Shelby County mayor, University of Memphis president publicly spar over funds for pool project

Public battle brewing over county funding for U of M pool

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A public battle is brewing between Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and University of Memphis President David Rudd. The controversy erupted over the weekend when Harris said he would veto $1 million of county funding for a new university aquatic center because the university doesn’t pay all its employees a wage of $15 an hour.

Shelby County Commissioners were informed of the mayor’s intent to issue a veto Sunday night.

“You’re talking to two A personalities who are leaders of two huge organizations,” said Van Turner, Shelby County Commission chairman.

Turner said Monday his body was prepared to hold a vote later this month to override Harris’ expected veto.

Harris’ first veto in office is tied to the pay of roughly 330 campus workers at the University of Memphis who make less than $15 an hour.

Commissioners allocated $1 million last year to the university and another $1 million this year as part of a $10 million campaign to overhaul the aquatic center with the YMCA and other groups. The effort would turn it into the Mike Rose Natatorium, large enough to host regional and national swim meets.

The overhaul also includes a focus on water safety education in diverse populations.

Harris wrote in his letter to the commission that they should ask the University of Memphis to come up with a plan to address the wage issue before forwarding the funds.

“I realize my stance here may create some consternation, which is not my intent,” Harris wrote. “I take this stance after deliberation, and I am trying as best I can to follow my conscience.”

WMC Action News 5 political analyst Michael Nelson said it’s an unexpected political controversy.

“You’ve got to think this is something Mayor Harris believes as a matter of principle,” Nelson said. “Because there’s no other reasonable explanation.”

On Monday morning, Rudd posted a lengthy statement on Twitter, telling Harris there is a plan to raise wages on the campus to $15 an hour over the next several years.

“I report to the Board of Trustees, not the county mayor,” Rudd wrote.

He then explained he believes Harris’ request raises ethical questions and would violate an accreditation standard, which protects universities from undue influence from political, religious or other external bodies.

“Given the request to directly influence university policy in exchange for the funding, I will have to decline the support,” Rudd stated.

Despite the comments from both sides, Turner said he believes all parties can work toward agreement.

“It seems like we are talking past each other and not with each other,” Turner stated. “The statements have been made. We see where the issue is. I think there is a resolution for the issue, so what I would hope now is that everyone kind of cools off.”

WMC Action News 5 put in requests to interview both Rudd and Harris Monday on camera and were told they were not available.

Harris was previously a law professor at the university, and his wife is still employed there as a law professor.

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