We have repeated one of our favorite quotations often: every system is perfectly designed to produce the results that it does.
So, what exactly were the decisions made here that produced the results that have come to define us? Our “system” is characterized by sprawl, declining densities, higher poverty, neighborhood blight, low-wage jobs, and underfunded public services. These did not just happen. They were chosen.
The following begins our list of the 10 decisions that produced modern Memphis and Shelby County:
Shelby County Encourages Middle Income Families to Leave Memphis
Back when Shelby County Government was restructured in 1974 and the mayor form of government was created, it had a choice: to be Memphis-focused and pursue policies that supported the growth of the city that produced most of its tax revenues or to be suburban-focused and advance policies that supported the small municipalities and grew their political base. Unfortunately, it chose the suburbs, a decision that continues to have ramifications today and defines the prevailing philosophy of the county administration.
It all began in the mid-1970s when the newly structured county government developed preferential programs for the municipalities that were expanded over the ensuring decades. For example, county government agreed to split the costs of major roads 50-50 with the municipalities but refused to consider a similar policy within Memphis. It was a time when county government paid the total cost of schools inside the towns while Memphis contributed tens of millions of dollars to schools within its borders.
Meanwhile, Shelby County Government’s demonstrated additional largesse when it came to paying for things like libraries and ambulances for the towns while refusing to contribute to the same services within Memphis. As a result, county taxpayers – most of whom lived in Memphis – were essentially subsidizing the towns’ lower tax property tax rates.
But there’s little question that all of these pale in comparison to Shelby County’s decision to subsidize influential developers with infrastructure that set in motion the first sprawl in the county and then doubled down with more and more new roads and schools – to the point that county government’s debt skyrocketed to almost $2 billion.
Put simply, Memphis taxpayers were forced through their county taxes to subsidize the decline of their own neighborhoods – and their city’s tax base – as Memphis hollowed out its middle class.
But it is worth remembering that Memphis City Council could have thrown down a gauntlet by refusing to approve zoning requests within its extraterritorial authority. Under the policy at the time (it has since been unilaterally abolished by the Republicans on the Tennessee Legislature with support of the county administration), Memphis City Council had the right to approve any developments within three or five miles of the Memphis city limits. But in those days, the city’s legislative body was no different than county government: it was controlled by developers. As a result, City Council rubber stamped approvals of big projects, and today, there is no better example of what this city-county developer-controlled process produced than Germantown Parkway.
Long forgotten by most is the fact that the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development issued a smart plan for Germantown Parkway, but the legislative bodies started approving changes to it before the ink was dry. In fact, they decided that the report was advisory only and immediately and routinely approved strip malls and massive apartment complexes that doomed any attempt to make Germantown Parkway into nodes of mixed-use activity.
And yet, even today, in county government discussions, you’ll hear officials refer to the “growth” in Shelby County, which in their context, means the area outside of Memphis is gaining people. Of course, the truth is that it’s not growth at all. It’s actually the result of greatest relocation of population in the history of the region and all made possible because of policy mistakes made by county government.
As a result, it is no surprise that today, we are ranked as one of the regions with the most sprawl.
No Commitment to Planning
Planning has always been a low priority for local government, and even when the planning office took a more professional role in producing reports to guide important planning opportunities, it was common for the legislative bodies to hear the presentation, thank the presenters, and put the reports on the shelf.
Unfortunately, the lack of a commitment to planning by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners and Memphis City Council was duplicated in the executive offices of city and county government in the pivotal years when planning could have made a significant difference in the direction of this community.
However, with campaign contributions flowing freely in local races, developers exerted an influence that neighborhoods could only imagine over decisions about policies, funding, and programs. For at least 20 years, developer interests have dominated key boards like the Land Use Control Board and the Board of Adjustment, and even today, when push comes to shove, developers continue to get inordinate consideration in land use decisions.
That influence can be seen in the erosion of the Unified Development Code, the form-based code that offered so much promise to create walkable neighborhoods, compact development, better connectivity, and overall smarter planning, and also in the inappropriate use of the Board of Adjustment to sidestep the normal zoning process and public engagement.
Decimated by budget cuts over the years and now with the number of planners you can count on two hands (much, much fewer than in comparable cities), city planning became largely an afterthought – if thought of at all by city and county elected officials. In the past 18 months, the good news is that Memphis 3.0 has been funded to chart a successful future for the city as defined by opportunity, density, sustainability, and connectivity. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland deserves credit for advocating for the first comprehensive plan in more than 40 years and the planning staff headed by director John Zeanah and 3.0 administrator Ashley Cash have shown a professional commitment to producing a helpful path toward the future.
It raises the question of whether Memphis should set up its own planning operations and remove the considerations of Shelby County Government from the decision-making. More to the point, Memphis 3.0 will be a test because it could prove that it is a new day and that planners’ recommendations do matter when it comes to making smart decisions for our community.
Ignoring the Need for Equity
The intent behind the creation of joint departments and divisions was noble, but ultimately, they created issues of equity that city and county governments ignored for decades until Memphis City Council took action a few years ago to level the playing field.
While the notion of city and county governments working closely together on areas of shared importance sounds like good governance, it in turn resulted in Memphians paying a disproportionate share of all joint city-county operations. The functional consolidation was often a stand-in for the lack of full city-county consolidation, but with Memphians paying 100% of the city’s half of the costs for joint services and about 70% of the county’s share, it meant that in this 50-50 management arrangement, Memphis taxpayers ended up paying 85% of the total budgets.
Fortunately, for Memphis taxpayers, Memphis City Council took the matter into its own hands. It voted to end funding for the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department since it was county government that had legal responsibility for health services in this community. A few years before that, the Council eliminated city funding for schools.
It was a sound policy change that was almost 40 years in the making. Until City Council got serious about it, Memphians were paying twice for services that were countywide in nature and rightfully should have been funded solely by county government. The confusion was aggravated because our community never had a clear definition of what was a municipal (city government) service and what was a regional service (county government).
In the aftermath of the “tiny towns” controversy in the late 1990s, city and county staff members met to begin discussions about rationalizing public services. On the table was the idea of shifting libraries, health department, and convention centers and arenas to the larger tax base of Shelby County. Unfortunately, the negotiations broke down before they ever really had a chance to get started.
At the heart of the problem was the lack of coherency in county tax policies. Shelby County’s rationale for service delivery was schizophrenic and confusing to the people who pay its costs. For example, county government delivered some services countywide, such as public health and criminal justice. For some municipalities, it provides fire protection and law enforcement. In others, it provided ambulance service. Outside of Memphis, for decades and decades, Shelby County Government paid the total cost of education and the towns paid nothing, and Shelby County entered into partnerships with small cities to help fund road projects, but denied the same option for Memphis.
And yet, the inequity of the joint funding arrangement continues to rear its head, After all, every time EDGE waived taxes, city taxpayers once again are responsible for producing the lion’s share of the taxes being forgiven since they are paying both city and county taxes.
As we have blogged before, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell could have politicized the decisions of Memphis to end some joint city-county departments, but instead, in order to avoid conflict and division in the community, he developed a way for county government to accept complete responsibility – and funding – for them.
Next Post: More Decisions That Produce the System We Have Today
In the wake of last week’s election, we are republishing and updating this series of posts from November, 2014.
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“Every system is perfectly designed to produce the results that it does.”
Translation: any current state of affairs may be retroactively attributed to previous intentionality.
This line of thought ignores the role of unintentional, unforeseeable, and external causes. For instance, another reason we have so much sprawl is that Trent Lott when he was Mississippi senator and Senate Majority Leader funded the enormous i269 loop around the city. That pulled growth into Northern Mississippi and Collierville. Is Trent Lott part of “the system”? On a loose reading, he is but in many ways he’s outside the Memphis-Shelby county government. You can equivocate between the two readings, but if you shift from seeing him as part of the system and then focus entirely on county level mistakes, you imply that county level mistakes are entirely to blame for current ills. Incorrect. Not to mention incomplete in failing to account for the fluke of having a MS senator reach the apex of power precisely when i269 development was under consideration.
Nonetheless, I still appreciate this line of analysis in trying to understand local development history. But I wish you would be more clear and careful in understanding causality. Yes, it’s easier to score political points by blaming past decisions with perfect hindsight. But I doubt that helps us improve our current processes or institutions. For instance, you are correct that the absence of planning has been a huge problem, but it’s confusing to conflate conflicts of interest at the county level with bad decisions made by a wide range of actors. You’re not going to get all those actors to make collective decisions in a vacuum. You’ve got to solve the conflicts first. And I’m not so sure that generations of political and business leaders “chose” to not plan, so much as no one was able to overcome conflicts of interest and racism. And there was an absence of a compelling unified vision for the city. And poorly educated citizens across the county didn’t really understand the importance of urban planning.
I challenge you to consider big external risks and opportunities that exist outside the local system and how we can respond to them proactively. Thirty years from now if we get clobbered by global warming, we can sit around talking about how chose not to have foresight locally. That won’t be totally wrong, but we’d do better now to start building political will around climate change preparation and lobbying the state and Feds to get their act together.
If you insist on filtering all historical analysis through the choices of “deciders,” i.e. the George W. Bush theory of governance, I challenge you to account systemically for how it is that we have so many substandard choices.
We will stick with our hypothesis. Using your I69 analogy, which we have written about several times, we were not powerless to influence the decision through aggressive lobbying in D.C., in filing suit, in convincing TN state government not to fund, and more. Instead, we DECIDED to give up and acquiesce to external politics.
Thanks for comment.
Anonanon: The great thing about hindsight is that it is 20:20. We now know we should not continue to listen to the same people…..
For decades, we acted like everything was beyond our control. We were too poor, we were too black, we had two local governments, etc., etc., etc., We used it as a crutch to keep from making the tough decisions. It came home to roost.
Does anyone know to what extent developers were influencing the Memphis administration in its runaway annexation policies of the 1970s-2000s? The motive was clearly there: each time the city gobbled up a new section of unincorporated Shelby County, another several thousand families were all set to flee to the next new subdivision a few miles away and shop at a new set of retail centers. Then another annexation and the cycle repeated itself.
Perhaps it was just survival for Memphis, chasing the tax base. But I have always wondered role developer $$$ played in decades of suburban development that clearly outpaced population growth and Memphis with an oversized footprint.
Memphis is such a sad place to call home these days. So many deep problems and so little optimism about anything. The city, county and region are just barely surviving.
Sorry you feel that way. We’ve never been more optimistic.
Tom, I hope this series about the big decisions that have created tiday’s issues in Memphis will include a discussion of the Memphid International Airport. Former MEM Airport CEO Larry Cox made many very bad bets and decisions that have led to the extremely poor psssenger airline service we have today.
I’d agree about the Memphis airport. It’s really hard to do business here with practically every flight requiring a connection.
Anonymous and FredB: I have suggested an EDGE Board restructuring that will include a seat for each of the categories on the Amazon Road Map of the UofM for economic development which includes a seat for the Airport. Anyway we did a non-scientific survey on the Amazon Road Map categories. Here are the results – https://1drv.ms/b/s!AiNXRWm6KZQi8RHE97qT8z6ZB7EN
Chris: Regarding annexation, which will be mentioned in this series, here’s a post we wrote for The Commercial Appeal’s series of City of Memphis finances: http://www.smartcitymemphis.com/2015/04/too-few-people-living-on-too-much-land/