reality check

The Tennessee House of Representatives unsurprisingly has passed another law that characterizes its anti-urban tendencies.

This time, it’s a change in annexation law that would require approval at the polls by people in the area targeted for annexation.  With passage by the Tennessee Senate – which seems all but assured – the Legislature will have engaged in tortious interference with the existing contracts about annexation reserve areas that were negotiated and signed by Shelby County Government, City of Memphis, and every municipality to provide citizens of the county with certainty about future annexations.

If approved, the legislature will eliminate annexation laws that have served Tennessee well for 60 years.  In the prelude to the Tennessee Legislature taking up this issue, it was disappointing that Shelby County Mayor Mark approved of the change, and in the process, he abandoned the county administration’s 30-year policy of neutrality on annexation issues.  As explained by a previous mayor, county government did not get involved in annexation issues because regardless of what happens, the citizens remain county residents, and as a result, county government “has no dog in that hunt.”

His position and the Legislature’s intention ignore the fact that the annexation reserve areas have been public knowledge for 15 years and that county government itself approved them on behalf of the citizens in unincorporated Shelby County.  Because of it, everyone in the unincorporated areas of Shelby County buying a house has known since 1998 which city ultimately had rights to annexation there.

The Unmistakable Message

Make no mistake about it, the latest action by the Tennessee House once again sends the clear message that it’s open season on all things urban – from schools, living wage laws, and now annexation.   It also indicates how tone deaf legislators, particularly suburban conservative ones, are when it comes to Memphis.  The legislative action comes at a time when there is no appetite here for increased annexation – unless the legislature’s attitudes spur city government into action before the law takes effect.

Memphis still has annexation rights to about 135 square miles, as set out in the annexation agreements signed by every government in Shelby County in the wake of the “tiny towns” controversy which followed the passage by the Tennessee Legislature of Chapter 1101 mandating the establishment of growth boundaries in Tennessee counties.  It was a time when State of Tennessee was doing what it could to encourage smart growth, which is now considered part of a United Nations plot to undermine America according to Tea Partiers.

There’s no mistaking that much of the impetus for this law is the anti-Memphis animus that drives so much of suburban Republican politics.  The prevailing opinion by the suburban politicians is that none of the annexations undertaken by municipalities will be opposed at the ballot box because these people will want to be part of the town school districts rather than being in the Shelby County Schools district.

As for the annexation reserve agreement, it resulted from a time when Shelby County Government was valued for its role as mediator and facilitator, and when the agreement was completed, it set out the annexation boundaries and it was signed by the Shelby County Mayor, the mayors of every city in Shelby County, and representatives from the largest utility, the largest school district, the largest Chamber of Commerce, the soil conservation district, two people appointed by the county mayor, and two people appointed by the mayor of the largest city.

Poor County Policies

There were of course difficult negotiations, but in the end, all governments in Shelby County came together to enter into an agreement that set the future boundaries for each city, ending conflicts and lawsuits between governments.  As part of the process and to show its good faith, City of Memphis relinquished 150 square miles of land that were in its annexation areas and those areas were taken by the smaller cities.  We doubt Memphis negotiators would have given up any land if there had been a requirement for a referendum.  That’s why in essence, the Legislature’s action is tantamount to tortious interference, also known as intentional interference with contractual relations.

What’s especially ironic about this issue is that it was policy decisions by Shelby County Government that created the problems in the first place.

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 should be provided.

It’s a basic premise of governance that was ignored in the earliest days of Shelby County Government, when after it was restructured, it was trying too hard to be relevant and a competitor to city government.  Rather than providing a basic level of services, or a rural service level, county government dished out urban services willy nilly that eroded the difference that should be implicit between municipal and county governments in the first place.

Up A Creek

As a result, there was no serious debate when greenfields were targeted for the largely derivative development that became the standard in the sprawling suburbs of unincorporated Shelby County. Starting with Hickory Hill, county government was willing to subsidize developers who build houses that would require substantial reinvestment by their owners before the mortgage was even paid off.  Also, 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.

Even events hailed as progressive steps forward were in truth driven by well-connected developers, such as the extension of Gray’s Creek sewer lines in 1994.  To quote Gene Pearson in a 2010 Smart City Memphis post: “In 1994, Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission ratified an agreement driven by county government called the ‘Balanced Growth Plan.’  On the one hand, Shelby County agreed to provide money to Memphis to help in revitalization, a paltry $2 million (with Memphians of course paying the majority of it in county taxes). In return, Memphis agreed to extend sewer lines into the Gray’s Creek basin located in east central Shelby County between Arlington and Collierville and extending from western Fayette County to Cordova, and create millions of dollars for developers.”

There have been questions for years about whether county government lived up to the terms of the agreement (including money for the demolition in Memphis of abandoned commercial bulidings), but there is no doubt that well-connected developers got what they wanted.  Or put another way, Memphians have been subsidizing the decline of their own neighborhoods for decades.

There are serious questions to be answered on the wisdom of more annexations and on shrinking the city’s size.   But the narrative popular in the ‘burbs is that Memphis is a taker and the problem, rather than the historical facts on issues like Gray’s Creek.  In retrospect, there’s little doubt that city government should not have built the interceptor sewer in the first place.

Family Problems

Truth be told, it was the white votes that allegedly hung in the balance that was the underlying political dynamic for most of county government’s sprawl-inducing plans (that led it to the brink of bankruptcy with almost $2 billion in debt).  It was thought that these expenditures in sprawl would keep Republican voters in Shelby County and give Republican politicians their only hopes of remaining viable candidates for countywide elections in the future.

At the same time, county government was subsidizing public services within the municipalities.  In truth, over most of the history of county government, smaller municipalities have never had a tax rate that reflected the true costs of their public services because they benefited from the welfare from county government.

Tennessee annexation law has been lauded for years as smart government policy that kept the state’s cities from looking like St. Louis, Atlanta, and Louisville where dozens of tiny town governments choke the city at the region’s core.

We were the first to write about the potential of shrinking the size of Memphis and changing the process to evaluate potential annexations by more than an arithmetic equation based on the amount of new taxes to be raised and costs of services in the area.  Rather, the process should include the implications of adding new land to Memphis neighborhoods.  Changing the law is the kind of unilateral action that unbalances intergovernmental relations that should be based on discussion and negotiation.

That’s why changing the law is much more about raw politics than well-reasoned policy and about sticking a finger in the eye of Memphis rather than sticking to a law that has worked for the overall benefit of Tennessee cities for six decades.