top 10








In our last post, we began our list of 10 things that made us who we are today.

In that post, we listed three factors (these 10 are in no particular order):

* Shelby County Encourages Middle Income Families to Leave Memphis

* No Commitment to Planning

* Ignoring the Need for Equity

Today, we turn our attention to two more of our Top 10 list: “Lock ‘Em Up Law Enforcement” and “County Government delivers urban services.”

Lock ‘em Up Law Enforcement

Sometimes, we wonder if it’s possible for Memphis Police Department to ever have enough money.

Regardless of what kind of law enforcement issue surfaces, the answer is always the same: MPD needs more money.  When you’re a hammer, all problems are a nail, but what’s most interesting about its requests for more and more money – this week it was accompanied by the old reliable threat of fewer officers and a decline in public safety – is that the requests for more money are often devoid of details about why just under a quarter of a billion dollars a year does not provide enough boots on the street to give police commanders the flexibility to do everything they want to do.

What really makes the constant budget requests puzzling is found in the city’s own five-year fiscal strategic plan, which said: “Crime reduction requires a balance between investments in prevention and policing to achieve crime reduction based on research and cost-benefit analysis.  If the City chooses to continue its reliance on policing as its primary means of achieving crime reduction, it must find a way to pay for it – the current method is fiscally unsustainable…the City cannot afford the current level of police FTEs.”

Unsustainable or not, it’s the place where city government puts most of its money.

Half a Billion Dollars a Year

But the cost to city government is only half the story.  The lock ‘em up answer to crime problems ripples throughout the county budget as well – and drives up the overall tax rates for city and county.  Even more, they drain money that could improve quality of life and attack blight and code violations in our neighborhoods.

Shelby County Government spends roughly as much as City of Memphis does.  There, it’s for enforcement, jail and prison, courts, prosecutors, public defenders, and diversion and pretrial – with a price tag of about $232 million a year.

Total cost for both governments for law enforcement and criminal justice is $478.1 million.   In keeping with the local tradition of Memphians paying a disproportionate share of the costs for public services, taxpayers within the city pay about 80% of the total.

Any suggestions of reducing police budgets to provide more funding for starving city services predictably results in the public safety card being played, and it’s politically hard for legislators to raise questions without being accused of being soft on crime, thwarting any clear-eyed examination of what a balanced crime-fighting plan really looks like.

Business As Usual

This fact is indisputable: there is no clear correlation between the size of a city’s police force and its crime rate.   If we’ve proven anything in Memphis, it is this.  Despite a much larger police force and a significantly larger crime-fighting budget, Memphis’ violent crime rates remain stubbornly high, and because most cities’ crime rates are dropping, Memphis is running in place at the top of the major cities’ crime rate rankings.

Some cities actually reduced the size of its police department and its crime rate dropped as much as twice as much as Memphis, largely because they were also concentrating on prevention and intervention, not just suppression.

It’s why our community has to get more inventive and bold in the development of comprehensive strategies of crime prevention on both the city and county sides of the street.  Vital to our success in fighting crime are more community crime prevention strategies that target changes in community infrastructure, culture, technology, and physical environment to reduce crime.

Much of that prevention and intervention could take place in parks, community centers, outreach programs, youth programs, libraries, and broadened, more effective re-entry programs, but then again, there’s no money for any of this because prevention and intervention are regularly sacrificed on the altar of suppression.

County Government Chooses Urban Services

It often seems that Shelby County Government has made many of the poor decisions that produced the problems that define our community today.  The crux of many of them is linked to a decision made early after it was restructured: to deliver an urban level of services to unincorporated Shelby County.

While the intent of the restructure was to modernize county government (until then, the lines of administrative responsibility blurred between a three-person commission and the county legislative body, then called the Quarterly Court), 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-oriented 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.

Rather than providing traditional county services, county government decided to dish out urban services that eroded the difference that should be implicit between municipal and county governments in the first place.

Urban Services for Rural Areas

The poster child for the decision that was made is the volunteer fire department that at the time answered all fire calls in unincorporated Shelby County.   The newly minted mayor of county government chose to eliminate the volunteer department and instead create a “professional, fulltime fire department.”  It was the first step down a road on which Shelby County time and time again chose to deliver what were more in line with urban services that rural or suburban services.

Soon, county government was providing ambulance service, building new schools, new roads, and new fire stations, and fighting to convince Memphis to extend sewer lines to open up greenfields for new development.  Unfortunately, there was never the serious policy decision about what a municipal service and a county service should be.  Instead, Shelby County Government set out in an assertive strategy to make its political base happy with urban services not previously provided in unincorporated Shelby County.

Looking back, it’s strange that there was no serious debate when greenfields were targeted for the largely derivative development that became the standard for the sprawling suburbs in unincorporated Shelby County. 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.

Blurring the Lines

Even events hailed as progressive steps forward were in truth driven by development interests, such as the extension of Gray’s Creek sewer lines in 1994, but Memphis’s faulty reasoning was that it was willing to enter into these kinds of agreements because of the assumption that they would be annexed in the future.

To quote Gene Pearson in a Smart City Memphis 2010 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 in profits for developers.”

These urban services not only drove up the county property tax rate, but they also thoroughly blurred the lines that traditionally had to be crossed in a Memphis annexation.  The philosophy of governance is that people who move to rural or suburban areas receive a lower level of services, and if they want a higher level of service, they become part of an urban area. Here, resistance to annexation became even more volatile since people in the annexation area were already receiving urban services.

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 the difference that should be implicit between municipal and county governments in the first place.

Next Post: “The 10 Decisions That Made Us Who We Are” Continues.