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Tennessee county commissioner defends move to defund youth office, promotes crisis pregnancy center (updated)

The American Independent recently reported on a federal pregnancy-assistance grant program that has been threatened in Tennessee after the Shelby County Commission voted last week to defund the county office charged to administer the grant.

Despite a recent announcement from Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell that he would urge the commission not to defund the Office of Early Childhood and Youth (OECY), Commissioner Wyatt Bunker, who authored the defunding measure (approved in an 8-3 vote), told TAI that he has secured a veto-proof majority for an upcoming county budget vote.

“The question in my mind was not whether we have a need for this type of program but whether the government is the appropriate body to administer this type of program,” Bunker said.

He said that the government is often unfairly used as a “superhero,” and that civic organizations and churches -– not the government -– should be involved in administering the types of initiatives currently handled by the OECY, which doesn’t provide direct services but leverages state and federal funding for projects (PDF) aimed at helping Memphis’ infants and young mothers.

Bunker said that the programs administered by the OECY “are pretty good things” but it is not the government’s responsibility to ensure the welfare of youth and teens.

Before he was elected to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in 2006, Bunker served on the Shelby County School Board and has been designated as a lifetime member of the Shelby County Council PTA.

“[America] is the most giving nation in the world,” he said, explaining that programs funded by state and federal dollars “robs churches and civic organizations of their mission.”

He suggested that if the OECY were to be eliminated, Tennessee taxpayers would begin to donate their own money to churches and civic organizations to head up similar projects. When asked what this logic is based on, Bunker said there have been several surveys showing evidence that charitable giving is a result of defunding government operated social service organizations. He couldn’t name a specific survey but told TAI to Google “giving” and “the United States.”

“I’m not saying there’s not a value [to these programs],” Bunker said, “but it’s not the government’s responsibility.”

With regard to the federal Pregnancy Assistance Fund grant program -– from which Shelby County was granted $1.4 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services last fall to try to reduce the infant mortality rate in Memphis and to improve the future of pregnant and parenting teens by enrolling them in programs and collecting comprehensive data on pregnant teens and the fathers of their babies –- Bunker said he already sees a non-government-supported solution. He said that he has a meeting this week with Life Choices, a faith-based crisis pregnancy center and adoption agency, to discuss a new project in which, Bunker said, would address the same issues addressed by the county childhood and youth office.

“Taking tax dollars forces [taxpayers’] hands and robs them of the joy of giving,” Bunker said.

But Life Choices actually does receive taxpayer money, through the Tennessee ‘Choose Life’ License Plate program.

As to OECY’s SHELBY Child Impact Assessment program, which produces policy documents outlining how children would be impacted by any given proposed policy initiative, Bunker said those impact statements are “worthless,” saying that the child impact of any policy is obvious. He said he doubts any of the commissioners even read the impact statements sent to their desks.

“If you reduce the amount of school funding … if you eliminate English class, that’s a bad thing,” Bunker said, giving an example as to why child impact statements are unnecessary. “It’s not rocket science.”

Bunker said he does not expect Mayor Luttrell to defeat the commission’s efforts to defund the OECY. Another budgetary measure due to come up for another vote is one that retained funding for the commission’s $25,000 catering budget, which Bunker opposed.

“I think we ought to pay for our own lunch,” he said.

Update: June 14, 12:45 p.m.

Shelby County Commissioner Heidi Shafer said she voted to defund the OECY because she believes the office has been more bureaucratic than effective, but she said she is willing to try to reach a compromise with the county mayor — by reducing the office’s funding rather than eliminating it entirely.

Shafer is a former teacher with a degree in early childhood education, who currently works for Memphis and radiologist broadcaster Dr. George S. Flinn, Jr. (who made a failed bid for congressional office last year). She said Shelby County needs programs that make immediate impact on youth rather than an office that pushes paper.

“We have third-world-style infant mortality here in Shelby County,” Shafer said. “It’s a real pressing concern.”

She said in the past she has talked to staff at the OECY about working with Dr. Sheldon Korones, who founded the nation’s oldest neonatal intensive care units in 1968 in Memphis, to implement a program that targets women who have had premature births, but was told that the office’s funding structure did not allow them to implement the program.

“This program is direct as opposed to a public PR campaign,” Shafer said. “[The OECY] doesn’t do what I’m trying to do, which is save babies.”

Shafer said she intends to propose such a program within the next year, but if the funding is not there, she will turn to nonprofit organizations. Shafer noted that she also voted to strip the OECY of its funding to help close the county’s wide budget gap.

Another commissioner who voted to defund the early childhood and youth office is Commissioner Terry Roland, who, rather than comment on his vote, told TAI: “What’s going on in Memphis ain’t none of y’all’s business.”

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners will vote on the budget again on June 20.

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