Just when you think we have seen the ultimate example of hypocrisy and petulant pandering by the Tennessee Legislature, they can always go deeper.

That’s what Tea Party legislators are doing with a bill to allow annexed areas to deannex in a singularly simple and simplistic way.

But passage of this bill would be reckless and half-baked, and that’s an understatement.

While they are acting on their pervasive anti-urban attitudes – which calls them regularly to divide Tennesseans in pursuit of their own political power – this one is not as clever as they think.  After all, the State of Tennessee benefits in significant ways from the cities it now threatens to capsize.

They may not care if Memphis and Shelby County Governments have to increase their budgets and tax rates.  After all, they have shown their disdain for this community often in the past.  But, in driving up taxes for Memphis, Chattanooga, and Knoxville and the counties where they are located, they take dead aim at the revenues of state government itself.

Memphis May Be Too Big, But This Isn’t The Way To Rightsize It

It also can disrupt economic development in our state.  After all, businesses want nothing more than predictability and consistency, and in threatening the strength of three major Tennessee cities – not to mention Kingsport and Johnson City – these legislators in turn threaten the strength of the state economy itself.

We’ve been writing for eight years about the potential of reducing Memphis’ footprint, and there have been discussions from City Hall to board rooms all over the city that Memphis has too much land and too few people living on it.

But that does not mean that this legislation makes any sense.  The possibility of blowing a hole in these major cities’ budgets and taking a nuclear action is not bad leadership.  It’s no leadership at all, because in truth, these legislators have no idea what the impact of their action opening up deannexations will have on these cities and on our state.

That’s the biggest problem in this discussion.  No one has the kind of in-depth analysis that is needed to determine the impact on these Tennessee cities and on the state, and if nothing else, time should be taken to get the answers that are needed for smart decisions.

Mature leadership in the Tennessee Legislature would encourage, call, and help convene meetings about the impact of deannexation and put together the data and actual facts that most of us would put together if we were evaluating our personal budgets, much less those for some of the largest cities in Tennessee.

Carefully Consider The Options…And The Rhetoric

There is also the law of unintended consequences, and city government officials have raised the specter of forced consolidation or surrender of the Memphis charter.  Those are dire options and may not be legal remedies that can be acted on.  As Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said, it’s not as simple as City Council passing a resolution.

That said, the politics on this issue have been roiled by county government’s abandonment in recent years of its 50-year position of neutrality on annexation issues.  This was a precipitous change in position and it has fueled the Legislature’s instinct “to stick it to Memphis.”­­­­

Responses to the potential legislation should be measured and careful.  For example, the chief financial officer for City of Memphis talking about how no one would want to live in a “dying city” if deannexation takes place is not only unhelpful, but it’s the kind of comment that can stick.  More than anything, it could brand Memphis for people considering a move or business investment here.  So, while the defense against this bill should be assertive and all available options for action should be considered, the messaging should be carefully crafted.

And, it’s worth remembering as this discussion moves ahead that if Memphis surrenders its charter, it ceases to exist.  It would no longer be a place on a map.  And Germantown and Bartlett could move to annex part of the former city and would likely find a responsive audience for it.  As for consolidation, forced or otherwise, there’s little reason to expect that to happen.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has commented in a modulated way about all of this, and he’s done a good job of reflecting the urgency of the issue while communicating a reasonableness in considering options for the future.

The Good Old Days

We’d like to think there is some sort of legal action that might be taken by cities included in the bill in light of the fact that the Legislature is essentially picking winners and losers in Tennessee – if not deciding who’s a winner or loser.  After all, the major cities in Tennessee – except for Nashville whose 1962 consolidation is its trump card – are having targets painted on their backs by the Legislature while the vast majority of Tennessee’s other cities are given a pass.  More than anything, it sounds like Memphis and the other cities do not have equal protection under the law.

In addition, the General Assembly is guilty – although probably not actionable – of tortious interference since it’s trying to blow up a contractual agreement that Memphis, Shelby County, and every municipality here entered into as a result of the Chapter 1101 bill passed by the legislature in 1998, mandating the establishment of growth boundaries in Tennessee counties.

The agreement setting out the annexation boundaries 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.

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 for our community, 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.

That process had the kind of good faith that is now absent in the Legislature.  Legislators have already disrupted that agreement by changing the rules for annexation.  The change now being considered in Nashville is even more radical and extreme.

Next Up: Incorporations?

Put in a sentence, if people who move out of Memphis want urban level services but want to deannex, they should pay for them.  We won’t again get into the mistakes made by county government that set the blurring of responsibilities and that propelled sprawl, but here’s the thing: Shelby County Government does not fund parks, community centers, or libraries, and we’re suspicious that if Cordova and Southwind/Windyke are deannexed, its residents will then want to be annexed by Germantown so the larger population base pays for these services and they can be part of that city’s school district.

The deannexation bill calls for a referendum to be held if only 10 percent of the registered voters in an area sign a petition to be deannexed. While the bill was initially aimed at Southwind/Windyke and Cordova, the way the law is written now, it applies to 10 neighborhoods, including Hickory Hill, where annexation went into effect after May 1, 1998.

Sadly, it was not too many years ago that the Tennessee Legislature was actually a force for smart growth planning and fairness.   It was in the wake of the controversial “tiny towns” legislation that threatened to ring cities like Memphis with small suburban enclaves that would choke off the city’s growth path.

We are also concerned that the Legislature will not stop with deannexation, and if it passes, they will next turn their attention to making it easier for cities to be incorporated.  That said, with the avenue of annexation closed off, it may be the only way that the residents in these areas are forced to pay their fair share for the public services they want.  It’s an abhorrent thought, and like deannexation, we just hope that we never get to the point where we need to consider it.

Failing The Test 

Back to the “tiny towns” controversy, the Legislature created Chapter 1101, requiring every county (except Nashville-Davidson County because it was consolidated) to engage all of its governments, utilities, educational systems, and private citizens in a countywide planning process to establish growth boundaries – urban growth, planned growth, and rural areas.  In addition, the Legislature ordered each county to establish the Joint Economic and Community Development Board, a permanent board charged with fostering communication and cooperation on economic and community development issues.

The idea was that every county would develop and adopt a 20-year growth plan: 1) urban growth boundaries contained the corporate limits of a city and the adjoining territory where growth was expected (so it was a target for annexation); 2) planned growth areas which were compact areas outside cities and couldn’t be annexed without clearing special hurdles; and 3) rural areas, which are areas set aside for agriculture, recreation, forest, wildlife, and other low density uses.

In Shelby County, it never worked like it was supposed to, because cities were only focused on carving up the county into “annexation reserve areas” for each of the cities and to avoid future legal battles over land.  Contrary to smart planning at the time, essentially the entire county ended up as an urban growth area and Shelby County sidestepped the opportunity to develop the kind of deep financial analysis to challenge the conventional thinking of the day and consider better options.  Instead, the operating principle was that annexation is good for cities and therefore, it should be pursued aggressively.

With the agreement in place, everyone went back to business as usual.  The Joint Economic and Community Development Board was created, but its responsibilities were perfunctory and the process largely became a “check the box” exercise.

Riverboat Gamblers

We say all this to make a modest suggestion for the Tennessee Legislature: why not require the convening of the Joint Economic and Community Development Board with the sole purpose of assessing, analyzing, and predicting the future of annexation, the potential of deannexation, its impact on Memphis’ fiscal health, and scenarios if deannexation takes place.

The Joint Economic and Community Development Board’s purpose was better planning, more communication, and thoughtful paths to the future.  Perhaps, finally, this board could fulfill its potential.

Rather than reacting to the visceral – and often, over-the-top – rhetoric by some of the anti-Memphis, anti-annexation crusaders, state legislators could contribute to cooling down the emotions and encouraging the kind of serious, mature discussion that could lead to a more reasoned approach to these volatile and important issues.

At this point, legislators are gambling.  And they have put some big bets on the table – the future of these cities but also the entire state.  It’s time for the grown-ups to step forward to avoid an explosive event that could reverberate much more broadly and deeply than anyone in the state capitol can imagine.


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