Today, Shelby County Government is increasingly a prisoner of the past.

Or more specifically, it is are captive to poor decisions about public policies made as long ago as 30 years, policies that set county government off in directions that produced so many of the problems that handicap it today.

The expensive new plans for ambulances for the area outside Memphis (except for Bartlett) are just the latest example of the tug of war between political pressure and sound policy that dates back to the swearing in of the first county mayor in 1976.

The restructuring of Shelby County Government – approved by voters in 1974 – eliminated a three-headed administrative branch whose authority and responsibilities often blurred with the Chairman of the old Shelby County Quarterly Court, the legislative body of that time. The shift to a mayor was intended to streamline the administrative function by creating a chief executive officer and by setting up a more coherent organizational structure.

Hope Against Hope

The hope was that by giving the county’s chief executive officer the title of mayor and by having a divisional organization that mirrored Memphis city government, the voters would see the wisdom of consolidating the two large bureaucracies. It never happened.

While residents of our community were enduring jokes about having “two mayors,” the decision was no joke, because it moved county government out of the shadows and into a much more prominent role. In fact, impressed by the increased stature of the county mayor, ultimately, the heads of the executive branch in every one of Tennessee’s 95 counties were renamed mayor.

While the intent of the restructure was to modernize county government, one characteristic of the old rural-dominated government remained – an illogical attention and emphasis on the needs of the area outside of Memphis.

In the new, improved county government, this dominant rural perspective came from a time when most of Shelby County Government’s legislators – then called squires – came from the much more sparsely populated small towns and rural areas of Shelby County. In fact, it wasn’t until the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the county to elect its legislative body on the basis of “one man, one vote” did county government realign its election process, and in the process, the nation received a landmark legal decision that affected every public body in the U.S.

Rural Orientation

But even with the newly-constituted government, county government’s rural orientation morphed into an outward focus that resulted in special policies for the suburbs and small towns. This cultural tendency was fed by 25 years of county mayors whose political base lay outside of Memphis.

This played out in those early days of the new county government in policies like the one that stated that county government would fund 75 percent of the price of major roads within a municipality’s borders – that is, every municipality except Memphis.

But the problem ran deeper than road construction. More problematically, the new county government decided to deliver urban services to people living in the unincorporated areas and the smaller municipalities. In this way, county taxpayers – 75 percent of whom at the time living inside Memphis – were subsidizing the town governments who did not then fund schools, libraries, or ambulances, nor sometimes even police and fire protection as in the cases of Arlington and Lakeland.

Here’s the problem. It’s a fundamental principle of governmental philosophy that all of the services of the county, or regional, government should be available throughout the entire county. And yet, the new government created services that benefited only non-Memphians. (Years later, the state Supreme Court ruled that a special fee had to fund all of its costs of the fire department because it was not accessible by all citizens.)

A Preoccupation

For about 15 years, county government paid 100 percent of the costs of libraries – at least those located outside of Memphis. It also paid the total costs of ambulances in the same area.

It was in this preoccupation with the suburbs that the first seeds were sown for the sprawl that threatens the county’s financial health now.

Put in a sentence, if people who move out of Memphis want urban level services, they should pay for them – by being part of a city and paying the taxes that make them possible.

It’s a basic premise of government theory that got lost in the earliest days of Shelby County Government. Rather than providing a basic level of services, county government dished out urban services that eroded that the difference that should be implicit between municipal and county governments in the first place.

Fuel For Sprawl

As a result, there was no deep philosophical debate when the greenfields were targeted for the largely derivative development that became the standard in the sprawling suburbs there. Starting with Hickory Hill, county government was willing to subsidize a quality of housing that would require substantial reinvestment before the first mortgage was even paid off. In Hickory Hill, Shelby County built some of the first obscenely wide roads that would become its hallmark, fueling rapid development that created even more demands for fire, roads, bridges and schools.

All of this foreshadows the current controversy about ambulance response times. Theoretically, current county policy requires the incorporated cities to now pay for the actual costs of ambulance services there, but it has nonetheless been a sweetheart deal in which taxpayers from the rest of the county have paid for the decisions of those outside Memphis to move to suburban green pastures.

Because of it, smaller municipalities have never had a tax rate that reflected the true costs of their public services as they benefited from the welfare from county government. As we’ve written previously, the priority for our community should be for the tax rate of Memphis to be commensurate with the rates in Germantown and Collierville.

It makes no sense that Memphians have been required to subsidize the programs and services that were essentially investments in their own city’s decline.

Rationalizing Taxes

Memphis and Shelby County Governments cannot change the past, but they should at least begin to talk about ways to rationalize the tax rates in a way that recognizes the unfair burden paid in the past by Memphis taxpayers.

We know it’s unlikely to change in the near term, because it would require an unprecedented level of cooperation between governments and an attitude that would be revolutionary in its execution of a new alignment of government responsibilities.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to see media-propelled controversies about lags in response times by ambulances and the need for new schools without any understanding that what we really need to be headlining is the need for the fundamental restructuring of local government.

There is nothing that could yield an impact as important as rationalizing the responsibilities of local government and equalizing the tax burden. All it takes is leadership.