Not So Smart Growth

Special interests trumped public interest in non-debate over annexation.

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Leadership punted when it came to the future of Memphis.

On the day that the Memphis City Council was scheduled to vote on annexation, Mayor Willie Herenton sent out an audio promo on his upcoming boxing match with Joe Frazier. Talk about picking your fights. The incoming chairman of the council, Tom Marshall, recused himself.

Harold Ford Jr. and Bob Corker spent a million dollars on negative ads, but nobody spends a penny selling the pros and cons of annexation to 36,000 new Memphis residents or 670,000 current ones.

Specially created authorities are fine for running pieces of the city such as the airport, industrial parks, or the riverfront. They can build arenas and ballparks. But they're powerless when it comes to a decision that will impact our neighborhoods, taxes, public schools, and services for years.

The Urban Land Institute, which includes developers from the Boyle, Belz, and Turley companies, is great if you need a critique of a plan for a land bridge to Mud Island or a speaker about the past and future of cities. But its members were strangely silent on the messy and complex issue of annexation here and now.

Suburban developers are good at making profits, drawing annexation lines, and building subdivisions. Lawyers are good at keeping Southwind, Windyke, and other subdivisions out of Memphis as long as possible so that residents can enjoy a personal tax freeze. Real estate agents are good at putting up signs that tout the benefits of enjoying public services without having to pay city taxes for them. But it's not their job to represent the common good.

Local television news isn't much interested in a bloodless story with lots of dots that have to be connected. A "Does It Work" segment on annexation doesn't.

The Memphis Board of Education has 118,000 students to worry about. The Shelby County Board of Education has 45,000 students to worry about.

The Office of Planning and Development says annexation will net $100 million in new taxes and fees over several years. But the same report includes stretchers like this one: "Memphis City Schools makes decisions about the need and location of all city schools for students in the city." If only. In fact, Memphis City Schools acquires schools in annexation areas from Shelby County, and the sites were chosen by county school officials and developers.

And wouldn't you love to have seen Police Director Larry Godwin's face when he read that "The city of Memphis Police Department will provide many services that will result in a significant improvement over and above the services currently being provided by the County Sheriff's Department." The Southeast Extended annexation area has averaged one murder a year for the last five years. How much better can you get?

Whatever it does on annexation -- yes, no, wait -- the Memphis City Council will be criticized, which is unfortunate because they're the only ones looking squarely at the issue and its consequences and making a decision that matters. Shelby County mayor A C Wharton and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, whose predecessors crisscrossed the suburbs with six-lane and eight-lane roads, are waiting in the wings to see how the hand plays out. The rest of us are just kibitzers.

Annexation opponents get all the publicity, but it's the current residents of Memphis who ought to be mad. Their combined city and county taxes -- roughly twice the tax burden of residents of unincorporated areas -- paid for the sewers, roads, and schools in the annexation areas while devaluing their own neighborhoods and undercutting city schools and shopping centers in the process.

Doing nothing has as many consequences as doing something. Either way, students have to be assigned next year to the new Southwind High School. Overcrowded schools have to be relieved. Or both the city and county systems could take matters into their own hands and build new ones. Either that or find some more vacant grocery stores.

In the end, annexation is just too big -- the challenge, not the area.

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