Teamwork with blue marker

For the second time in little more than a year, Shelby County Government is taking action with the Tennessee Legislature to undermine a long-held policy that recognized the importance of protecting the economic heart of the region – Memphis.

Previously, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell abandoned county government’s 39-year policy of neutrality when it came to annexation issues when he supported legislation that required voter approval for annexation to take place.  There was no attempt made by supporters to mask the fact that it was a change in the law spawned from an anti-Memphis view of the world (since City Council discussions had moved in the direction of no new annexations).

This time, Mayor Luttrell announced at last month’s meeting with the Shelby County Legislative Delegation that he would request the removal of a requirement that land use issues within five miles of Memphis had to be approved by both the city and county.

One of the more curious features of local politics is seen in Republican county commissioners who actually represent Memphis but show more concern for party purity and for the municipalities than the future of their own constituents.  Meanwhile, the county administration seems to regularly forget that about 70 percent of its citizens (and taxpayers) are within the borders of Memphis.

Keeping One Tool

One of our expert commenters on land use subjects, Finegold Hasava, said it well in posting a comment on our four part series about the “The 10 Things that Made Us Who We Are Today”:

“As noted by SCM, Memphis has the power to control zoning up to five miles from its corporate boundaries outside of the other municipalities, which includes most of Shelby County. Also as noted, the Memphis City Council has never had a clear policy on an efficient land use pattern, and as a result, it zoned land to please the developers, not the citizens…

“With the recession, budget problems, and discussions about smart growth, the Memphis City Council has the opportunity to begin using it zoning power (it also regulates subdivisions up to 3 miles from Memphis) to halt sprawl, but will it?

“A disturbing CA article indicates that Mayor Luttrell has a separate legislative agenda from (Memphis Mayor) A C Wharton to eliminate Memphis’ powers to zone and regulate subdivisions outside of its corporate boundaries. (CA 12/2/14, “Wharton Luttrell renew requests of general assembly…….”)

“Thus the one power Memphis has to control its destiny could be eliminated. This looks like the developers fear a Memphis City Council that will look harder at sprawl than before recession due to fiscal problems caused in part by sprawl.”

Needed: Partner for Memphis

Predictably, county officials justified the change by saying that the new annexation law makes the exterritorial jurisdiction by City of Memphis irrelevant.  It’s an explanation built on the premise that City of Memphis can never make an argument for annexation that would be supported by voters, but even if that were true, it is a weak argument for removing a tool from Memphis’s toolkit that could be important as it fights the negative effects of poor county (and its own) decision-making in the past that fueled sprawl, the hollowing out of Memphis, decreased densities, and erosion of the property tax base.

Saying it is irrelevant is the farthest thing from the truth.  Now, more than ever, Memphis should be supported with policies and programs that strengthen its ability to compete for development, to increase its density, and to create revenues through growth rather than higher taxes.

That Shelby County Government does not see that it is in its own self-interest to help protect the health of Memphis says volumes about its lack of understanding about how its future is inextricably tied to the city where it gets most of its property tax money and whose success in the coming years will determine full well whether Shelby County Government succeeds or fails as well.

What Memphis needs from its county government is the sense that it is a full partner in strengthening the city so it can attract new residents, lift people out of poverty, and create new jobs.  Rather, there seems to be a pervasive view these days in Shelby County Government that it is in competition with city government and that City of Memphis is not seen as a partner but as a new revenue stream.

Paying Twice, A Memphis Tradition

As for city government, it should do everything within its power to oppose this change in extraterritorial rights.  While the change to this specific policy is important, what is even more serious is to send the message that Shelby County Government should not be changing the rules in the middle of the game.

You’d think that if nothing else, at this point, county government would at least suffer from a guilty conscience.  What was glaring to us in our list of 10 issues/decisions/forces was how poor decisions by Shelby County were key drivers creating the problems that grip us today.

In fact, of the 10 decisions in our four-part series, six of them were driven by county government, and as we have said often, because of them, Memphians were forced to pay (through their county property taxes) for policies and infrastructure that devastated their own neighborhoods.

In retrospect, it is startling how obvious it should have been that Memphians had already paid for their infrastructure and that the wisest investment of county tax dollars was to maximize this investment rather than to construct grossly overbuilt highways that are already too big for the traffic volume on them.

The Least of These

More than anything, county policies and investments contributed to the creation of a community of haves and have-nots, and the cruelest irony of all is that the have-nots continue to pay the costs of sprawl for the haves.

As for Memphis, it has the same number of water lines, sewers, and streets to be repaired and policed in the same neighborhoods that now confront growing, nagging problems.  Meanwhile, the continuing impact of treating half of the county’s land area and 70% of its people as problems will ultimately undermine the financial stability of Shelby County Government itself.

Put simply, considering Shelby County’s lack of commitment to serious, effective planning, allowing Memphis to retain its extraterritorial jurisdiction is the least it can do.