By Clint Confehr
BROWNSVILLE, TN — Bill Rawls is “very proud” to be the first African American mayor here where nearly 61 percent of the residents are black.
And now, Rawls is the first mayor elected without opposition in this West Tennessee town of 10,000 people with a median household income of $27,274, or 56 percent of the state figure; $48,547.
The upside of those statistics is the 4,100-acre Memphis Regional Megasite awaiting industrial development, backed by a $106 million state infrastructure investment. It’s about 15 miles southwest of City Hall.
“We’re a little town with a big future,” Rawls says. “The southern part of Haywood County is an opportunity zone … Tax credits can be awarded and capital gains taxes can be waived when money is invested there …
“The Megasite is still being discussed as a shovel-ready site,” he said. Recently, an Asian auto manufacturer decided on Northern Alabama instead of the Megasite. It would’ve brought “4,000 jobs and a couple billion dollar investment,” said Rawls, who’s believes in the Megasite’s future.
Meanwhile, he’s having the time of his life as the city’s CEO and chairman of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen in a strong mayor format.
Sen. Bob Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam told him “the best job they ever had was being a mayor.” Mayors have more power — relative to the size of the government they lead — than any other level, including president.
“You can actually get something done. I can be confronted with a problem and bring forth a resolution within 24-hours without having to convene a meeting or pass a resolution — from trash on the street, safety for police, to better cooperation” between governments.
Of course, Brownsville is small.
“We operate a budget of about $12 million …” Rawls said. “We probably spend about $10 million a year and have a fund balance of over $4 million … I brought in grants of $13 million in four years … and I want to thank the Rural Task Force and Gov. Haslam.”
Rawls was first elected in June 2014. Re-election this year was a cakewalk — nobody ran against him — compared to when he was elected over Jo Matherne, Brownsville’s first woman mayor.
“When I came into office, there were two key employees. The week after I came in, they slipped their resignations under my door. We couldn’t even write a check.” Then, four employees walked out and by remote-access locked up all the computers. Anonymous complaints to Tennessee’s comptroller were welcomed by Rawls to “clear the air and move forward.”
Rawls is a full-time mayor with a police walkie-talkie. He goes to crime scenes to know what residents are going through. He’s one of them.
Born March 24, 1966 in the Jackson, Tenn., hospital, Rawls has lived all his life here, except when he was in the Army and earning his college degree at Morehouse. His mother taught school and died when he was six years old. His brother was four; sister was 6 months old. Their father “worked all the time” and provided “all needed and most of what we wanted … I always worked in the family businesses, Rawls Funeral Home and Golden Circle Life Insurance Co.” He’s the third generation to manage the mortuary. His grandfather owned a movie theater and the Haywood County Supermarket.
“That African American supermarket is where people went when their lines of credit were cut off because they registered to vote … [Grandfather] owned the drug store and employed the first black female pharmacist in Tennessee in 1955.
Serving all of Brownsville, Rawls’ second administration, starting in July, will address affordable housing, a disaster plan and continue three initiatives:
• SOS, Save Our Streets, a community policing program, a citizens police academy, the return of DARE, and faith-based community partners;
• A Healthy Moves Initiative to improve residents lives; and,
• Workforce development with office training and a career ready certificate for graduates.