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Vision Quest – Mayoral candidates discuss annexation, schools and more

By Bill Short

The two candidates for mayor in the Nov. 6 runoff election discussed annexation, municipal schools and economic development last week during a debate at the Harvell Civic Center.

The debate, sponsored by The Millington Star and moderated by Star Editor Thomas Sellers Jr., was conducted for Terry Jones and Kenneth Uselton.

Jones said the Kerrville and Lucy communities have a “unique opportunity” to vote on Nov. 6 whether they want to be annexed into the city. Although many of those residents think it will cost them more money because Millington will raise their taxes, Jones said their fire fees will be eliminated. And they will continue to have the protection from the Millington Fire Department that they currently receive.

“I personally would rather be part of a community like Millington than wait to be annexed by the city of Memphis and become part of it,” he noted. “I think we have much more to offer than the city of Memphis, and Millington would be able to move forward.”

While acknowledging that annexation is “definitely” in Millington’s future, Uselton said the city needs to develop a “vision” for where it wants to go and also consider the costs involved in providing services.

“If the costs of all those services are going to be borne by a significant portion of those who would be moving into our city, then it makes it feasible to annex,” he said. “But if those costs are not, that puts an undue tax on the current taxpayer of our city. And I do not believe that to be fair.”

Sellers asked the candidates what the process should be when the city is evaluating whether a particular area should be annexed.

Uselton said that, if the city has a vision, some of the reasons for annexation will have already been developed as part of a plan for intentional growth. Jones said the city has to work with the developers who are planning to come to the community and have them pay to extend services such as water and sewer.

Noting that many residents of Kerrville and Lucy are concerned about police services and garbage pickup, Sellers asked who will be in charge of that if those areas are annexed.

If Millington annexes an area, Uselton said, it is responsible for providing police, fire and other services.

“The only way that you can’t do it immediately is if there is a need for sewer or water lines in an area where that has not been,” he acknowledged. “But we as a city must offer and propose that, by a certain date, those would be in place.”

Noting that some Millington police officers may be concerned that they will be “stretched out” if Kerrville and Lucy are annexed, Sellers asked whether more officers will be employed by the department.

“If you add more square miles,” Jones said, “you’re probably going to have to add more police. But that’s where the tax comes in to help pay for that. I don’t think the fire department will be affected at all, because we already have a co-service agreement with the Shelby County Fire Department.”

Uselton said whether Millington has its own school system is probably one of the more important questions that the city will face within the next few years. But he acknowledged that the possibility of that school system is dependent upon how Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays rules in the lawsuit that has been filed. If Mays’ ruling goes against the municipalities, Uselton said, Millington will be a part of the unified school system.

But he believes the city would “do well” to prepare itself in case the lawsuit is decided in favor of the municipalities. He said that includes voting for the candidates for a Millington School Board who are on the Nov. 6 ballot.

“I would hate for us to not go ahead and do that,” he said, “because then we would be well behind, in terms of preparation for our own schools.”

But Uselton acknowledged that, even if a municipal school district is approved and a school board is elected, the mayor is limited in what he can and cannot do. He said the school board, along with the superintendent it hires, holds the power regarding municipal schools. It hires the administrators, teachers, cafeteria workers and custodians.

It also prepares the budget for the schools, which is funded by various sources, including the U.S. government, the state of Tennessee and the city of Millington. Uselton said the school board would submit its budget to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen to determine the amount of city funds it could provide.

Noting that the educational system is in “historic overhaul” throughout Shelby County, Jones said Millington residents need to understand that the city will have to provide funding, whether it has its own school system or is part of the unified system.

He said it was good news when the Shelby County Chancery Court ruled that Millington’s half-cent local sales tax increase was approved.

“That sales tax takes part of the burden off the residents, home owners and property owners in our community,” he said. “Anybody who comes in and stays in a hotel, eats at a restaurant or shops at our Wal-Mart is helping to pay for our educational system.”

But Jones said he does not think Millington will know for quite a while whether it will even be allowed to have its own school system. He thinks that question will probably be tied up in court for years.

Sellers asked the candidates how each of them as mayor would make sure there is enough money to pay for a municipal school system each year.

Jones said that is related to the economic growth of Millington. Noting that the city has all the infrastructure in place to attract businesses, he said that will get construction going again to bring people into the community. And the growth of industry and residents brings in the tax base necessary to provide funding for the schools.

Uselton said the best way the city could help is to be supportive of the members elected to the Millington School Board.

If the judge does not rule in favor of the municipalities, he said, the city should make sure it builds “bridges” between itself and Shelby County.

“If we become part of a unified system,” he said, “one of the things I would encourage and hope for would be that we could talk with the builders of that system and create what I will call ‘sub-districts’ within the larger district. So, communities such as ours could possibly become a district within the larger district.”

But “whichever way it goes,” Uselton said, Millington will have to be “much stronger” in its economic development.

“If we want the best education for our children,” he said, “it’s imperative that we recognize it’s going to require some funding of us.”

Noting that Millington thrives off small business and a family-type atmosphere, Sellers asked the candidates how they would try to build a more secure future for the small business owner and use assets like USA Stadium and the Memphis International Raceway to help this area.

Calling USA Stadium one of the city’s “big assets,” Jones said it helps fill up the hotels whenever events are scheduled there. To help Millington’s existing businesses, he would encourage the city’s residents to “patronize” them.

“My family tries to patronize here first before we go anywhere else,” he said. “I bought my last five vehicles here in Millington without going outside the city limits. We try to dine here first before we go anywhere else.”

Uselton said he believes “marketing” is very important, whether it involves an existing business or attempting to persuade a new business or industry to locate here. But he said Millington must recognize that marketing today is not like it was done in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

“People do not buy newspapers today like they used to,” he noted. “Today, we’ve got to learn how to use electronic media.”

Although Millington has some “unbelievable assets,” Uselton said it must do a better job of selling them. He recommended that it “partner” with the Hotel/Motel Association, which includes the city’s restaurants.

“Now, marketing is going to cost us something,” he acknowledged. “But if it brings new growth to our existing businesses, to new businesses or industry, then I think we will see that it will be well worth it.”

Sellers asked the candidates what they will try to bring to Millington over the next four years that will attract people from around the county.

Uselton said Millington should make USA Stadium and the Memphis International Raceway “destination points.” When tournaments are scheduled at the stadium, he said, they are not just marketed locally but also regionally.

“If we help businessmen in our community, I believe we create those destination points,” he said. “And then, we make sure they learn about the other items or potentials that are available within our community.”

Noting that the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce has a $10 million advertising budget, Jones said it has worked with Millington before and would probably do so again.

“Working with the site consultants, we could have them come in for lunch and show them what we have to offer,” he said. “So, when they have people looking for their site, they remember that Millington’s there.”

Sellers asked the candidates how they would like to see Veterans Parkway used to benefit the city.

Jones said Charles Gulotta, executive director of the Millington Industrial Development Board, is “working very hard” to bring industries here. And the city is currently on the “short list” of a couple of businesses.

“I’d like to see some aviation-related stuff out there in order to use our airport,” he noted. “We’ve got the railway, and we did have a spur out there. I’m sure the railroad would be glad to put a spur back in if we had industry that needed that.”

Uselton recalled that, when he first moved to Millington, the first section of Veterans Parkway was being constructed from Navy Road toward the airport.

At the time, he said, Gov. Don Sundquist made a commitment to Mayor George R. Harvell Jr. that the state would pay to construct the parkway if the city secured an industry. And every industry approached said it would consider locating in Millington when the road is built.

Uselton noted that, at 11 a.m. on Nov. 13, there will be a ribbon-cutting for Veterans Parkway.

“I think that becomes the linchpin,” he concluded. “And once it’s pulled, I think there is the potential for industries to use the accessibility of our runway, the interstate, rail and a significant water port not that far from us.”

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