Harris pushes job training, MATA investment in State of the County speech

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris delivers the State of the County address for 2019.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — In his State of the County address Friday, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris promoted an agenda that focused on workforce training, public transit investment and criminal justice reform.

Calling himself and “old-fashioned, free-market conservative Democrat,” Harris said he believed the county should focus its investments on public assets and people, not tax breaks to lure companies to the area.

“I don’t think government should be in the business of picking winners and losers,” he said. “I believe government should stay out of private business as much as possible, and I believe the public is right to want some level of scrutiny over these programs.”

Harris said his administration is prioritizing workforce training, and will announce a plan later this year that will turn part of the county’s re-entry office into a place where ex-offenders can learn job skills.

He called public transit one of the best ways to spur economic development and impact people’s lives, Harris said later this year he will present a plan to get the county invested in public transit for the first time.  The county does not currently provide funding to MATA, which is run by Memphis.

The new funding, if approved by commissioners, will be devoted to high-priority transit projects, like increasing frequency of bus service in the urban core.

“Job seekers should have a realistic chance of taking a bus and getting to work on time and getting back home to dinner with their family, and that means more frequent service,” he said.

Harris also addressed steps to curb sprawl in outlying areas of the county, reforms for juvenile justice such as a youth assessment center that could divert children away from criminal court, and reforms that could allow thousands of county residents to get their drivers licenses reinstated.

The county holds about 2,900 men and women in jail facilities at a cost of about $100 million a year, an amount he said could threaten the county’s budget capacity.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland responded to the speech on Twitter, saying he looked forward to working with Harris on workforce development and job training, and on public transit.

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