It doesn’t take a CSI unit to determine that the fingerprints on sprawl’s smoking gun belong to Shelby County Government.

However, that doesn’t mean that City of Memphis didn’t put bullets in the gun, and two of them were policy decisions that allowed widespread development outside its city limits.

But, here’s the thing: Memphis made both of these major policy decisions – about sewer extensions and extraterritorial jurisdiction – on the basis of preparing areas that would become part of the city.  Memphis made the decisions in good faith, and precisely because of assurances in state law that its largesse was in the best interest of the city’s future.

That’s another reason the Tennessee Legislature paving the way for easy deannexation in some of Tennessee’s largest cities – Memphis #1; Knoxville #3; Chattanooga #4; Johnson City #9, and Kingsport #12 – is more than just changing the rules in the middle of the game.  More accurately, it is changing the score after the game is over.

In short, that is why the Legislature’s action on deannexation is nothing less than a betrayal.  It upends the statutory reliance on which Memphis made decisions about its future, and it’s why the pending bill runs counter to the fair play that should be at the center of all state law.

State Overreach

We’re long past the point of expecting legislators to be honest brokers, diplomats, or committed to fair play, but even for them, the deannexation bill engages in a level of interference and recklessness that is unprecedented in its potential impact.  They remain oblivious that the injection of their political agenda into local affairs is taking place at the same time they carp constantly about the overreach of the federal government.  In comparison, state government’s overreach is about as subtle as the Russians in Ukraine.

While legislation mandating guns in parks and overriding a living wage for Memphis workers, and brutal, bullying bills about marriage equality, women’s reproductive rights, and voter suppression were bad enough, the Legislature now risks capsizing five major Tennessee cities without any real financial analyses or an independent report about the consequences of its deannexation bill.

There used to be such a group in State of Tennessee government, the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations (TACIR), whose purpose was to serve as a “permanent intergovernmental body to study and take action on questions of organizational patterns, powers, functions, and relationships among federal, state and local governments.”

It once was a respected source of unbiased, nonpartisan analysis with impact on legislative decision-making, but it has become a fiefdom of Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, who has served as its chairman for many years, and today, it often is used to deliver information that he and his caucus need to give legislation a cloak of legitimacy.

Regrettably, TACIR, once considered state government’s think tank, these days does more tanking than thinking.

Senator Zelig

TACIR relies on its board of directors to act as liaisons between governments, and four county executives and four mayors serve as members.  They tend to represent smaller municipalities and counties and none come from places affected by the deannexation law.  Perhaps, if TACIR was fulfilling its purpose, it could have convened meetings so Memphis officials could have asked for an explanation about why this bill is so selective with the cities targeted in the legislation.  After all, it conveniently omits Bartlett #10 or Collierville #13, two cities which make as much sense as Johnson City and Kingsport.

Their omissions can be chalked up to the manipulations of our suburban legislators but especially to Senator Norris, who has a Zelig-like presence in this whole issue.  After all, as a Shelby County Commissioner representing the suburbs in 1994-2000, he lobbied for Memphis to aggressively extend its sewer lines in his district.

In 1996, Shelby County Government and City of Memphis entered into the misleadingly-named “Balanced Growth Agreement” that called for Memphis to run sewers to open up the Gray’s Creek basin for development in return for county government’s promise to invest $2 million for development in Memphis.   ­It was a cheap price to pay for opening up the areas to enrich politically influential developers, especially considering that county government in all likelihood did not fulfill its part of the agreement to city government.

As part of that agreement, City of Memphis appointed a committee – which unsurprisingly was primarily comprised of developer-friendly members – to develop recommendations for the future of the Gray’s Creek area.  The committee’s creation is a clear indication that Memphis was motivated by a desire to prepare the area for annexation.

The Mistake: Trusting the State

The “Balanced Growth Agreement” was the culmination of a dramatic shift in sewer policy that began in earnest in the late 1980s.  There was a time, before 1970, when Memphis’ sewer policies were similar to Germantown today: sewers were extended subdivision by subdivision.  In other words, Memphis had a giant carrot – sewers – and as a result, developers asked city government to annex their developments.

But as developers got cozier – and more generous with their campaign contributions – they got more and more power within city and county governments, and one major priority of theirs was for Memphis to extend sewers more broadly and quickly.  It was a priority backed energetically by Shelby County Government, which would ultimately teeter on the brink of bankruptcy as a result of the unsustainable sprawl it had financed (and whose bills had been largely paid by citizens of Memphis).

But to say it again, City of Memphis officials agreed to the more aggressive sewer extensions as a way to spark growth in areas that it would ultimately annex.

That was the same motivation in the exercise of its extraterritorial jurisdiction powers – until the same Tennessee General Assembly – with the support of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell – stripped that power from Memphis a few years ago.  It is obvious that the game plan was: Step one, require voters in annexed areas to approve their annexation, step two, strip Memphis’ extraterritorial powers, and now we’re at step three, deannexation.

Voting For The Future

For decades, Memphis had the authority to approve or disapprove developments five miles from the city’s borders.  In other words, Memphis City Council had the power to approve projects outside its city limits, and although Council votes were predictably driven by developer interests in those days, Council members often said that they were voting to approve these projects because Memphis would eventually be annexing these projects which would produce significant new property tax revenues for City of Memphis.  (Unfortunately, that led them to approve strip zoning and massive apartment complexes along Germantown Parkway, but again, there were influential developers with checkbooks behind each of project.)

Here’s our point: if Memphis had known that it would not be able to annex these areas, it never would have approved the sewer extensions or the projects in its extraterritorial areas.  If it had not, it would have significantly prevented development and driven up its price outside Memphis, and there would be a lot fewer of these suburban legislators.

There were a few voices in the wilderness at the time warning about the negative impacts of sprawl, but unfortunately, they were ignored. The consequences of sprawl in triggering the greatest relocation of Memphis population in the modern history of Shelby County are well-documented, so we won’t dwell on them again here, except to say that some of the loudest anti-Memphis voices in Cordova flippantly say they don’t need anything from Memphis – street lights, a library, a community center, parks, etc. – but the fact remains that their neighborhood exists because Memphis made it possible.

A Personal Referendum

It’s hard to imagine that these people bought their houses without asking if they were to be annexed by Memphis.  That was a positive by-product of the annexation reserve agreements in the wake of the “tiny towns” controversy that we featured in our last blog post.

For the first time, as a result of that agreement 25 years ago, homeowners no longer had to wonder if they were in the annexation path of a city.  It was clearly stated and widely known.  In other words, homeowners had the option to take their own individual referendum on where they wanted to live in relation to what annexation reserve area they were located in.  There was no mystery in the fact that they someday might be part of a city in Shelby County.

That’s why changing the law is much more about politics than 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, which are the drivers of the state’s economy and the primary source of its revenues.

It’s easy now to see what Memphis’ biggest mistake has been: trusting state government.

It was a mistake based on the assumption that state government would keep its word as reflected in the annexation laws and relying on those laws, city government encouraged growth outside the Memphis city limits.  City officials also mistakingly assumed that if changes to the law were made, the Legislature would at the least treat cities fairly by making changes prospective rather than retrospective.

It seems a long time ago that we had the kind of legislators in Nashville that exercised this kind of fair play.  These days, we are left to wonder how much damage these legislators can do to this state before this era of state overreach in the affairs of local communities is over.  We can only hope they come to their senses before they attack the fiscal integrity of five major Tennessee cities, and in doing so, attack the integrity of the State of Tennessee itself.


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