Shelby County Government has been a prisoner of the past.

Or more specifically, it is 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.

There is change afoot, however.  With the election of Mark Luttrell as county mayor, he has emphasized that county government can’t afford urban services and must get back to the traditional role of counties.  That’s why he was pleased to transfer the convention center to City of Memphis and why he’s insisting on policies that treat all municipalities as equally as possible, something not done in the past.

The problems of county government itself date 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 was not to be.

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.

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.  Until then, the county squires from outside Memphis outnumbered those from inside Memphis although most of the population was inside the city limits.

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 bases 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 area and in the towns. In this way, county taxpayers – 75 percent of whom at the time lived inside Memphis – were subsidizing the town governments who did not then fund schools, libraries, or ambulances, nor sometimes even police and fire protection.

Here’s the problem. It’s a fundamental principle of smart governance 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, rather than property taxes, 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 has long threatened the county’s financial health.

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.  If they live in an unincorporated area, they have made the decision to locate where a rural level of services are provided.

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.

For example, a few years ago, when there was a controversy about ambulance response times, lost in the discussion was the fact that Shelby County Government isn’t responsible for urban response times in an unincorporated area and the rest of Shelby County should not be asked to subsidize the choices made by people to move there instead of inside of the existing municipalities.

In truth, over the past 35 years, 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 entire community should be for the tax rate of Memphis to be commensurate with the rates of 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 there have been strong steps 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.

There is nothing that could yield an impact as important as rationalizing the responsibilities of local government and equalizing the tax burden.  Some of that will happen if the towns move ahead with their school districts, because in time, the playing field will become more level as taxes rise to a level similar to Memphis.