Poor Decisions and Vendettas Led to Charter Surrender

This is my first piece of real opinion that I have written on this blog. Most things I have written about I have experienced personally. But in this instance there is a fair amount of context and eye witness experience that I have been able to understand during my stint on the board.

Tennessee has a long and storied history that has been both peaceful and belligerent as it pertains to incorporation and municipal growth. Throughout the 1700, 1800, and into the mid-1900’s, the only way to incorporate new municipal governments was through private act, ratified by the general assembly. However, after World War II, there was a move to restrict this ability by requiring incorporation via general state law saying a general law shall provide the exclusive methods by the which municipalities may be created, merged, consolidated and dissolved and by which municipal boundaries may be altered. In 1996, a controversy erupted when the tiny town of Hickory Withe pushed for incorporation in order to stay out of Oakland’s urban growth zone in Fayette County. The Lieutenant Governor at the time was Harry Wilder who was from nearby Braden TN. At the behest of his constituents, Wilder created Public Chapter 666(ironic) referred to as Tiny Towns Act that was so narrowly written that it only applied to two towns and Hickory Withe was one of them. The City of Oakland Sued. The next year, the TN Supreme Court struck down the law as unconstitutional. In 1998, a reform effort led by Jimmy Naifeh and Wilder let to Public Chapter 1101 that required long-term strategic growth planning and specific requirements for annexation.

Why did I give you all of this background? At the same time there was the same clamoring in Shelby County as the city of Memphis continued to grow and swallow up areas in annex areas. Since the democrats held the general assembly for so long, there was strong influence from the Shelby County delegation and annexation proceeded unfettered. However, the rapid growth of Memphis and desire to harvest ripe property tax revenues led to the rapid devaluation of property in a large part of the unincorporated areas. Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill were victims. This led to subpar revenues but required services did not go down creating budget deficits in th city of Memphis.

Many of us moved from these areas into other municipalities and unincorporated Shelby County to make sure that we were not part of another ill-advised annexation by the city of Memphis. In 1990, the city of Memphis began talk of surrendering its charter because the financial struggles from overextending itself and its population rendered it difficult to pay its school bill. This created a huge wave in the county and plans were drawn for the remaining Shelby County areas to secede into a new county known as Neshoba County. Obviously, this was a very popular measure in suburban Shelby county. However, it met stiff resistance to the city of Memphis for fear of losing county revenue sources from the property value rich suburbs. As a result of this, city mayor Willie Herenton annexed a small sliver of Shelby County south of Highway 64 to the Fayette County line that cut the contiguous Shelby County population in half a thwarted the creation of a new county. New counties may be established by the general assembly that consist of not less than two hundred seventy-five square miles (275 sq. mi.), and that shall contain a population of not less than seven hundred (700) qualified voters.

As the property tax revenue fell and city school expenses have risen due to the higher cost educating poor and underprivileged children, Memphis continued to annex into Cordova but the cost of services and falling property values and the higher cost of educating children in the city of Memphis has taken its toll. Now, with practically no financially viable annex reserves left to boost falling government coffers, and the city of Memphis footing a maintenance of effort figure to the tune of 68 million a year, the last proverbial stand of Memphis leadership was to cut a deal to relieve itself from its school obligation and the poor performance of the MCS coupled with the desire of suburban Shelby County to create a Special School District to protect itself from the City of Memphis created the perfect excuse.

Understanding that Memphis and its continual land grab over the years had created a strategic population advantage, there was no doubt that Memphis would have majority representation on this board and no longer have to foot 68 million leaving that to the Shelby County tax payers. 

And that brings us back to where we are today.  We are the benefactors of decades of ill-advised annexation land grabs by the City of Memphis which is now so large and inefficient that it has created a cash deficit that probably cannot be cured. And that brings all parties in Shelby County to this dilemma. Do you create a situation in that creates a de facto Memphis annexation situation with school in the suburbs. If you do, it will have the same net effect as Memphis annexing the suburbs. You will see rapid movement and devaluation of property until Shelby County is bankrupt if history is a good indicator of future behavior.

We must fashion a solution that stops this cycle..


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