Politics » Politics Feature

GOP Debate Shows Clear Differences in Candidates



Considering that the three Republicans seeking the office of Shelby County mayor have different perches from which to view society's problems, it is understandable that their proposed solutions to those problems differ in kind, as was the case in a forum overseen by the Rhodes College Republicans on Monday night.

In a nutshell, Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland spoke from the point of view of a hands-on actor in various recent governmental matters; Trustee David Lenoir offered the perspective of someone whose job requires a firm knowledge of the county's financial circumstances; and Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos showed she had a hands-on awareness of today's youth and tomorrow's citizenry.

Responding to questions about the issues confronting the county, each contender answered in a characteristic way. 

Lenoir espoused a goal of attaining safe neighborhoods and great schools and jobs, and, as the county's tax collector, he evaluated that from the standpoint of dollars and cents.

Roland noted his personal experience from eight years as "a full-time commissioner on part-time pay," and cited chapter and verse of casework on the job.

Touliatos reprised her history as a native Memphian who had worked her way up through various life situations and stressed the importance of making personal connections with citizens in need.

Asked about the best means of "repositioning" the county's economic circumstances, Lenoir emphasized his recruiting background from 20 years in private business and said the county's coffers were in good shape for recruiting major industry to the county.

Roland condemned PILOTs (payment-in-lieu-of-taxes) as inefficient tools leading to possible corruption and boosted TIFs (tax-incremental-financing) projects as win-win alternatives. As one who helped establish EDGE, the city/county body overseeing industrial matters, Roland said EDGE had "now gone over the edge" and needed a more empowered and interventionist board, with greater input from elected officials and "the average Joe."

Touliatos advocated handling PILOTs on a case-by-case basis and cited her experience growing up with her family's restaurant to illustrate the need to help out small businesses as well as big companies.

On working in tandem with local colleges, Lenoir advocated requiring companies receiving tax incentives from PILOTs to hire an intern force so as to upgrade the local workforce. Roland cited a specific case in which University of Memphis experts helped Shelby County regain its proper place in federal earthquake-zone reckoning. And Touliatos said that job opportunities for students should be better advertised.        

On educational spending, Roland saw the county's financial commitment improving but blamed the 2010-11 charter surrender of Memphis entities for short-changing school funds; Touliatos pinpointed student truancy as a problem needing attention; and Lenoir questioned the Shelby County Schools board's failure to use a $30 million annual surplus while possessing a fund balance of $100 million. 

Asked about the problem of gun violence, none of the three contenders advocated any of the remedies now being bruited about in national discourse. Roland came closest by attesting to his membership on the board of a mental health agency but saying, "When you show me a gun that goes off and kills somebody by itself, then I'll support gun laws."

All three advocated more county business for minorities, with Lenoir touting his directing county deposits into Tri-State Bank and Roland noting his role in devising a strong MWBE (minority-and-women-owned-business) program for Shelby County.

The forum ended with Roland boasting of his role this year in simultaneously lowering the county tax rate and raising employee salaries, and Lenoir citing the claim as "smoke and mirrors," contending that a disproportionate rise in property assessments meant that 60 percent of county residents were paying more taxes, to the tune of $40 million.

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