Anti-Memphis suburban politicians –the political equivalent of The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight – have done it again.

They regularly manage to yank defeat from the jaws of victory.  Driven by narrow partisan agenda and conversations in the Nashville echo chamber, they lose all perspective of the consequences of their actions and they forfeit the objectivity necessary for them to consider a scenario that isn’t about their own meretricious grandiosity.

Webster: Grandiosity, as in psychiatry — having an exaggerated belief in one’s importance, sometimes reaching delusional proportions, and occurring as a common symptom of mental illnesses, as manic disorder.

Where’s Dr. Phil when we need him?  He could pioneer a new branch of his profession – political psychology and intervention.

Anti, Anti, Anti-

Once again, the anti-Memphis gang has tried to change the rules in the middle of the game – this time about annexation agreements – and once again, the results of their interference invoke the law of unintended consequences.

Intent on responding to the squeaky wheels that have always characterized the Eastern Shelby County community of Fisherville, the Norris-Todd gang tried to upend the 1998 binding, legal agreements between Memphis and every other government in Shelby County that identified the reserve area for each.

At any rate, the gang was shooting at Memphis, but they’ve ended up hitting the people of Eastern Shelby County, because the legislative meddling pushed the fast forward button  for Memphis City Council to begin the process to annex an area that might never have otherwise been taken into City of Memphis.

Because the Nashville gang only talks to each other, they tend to assume that everyone must agree with them and that they are cleverly pulling one over on Memphians.  So, the people of Fisherville can thank Norris-Todd for putting them at risk for annexation.

Decisions to Make

If Norris-Todd had, God forbid, deigned to talk to city officials, they would have known that there have been serious conversations in City Hall about the wisdom of Memphis’ annexation policies and even if city government should de-annex some of its area.

The problem for the city is that as usual, it doesn’t have the data or analysis to clearly weigh its options.  Memphians have been subsidizing the decline of their own city for decades.  There are serious questions to be answered on the wisdom of more annexations and on shrinking the city’s size as some other struggling mid-sized, mid-U.S. cities are doing.   The best way to do this would be methodical and thorough, but faced with a state bill that removes an option from Memphis before it can even evaluate these issues, city government had little choice but to fight back.

That said, City of Memphis needs to consider all of its options, and they extend beyond annexation.  There’s little doubt that city government should not have build the interceptor sewer to Gray’s Creek.  It was another gift to big contributor developers.  When the city showed some reluctance to the sewer, county government swung into action with a resolve that would lead someone to think that the future of the region hung in the balance.

Truth be told, it was the white votes that allegedly hung in the balance, and this was the underlying, unspoken political dynamic for most of county government’s sprawl-inducing plans.  It was thought that these suburban expenditures would keep Republican voters in Shelby County and give Republican politicians their only hopes of remaining viable candidates for countywide elections in the future.

Other Hammers

As for the final balanced growth agreement signed between City of Memphis and Shelby County in return for extension of the sewer, we believe that county government did not live up to the full terms of the agreement, which included, for example, funding for city programs like commercial demolition of eyesore properties.  City of Memphis should review the history of this agreement and the payback requirements for the sewer interceptor.

In addition, Memphis has extraterritorial jurisdiction outside its boundaries, so it has a major say in zoning and development in this area.  In the era of developer dominance in local government, developers were always able to get approval by the city administration and City Council for their strip centers and sprawl-causing developments.  It does not have to be so and there may be threats that the city can make to bring more reasonable minds to bear on the annexation issue.

Whether it ever intends to annex Fisherville, the annexation reserve area agreements should remain in place.  They brought stability to and eliminated conflict about the annexation issues, and as we wrote earlier this week, during the negotiations about the annexation reserve agreements, Memphis gave back 150 square miles of county land that had previously been in its annexation path as a show of good faith with the other cities.  In return, it now gets the legislative back of the hand as the Norris-Todd gang once again snip the threads of trust.

Tangled Logic

Meanwhile, Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner continues to add two plus two and get seven (so much for that county school education).  In his mangled logic, the vote to merge the school systems and treat all Shelby County children equally are part of a giant conspiracy that included a vote on city-county government consolidation two years ago.

It would be laughable except for the fact that he really believes it.  In his world, the consolidation debate emphasized that the schools would not be merged as part of city-county government merger.  Somehow, in his tangled webs of illogic, merging the school districts and the government consolidation vote were part and parcel of the grand Memphis conspiracy.

Except for one inconvenient fact: Government consolidation would have kept the school districts separate.  Only if Shelby County Schools agreed to merge with Memphis City Schools would it have happened.  In other words, in their zeal to build a wall around their towns, the towns gave up their best chance of “protecting” their schools.

It’s all poetic justice at one level, but on a more reasonable plane, it’s just plain sad.  As they enjoy their ever-present victimhood, they seem oblivious to the reason they now find themselves as part of a new, countywide school district.  In last year’s referendum on consolidating city and county governments, they vehemently denounced the pro-consolidation mantra: “Doing Nothing Is Not An Option.”

It Was Your Choice

Well, they chose “doing nothing” and because of it, they now have the unified school district.  In taking a shot at Memphis with the government consolidation vote, they in fact wounded themselves, and their best case to maintain their own walled-off school district. Instead, they stand on the verge of ushering in an era of double taxation for public education and climbing tax rates as the realities of funding the new districts become clear.  (The present tax projections for a school district are a classic case of low-balling the numbers to encourage approval at the polls.)

They did get what they wanted.  They killed off the new city-county charter.  At the same time, however, they breathed life into the movement to instead force the consolidation of the two school districts.

Meanwhile, all of this school and annexation rhetoric has cranked up the normal screeds against Memphis.  As usual, the first victims are the facts.   Unified school board member Vanecia Kimbrow put it best: “We are being driven as a community based on our fears and misinformation…Those fears, at this point in time, are unfounded, and I think as rational adults, we have the sensibilities to wait for the facts and not be pawns on anyone’s political agenda.”

If only.

For too many people in the towns, all the ills of our community come to rest at the feet of Memphis.  All the problems are caused by Memphians.  All conflict is created by Memphis politicians.

Here are some of the myths about Memphis:

Memphis’ tax rate is soaring.

It’s the same that it was in 1993, and that’s despite increased public safety budgets.  The truth is that it’s Shelby County Government’s tax rate that’s climbing, driven over the years by the cost of sprawl outside Memphis.  In fact, Shelby County Government would not have more than $1.5 billion in debt except for the cost of infrastructure and schools in the suburbs.  Because sanctimony knows no bounds, those were the days when Mark Norris, then Shelby County Commissioner, voted against tax increases although it was his district that was causing them.

City of Memphis is too wasteful and corrupt.

City government delivers its services on a per capita basis cheaper than Shelby County, Collierville, Millington, and Germantown governments.  And it’s done it despite increasing its land area and reducing its densities.  More to the point, if the last two years of the Wharton Administration have shown anything, it is that he is intent on rooting out waste wherever he finds it.

Memphis is dangerous and crime-ridden.

Memphis has seen dramatic decreases in crime and even if the memos written in the Memphis Police Department were converted into reports, it still would have done so.  But here’s the truth: all of us know which parts of Memphis are risky and if we don’t go there, our risks as a victim of violence are minimal.  The high crime areas unsurprisingly coincide with maps of Memphis poverty, and if suburbanites want to attack crime, they should roll up their sleeves to remove families from neighborhoods where kids are taught where to hide when gunfire breaks out.

Memphis teachers are no good.

The top schools in Memphis City Schools are a match for the top schools in Shelby County Schools, but here’s the big difference: city school teachers are teaching moving targets. Each year, roughly 15 percent of city students move, disrupting learning and creating toxic stress that has a negative impact on brain development.  The majority of Memphis students are dealing with a web of issues that teachers are addressing every day while county schools prove conclusively that socio-economic status is the greatest impact on student achievement.

Memphis City Schools has gotten a windfall for years.

There is widespread belief that the ADA (Average Daily Attendance) laws in Tennessee have produced a windfall for Memphis City Schools every time a new school was built for Shelby County Schools.  It is true that all school spending must be proportioned in accordance with the number of students in each district, but over the decades, city schools never got any capital funding from county government unless the county district needed construction money.  It was the tail wagging the dog, but it created the conventional wisdom that Memphis City Schools had no needs and was just squandering money flowing from a slot machine; however, the capital needs for city schools (eight schools are more than 100 years old and 30 are more than 80 years old) is $488 million.

Memphians are poor and uneducated.

The number of people living in poverty in Memphis has been about the same since 1980 (which does not diminish the need to address the city’s most malignant problem), but for every person living under the poverty line, there are three who are not.  In terms of educational attainment, Memphis’s numbers are better than the MSA’s.  As for the poverty rate, it’s the level outside Memphis that forces the Memphis MSA into the top five.  Memphis on its own is not in the top 10 for highest poverty rate.

Memphis doesn’t really matter.

Memphis remains the economic and job center for the entire region, and with more than 75% of the people in the suburban towns commuting to jobs outside their borders, the health of Memphis should be uppermost in their minds, because so goes Memphis, so goes their paychecks.

Memphis is the next Detroit.

We have no patience with this oft-made derogatory – not to mention racially-charged – comment.  Memphis’ percentage of people with college degrees is two times Detroit,Memphis has 40% more in the labor force, the poverty rate in Memphis is 30% lower and household income is about 25% higher, the number of vacant housing in Memphis is about half of Detroit’s  (although Memphis is almost three times larger in land area), Detroit’s city budget is three times bigger than Memphis’, and its debt is 20 times bigger than Memphis.

Memphis is a backwater city.

We are home to FedEx, one of the top 10 most respected companies in the world and global commerce was invented by it.  In Sir Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization, he cites 16 cities that shaped the world.  Memphis is on the list, along with Athens, Vienna, Tokyo, Paris, Florence, Berlin, Rome, New York, London, San Francisco, and Stockholm.   It’s easier to say we have backwater suburbs than to say we are a backwater city.  Hall writes: a remarkable event in human history took place: cultural creativity and technological innovation were massively fused…The       special reputation of the place, free and wide open, helped it all to happen…the music of an underclass could literally become the music of the world…This was a revolution in attitudes and behavior, as profound as anything that has happened in the last 200 years.”

It’s time to set aside the myths, but the current climate calls on mainstream Republicans to stand up and say enough is enough.  Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has shown before that he may be the grown-up in his party to do it, the person to say that the current hostility level is unacceptable and the constant drumbeat of anti-Memphis venom is in the end unhealthy for all of us.  We hope he’s up to the task.