Opinion » Viewpoint

A Policy That Stinks

Memphis’ decision to deny sewer taps will hurt city and county.

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After a decade of rough economic times, Tennessee is finally starting to show credible signs of recovery. But an unexpected issue has arisen that could choke off Shelby County's being able to participate in that economic recovery.

The city of Memphis' administration has issued a policy ceasing sewer connection to properties outside the city limits. This has dire consequences for every single taxpayer in this county.

Heidi Shafer
  • Heidi Shafer

Most of us take our sewage system for granted. We walk over the round covers in the street stamped "Sewer" without even recognizing they are there. Sewage and sewer access aren't the most pleasant topics. The fact is, though, that few issues are as fundamental to a society as the success, safety, and access to a reliable sewer system.   

Property without sewer availability is virtually without value. Property distant enough from residential or commercial developments can be turned back into farm ground (taxable at a much lesser rate). That means a direct loss of tax dollars flowing into the county coffers to cover the school system and teachers, the health department, Regional One, the jails, sheriff's deputies, the courts, and even the Rape Crisis Center.

With so much at stake, and with city residents also paying county taxes, why would the city of Memphis upset the proverbial apple cart?

Part of what the city is doing makes sense to me: As Memphis seeks to become "brilliant at the basics" while reconfiguring its mission based on a reduced ability to annex surrounding areas by fiat, reexamining established systems is timely.

I agree that it likely doesn't serve Memphis or Memphians to extend new sewer connections outside of the Memphis limits. For decades, Memphis had expanded its outreach, perhaps assuming that all the areas would one day be within its limits.

Now that areas can be annexed only if the residents petition to be annexed, and with some areas actively seeking to be de-annexed, a recalculation and adjustment is needed.

So where is the "stinky" part of this sewer proclamation? The city of Memphis has begun what I can only term as "failing to process" applications of properties where sewer lines are already run to the area, and the sewer only needs to be "tapped."

About a month ago, I began receiving calls notifying me that properties with sewer lines already run out to them were being effectively denied: The city was contacting the owners and asking if the owners wanted their building plans returned or shredded, since the city was not authorizing new taps, effective immediately.

Here are a few basic facts:

1) The persons or businesses who are using the systems are paying for their development and upkeep.

2) The 1970s treatment plant and subsequent interceptors were built to EPA specifications in order to obtain federal grant dollars.

3) Some surrounding municipalities rely in part or wholly upon the regional sewer system run by the city of Memphis.

4) Residential fees funding the development and upkeep of the sewer are numerous and outlined in various documents.

5) The county has also been paying millions directly to the city of Memphis to help with redevelopment inside Memphis' city limits.

6) Some property owners outside Memphis through the years had planned to treat their own waste, but were induced to be added to the Memphis treatment system and were given "sewer credits."  

Building a new sewage treatment plant for the county is doable, but will take three to five years to complete. And Memphis does not currently have a transition plan in its policy.

The one troubling reason for this draconian sewer policy being implemented so swiftly is the mistaken belief that if development is extinguished for three to five years outside Memphis, it would force development inside Memphis' city limits.

If only that were true! People and business tend to go the path of least resistance. If I am looking at building a business, here are my choices: I can build within the Memphis city limits with its high taxes, crime problems, and bureaucratic requirements, or outside of Shelby County in DeSoto County, Tipton County, or Fayette County, with their larger undeveloped tracts of land, lower property costs, lower taxes, and simplified codes and procedures.

We in Shelby County government hope to work with the city of Memphis to develop a plan that helps Memphis adjust to current circumstances and creates a way for everyone in the county to move forward together. Heidi Shafer is chairman of the Shelby County Commission.

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