director of Memphis Artists for Change, who spoke at the event.
In a labor and wages segment, speakers and attendees called for higher working standards for companies that receive payment-in-lieu-of-taxes incentives from the city and county.
“My definition of a PILOT is the company that comes in here, takes my money and flies off with it to a billionaire haven. That’s not what a PILOT is supposed to be,” said Gail Tyree, executive director of the AFSCME Local 1733. “(It should be that) they come in to get these PILOTS to pay our people a wage they can live off of.”
Several organizers leading discussions stressed the need for funding from city and county governments to spur the changes discussed. A common thread across subjects was the need for a moral budget, the idea of government funding mainly supporting services for society’s most vulnerable members.
“If we don’t have a moral budget, we’re living off an immoral budget,” Tyree said.
The recently formed Memphis and Shelby County Moral Budget Coalition walked away from the city and county’s budgeting meetings in June with marginal success in getting funding for some services. However, most of their requests were denied by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners or not even considered by the Memphis City Council.
Several elected officials attended the event including Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris, the final speaker of the day.
After the organizations discussed legislative priorities, some elected officials took to the stage to give attendees a review of their accomplishments during their time in office and answer questions from the audience.
Redistricting was a key concern of the state lawmakers in attendance, which included State Sens. Katrina Robinson and Raumesh Akbari as well as Reps. London Lamar and G.A. Hardaway. Hardaway predicted a tough redistricting battle ahead for the overwhelmingly outnumbered Democratic delegation for Shelby County. Hardaway worries Shelby County could lose a senate seat during the process.
Among issues such as land use and affordable housing, County Commissioners Tami Sawyer and Van Turner hinted at their opposition to a revived effort to consolidate city and county governments.
“Once you figure out the game, the game changes sometimes,” Turner said. “We were getting our butts kicked by Republicans … In 2018, we won every office countywide and now we see that the game wants to change. Everything that glitters is not gold,” he said.
“If you look at where the money is coming from, you would know how to vote on it,” Sawyer added.
Carrington J. Tatum is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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