Memphis is #5 with a bullet.

Unfortunately, it’s the list of the top 10 cities with the highest poverty rates. As alarming as that statistic is, it could be much worse if it wasn’t for Tennessee’s liberal annexation laws.

That’s because the 2007 poverty rate for Memphians is 26.2%, edged out by El Paso (27.4%), Buffalo (28.7%), Cleveland (29.5%), and perennial #1 Detroit at 33.8%.

But here’s the thing. Most of these cities are landlocked and cannot annex, and if Memphis contended with the same reality, it would likely be battling Detroit for the top spot. Even Newark, with problems that defy solutions, was three down from Memphis on the list with a poverty rate of 23.9%.

Curse Or Blessing?

It’s a troubling dilemma for our city, primarily because it shows no sign of improving, climbing from the 2000 rate of 20.6%. We wrote Sept. 3 about the deepening crisis reflected in the latest Census statistics, so we won’t belabor the point again.

That said, there are times when Tennessee’s annexation laws seem as much a curse as a blessing. Memphis’ annexations in the past 20 years have effectively masked the dimensions of the interlocking problems of poverty, perpetuating the myth that Memphis’ population and trends were largely moving in a positive direction.

On balance, there’s no question that Tennessee’s progressive attitude toward annexation is good public policy, largely because there is a direct connection between these kinds of annexation laws and the financial solvency of cities.

In other words, the pitfall is that often the prospects of annexation inspire a false sense of security in Memphis.

Job 1: Urban Core

That’s because city officials are able to prop up Memphis’ population and its tax revenues by taking in more and more territory. Without this ability to annex, Memphis’ population would likely be about half of what it is today, and the serious problems in the city’s midst could not be obscured by new taxes and new citizens (however reluctant they may be).

It seems a good time for Memphis to call a moratorium on its quest for new land and prove first that it has programs and strategies to address the cancerous problems of the urban core – the hollowing out of the middle class, the bipolar economic divisions, and the deterioration of too many neighborhoods.

When City Council weighs its decision on annexation by measuring whether it is a tax windfall or a tax drain, it’s a shallow evaluation, because the ultimate issue isn’t if city government can provide urban services to the annexation area. More to the point, it is whether city government can provide solutions to the critical problems gripping the urban core.

What is inescapable in annexation debates is the abject failure of the process set in motion by Chapter 1101, the state law calling for urban growth boundaries to be set in every Tennessee county. The purpose of that law was to encourage and require counties and the cities within them to sit down and cooperatively develop a blueprint for future land use.

Sham Urban Growth Boundaries

Here, that overriding intent was ignored, because state law also said Shelby County, Memphis, and the smaller municipalities could satisfy the law by ratifying their existing annexation agreements. As a result, there was never a serious discussion about growth management, protection of green space, and the community’s response to sprawl. Instead, the process was all about negotiating annexation agreements in keeping with previous contracts.

As a result of this process, all but 48.74 square miles (small pieces of land in the corners of Northeast and Northwest Shelby County) were identified as urban growth areas, meaning that Memphis, at 317 square miles at the time of Chapter 1101, would eventually swell to 489 square mile, about the same land area as Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, some rapidly urbanizing areas like Orlando and Seattle managed to inject some growth management strategies into their processes. In Seattle, local elected officials showed genuine leadership in adopting a different growth model for the region in the midst of rapid growth, a model that called for containing urban sprawl through the use of regional boundaries and a regional open space system; organizing urban development into compact communities; protecting rural areas by promoting the use of rural lands for farming, forestry, recreation, and other uses; providing a greater variety of housing choices in all parts of the region; and creating a regional transportation strategy that frequents on high-speed bus and rail transit.

In taking this action, Seattle altered the future of its region in a shorter period of time than any other metro in the U.S.

It’s All About Leadership

Meanwhile, here, annexation has been pursued with little regard for a long-term vision for the county, and as a result, Memphis runs the risk of strangling its future to death with the lure of new land and new taxpayers. That’s because without the counter-balance of growth management strategies, it’s hard to see a future that’s not more of the same – deteriorating neighborhoods, vast swaths of abandoned neighborhoods between downtown and East Memphis, fewer people paying more taxes and public services stretched thinner and thinner.

Of course, the same people whose policies have caused some of the problems can also change things for the better. At any time, Memphis City Council – blessed with new leadership unwilling to continue policies that fueled the sprawl that eroded the health of its own city -can set the standard for local leadership by stepping back, gaining some perspective, and convening a process to consider a different future for Memphis and Shelby County.

It’s hard to imagine any time in the modern history of Memphis where this brand of assertive leadership was more needed. The future is riding on it.