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A Paralysis of Will

A Paralysis of Will

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Only those who may have been vacationing this fall in some remote clime like Mars could be oblivious to the issue now dominating local politics and government -- that of wheeling and dealing in the use of perks by Shelby County governmental officials. In the aftermath of this week's election, the hue and cry over such excesses will almost certainly be accelerated -- especially as local prosecutors examine the rapidly accumulating fallout for evidence of official corruption.

All this attention is overdue and commendable. To be sure, some of the publicly professed outrage is of the "shocked, shocked " variety of the worldly wise Claude Rains character in Casablanca. But, disingenuous or not, public reaction is of sufficient intensity to ensure that the new broom presumably packed by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton will get a workout.

Meanwhile, another issue, less sexy but perhaps more crucial to the future of the county and its inhabitants, invites equally decisive attention. This is the worsening problem of urban sprawl, one that appears likely to dominate the proceedings of the Shelby County Commission and, increasingly, of county government itself. There are several components to the issue, but the two most obvious are the related ones of school construction and school funding. At the first meeting of the newly reconstituted county commission in September, there appeared to be a united front of commissioners -- old, new, black, white, Democratic, and Republican -- who were prepared to confront the problem of sprawl head-on. Two zoning proposals that were likely, testified county school officials, to necessitate new classrooms and, thus, new funding were turned down, pending the development of an overall planning strategy that made sense. "Smart growth," the watchword of the new administration, seemed likely to prevail on the commission as well.

That moment already belongs to history. It may, if current tendencies continue, take its place as a forgotten piece of local folklore. The reality is that the commission is backsliding into two bad habits: that of accommodating developers at all costs and that of commissioners ducking their heads into the sand, ostrich-like, to avoid dealing with the funding issue.

The latter syndrome manifested itself big-time Monday when the commission could not decide what to do about the long-obvious need to build a new school in the Arlington area -- a result of mushrooming growth in that direction -- and to construct new classrooms in the Cordova area. With the hard deadline for academic year 2004-'05 looming, the commissioners proved unequal to the moment. They actually fell to discussing the notion of letting bids for construction contracts without committing themselves to funding the new buildings. Discussion of that expedient, right out of Alice in Wonderland, was dropped when county and school administrators pointed out that county government had never done such a thing before and that no self-respecting contractor would be likely to bid on such a tenuously based proposition.

The commission thus narrowly avoided declaring an official paralysis of will, but it came no nearer dealing with the problem. Meanwhile, there's that deadline, and the end of the current year will take the county to the threshold after which a bid-and-response period would come too late.

New commissioner Joyce Avery, who lives in Arlington, confirmed Monday that the need for a new school in her area was acute but said she could not condone the idea of bestowing a new tax increase on her constituents. So what else is new? The problem of funding school construction is indeed a conundrum, but the current body was elected to solve such riddles. It is high time the commission did so.

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