City of Memphis, Caught Off Guard by Legislative Effort to Curtail Annexation Rights, Moves to Catch Up.

Committee will rush Gray’s Creek ordinance to counter new “Norris-Todd” bills aimed at breaking countywide compact on annexation zones.

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Council chair Morrison; Mayor Wharton
  • Council chair Morrison; Mayor Wharton
In an uncanny echo of the situation a year ago, when City of Memphis officials, threatened with state action to overpower local options on school merger, unified in opposition, Mayor A C Wharton and the City Council stand ready on Tuesday to expedite the emergency annexation of the still unincorporated Gray’s Creek suburban area.

The action, in response to two new bills introduced by Republican legislators Mark Norris and Curry Todd curtailing Memphis’ powers of annexation, will begin with a meeting of the Council’s personnel, intergovernmental, and annexation committee at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday.

That committee will consider “an Ordinance to extend the boundaries of the City Limits of the City of Memphis by annexing the Gray’s Creek Annexation Area and assigning said area to a Council District.”
The proposed annexation of the Gray ‘s Creek area would never have come up in the absence of the state action, said Councilman Jim Strickland, who had been leery of any further immediate annexations by Memphis but sees the City now having little choice.

“I hope the people in the suburbs who think their interests are being served by the bills proposed up there realize that this annexation is being forced, not by Memphis, but by Nashville,” said Strickland, who said further he saw the battle over school merger to be the proximate cause of the new Norris-Todd bills — one of which would require a referendum of affected residents in a proposed annexation area and another which would specifically remove Gray’s Creek from Memphis’ assigned annexation areas.

“They don’t have enough students to pay for the school districts they‘re trying to set up, so they’re going to try to go out and annex some more students,” said Strickland, who says that the proposed legislation in Nashville will be found unconstitutional, even should it win a race with the Council and get the new Norris-Todd bills passed before the Council can act on annexation.

Memphis and the county’s suburban municipalities had reached formal agreement on their respective annexation areas in 1998 as a result of the then volatile dispute over “Toy Town legislation that, before being declared unconstitutional, would have hemmed Memphis in with a flood of newly incorporated “cities.”

Strickland said the new legislation would “interfere with a parties contract,” and it improperly would be attempting to apply a major change in the law to one county and one county only.

It was at this point last year that the original Norris-Todd bill was introduced by state Senator Norris and state Representative Todd, both of Collierville, and pushed through a compliant Republican-dominated Legislature on what amounted to a party —line vote. The bill in theory accepted the fait accompli of Memphis City School’s surrendered charter — a move that would force merger of MCS with Shelby County Schools, but it imposed a two-year delay on that merger and enabled the creation of new school districts within suburban Shelby County at the time, in August 2013, when the merger was scheduled to take place.

With modifications, the terms of Norris-Todd were approved by federal Judge Hardy Mays in adjudicating several overlapping litigations last summer. Mays still maintains effective jurisdiction over the terms of city-county school merger.

Councilman Shea Flinn, who learned of the proposed legislation upon arriving back in Memphis Monday after being out of town, noted, “This should put an end to all those protestations from Republicans that they believe in local government.” Flinn said last year’s legislative session and this one so far have made it obvious that the GOP-dominated state government will run roughshod over local interests whenever it chooses.

Council chairman Bill Morrison and Mayor A C Wharton issued a joint press release Monday that said in part:

“…These proposals, put forth without even a courtesy call to local government, single out the City of Memphis at a time when other municipalities have recently used the…1998 agreement — without argument or interference — to annex their reserve areas. It’s a move that smacks of racism, classism, and schoolyard bullying.

“Last year, we saw these same legislators try to leapfrog over the will of our citizens to surrender the charter of Memphis City Schools and to establish a unified Shelby County school system.

“This is a continued all-out assault on Memphis and its right to govern itself. We are calling upon all of our local leaders — whether they be leaders in politics, business, or the philanthropic arena — and the residents of Memphis to let their state representatives know that this will not stand.
If need be, we will meet this challenge in court.”

The resource to legal remedies is one believed in by Strickland and Flinn as well as by the Mayor and chair. “It’s really not all that important who wins a race to the finish line — us or the Legislature,” Strickland said. “We’ll win in the end.”

In the meantime, though, there are sure to be efforts to expedite the Gray’s Creek annexation ordinance. “I am confident it will be approved out of committee tomorrow [Tuesday] and on the Council agenda for next Tuesday," the Council chair said.

Morrison, who posited the goal of getting at new sales tax revenue as yet another reason for the proposed state legislation, said at first he thought it might be hypothetically possible to hold the required three readings of the city ordinance within a single week. Upon checking on procedure, he modified that estimate. “We can do it from beginning to end in 15 days, and that includes the required plans of service,” he said.

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