Monday, September 22, 2008

Solving Old Problems Rather Than Grabbing New Land

Memphis is #5 with a bullet.

Unfortunately, it’s the list of the top 10 cities with the highest poverty rates. As alarming as that statistic is, it could be much worse if it wasn’t for Tennessee’s liberal annexation laws.

That’s because the 2007 poverty rate for Memphians is 26.2%, edged out by El Paso (27.4%), Buffalo (28.7%), Cleveland (29.5%), and perennial #1 Detroit at 33.8%.

But here’s the thing. Most of these cities are landlocked and cannot annex, and if Memphis contended with the same reality, it would likely be battling Detroit for the top spot. Even Newark, with problems that defy solutions, was three down from Memphis on the list with a poverty rate of 23.9%.

Curse Or Blessing?

It’s a troubling dilemma for our city, primarily because it shows no sign of improving, climbing from the 2000 rate of 20.6%. We wrote Sept. 3 about the deepening crisis reflected in the latest Census statistics, so we won’t belabor the point again.

That said, there are times when Tennessee’s annexation laws seem as much a curse as a blessing. Memphis’ annexations in the past 20 years have effectively masked the dimensions of the interlocking problems of poverty, perpetuating the myth that Memphis’ population and trends were largely moving in a positive direction.

On balance, there’s no question that Tennessee’s progressive attitude toward annexation is good public policy, largely because there is a direct connection between these kinds of annexation laws and the financial solvency of cities.

In other words, the pitfall is that often the prospects of annexation inspire a false sense of security in Memphis.

Job 1: Urban Core

That’s because city officials are able to prop up Memphis’ population and its tax revenues by taking in more and more territory. Without this ability to annex, Memphis’ population would likely be about half of what it is today, and the serious problems in the city’s midst could not be obscured by new taxes and new citizens (however reluctant they may be).

It seems a good time for Memphis to call a moratorium on its quest for new land and prove first that it has programs and strategies to address the cancerous problems of the urban core – the hollowing out of the middle class, the bipolar economic divisions, and the deterioration of too many neighborhoods.

When City Council weighs its decision on annexation by measuring whether it is a tax windfall or a tax drain, it’s a shallow evaluation, because the ultimate issue isn’t if city government can provide urban services to the annexation area. More to the point, it is whether city government can provide solutions to the critical problems gripping the urban core.

What is inescapable in annexation debates is the abject failure of the process set in motion by Chapter 1101, the state law calling for urban growth boundaries to be set in every Tennessee county. The purpose of that law was to encourage and require counties and the cities within them to sit down and cooperatively develop a blueprint for future land use.

Sham Urban Growth Boundaries

Here, that overriding intent was ignored, because state law also said Shelby County, Memphis, and the smaller municipalities could satisfy the law by ratifying their existing annexation agreements. As a result, there was never a serious discussion about growth management, protection of green space, and the community’s response to sprawl. Instead, the process was all about negotiating annexation agreements in keeping with previous contracts.

As a result of this process, all but 48.74 square miles (small pieces of land in the corners of Northeast and Northwest Shelby County) were identified as urban growth areas, meaning that Memphis, at 317 square miles at the time of Chapter 1101, would eventually swell to 489 square mile, about the same land area as Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, some rapidly urbanizing areas like Orlando and Seattle managed to inject some growth management strategies into their processes. In Seattle, local elected officials showed genuine leadership in adopting a different growth model for the region in the midst of rapid growth, a model that called for containing urban sprawl through the use of regional boundaries and a regional open space system; organizing urban development into compact communities; protecting rural areas by promoting the use of rural lands for farming, forestry, recreation, and other uses; providing a greater variety of housing choices in all parts of the region; and creating a regional transportation strategy that frequents on high-speed bus and rail transit.

In taking this action, Seattle altered the future of its region in a shorter period of time than any other metro in the U.S.

It’s All About Leadership

Meanwhile, here, annexation has been pursued with little regard for a long-term vision for the county, and as a result, Memphis runs the risk of strangling its future to death with the lure of new land and new taxpayers. That’s because without the counter-balance of growth management strategies, it’s hard to see a future that’s not more of the same – deteriorating neighborhoods, vast swaths of abandoned neighborhoods between downtown and East Memphis, fewer people paying more taxes and public services stretched thinner and thinner.

Of course, the same people whose policies have caused some of the problems can also change things for the better. At any time, Memphis City Council – blessed with new leadership unwilling to continue policies that fueled the sprawl that eroded the health of its own city -can set the standard for local leadership by stepping back, gaining some perspective, and convening a process to consider a different future for Memphis and Shelby County.

It’s hard to imagine any time in the modern history of Memphis where this brand of assertive leadership was more needed. The future is riding on it.


Anonymous said...

Are you going to be able to keep posting when it always goes back to the same fundamental issue. The Herenton Administration, along with general Memphis/Shelby County political establishment, is incapable of addressing the problems facing our community. We've got three more years of Herenton, then Wharton moves over to city mayor and Deidre Malone becomes county mayor. I don't see too much shaking up of the system for the next 7 years at least. That's at least a few hundred blog posts tied to the same subject.

Anonymous said...

gee it really is simple. Reconvene the 1101 Committee (permitted in the legislation) and get all the mayors to simply undo the annexation agreements and enforce the Urban Service Boundary-(thick blue line on the Memphis 2000 Policy Plan Map)which was to set a limit on 'urban services'.
Then get hizzoner to redo everything to where de moneyed bourgoisie cannot escape his enlightened rule and can be taxed according to the limit of their civic responsibility.

throw in a rail to trail for sydney and henri to the hood for easier access to the pickins to the east and voila!
Instant planning!

Zippy the giver said...

Nope, I don't think either mayor in power now should run for anything, period. They BOTH got us into this mess, at least Wharton had a distraction to keep the heat off him, Herenton.
SMC you are 100% on target here again. Hollow victory, eh?

Anonymous said...

No annexation, except for that Whitten road area.. That hole in the donut costs us nothing and brings big benefits for the City, especially Memphis Schools and not in terms of taxes. Citizens are in jeopardy in terms of life services.

This is not a land grab or a grab for taxes. It has to be done. City needs the schools and the developers have held it off long enough.

Forget about the area east of Hickory Hill and Cordova. But, Willie and the council need to do this Appling/Whitten area now.

Anonymous said...

Memphis can't annex to prosperity. It has to have an educated workforce,clean neighborhoods, crime under control and good schools.Then the jobs and new residents will come. This requires leadership, cooperation and a progressive attitude across all political and regional boundaries.

Zippy the giver said...

We must be spread very far and thin when you can buy a piece of prime real estate in the downtown metro area for less than $50,000. No city can annex it's way to prosperity, unless it becomes the city next door instead of the city it was.

Chuck said...

Dear Smart:
The most prosperous metro areas in the country have central cities that have been able to annex new territory.


Zippy the giver said...

I'm sure that's what all the bigwigs in their big boy pants thought before they did that strategy over and over here, and never noticed it FAILED.
I wonder what the difference in those cities was,, NOT.

Anonymous said...

Anon. 2:22

Your idea is 15 years too late. Jim Rout circumvented the Memphis 2000 plan with his ridiculous Grey's Creek
Sewer trade-off with the City of Memphis. City residents got about $2 million for housing and some other pitiful bread crunbs from the County (75% of which is City taxpayer money) and Rout's cronies profited shamelessly to the tune of billions of dollars in direct and indirect benefits. Why do you think Shelby County's debt is higher than that of the State?

This was the so called "Balanced Growth Agreement" implemented in the 1990's. It set the table for the sprawling development that our grandchildren will still be paying for in 50 years.

Shelby County began providing urban services back in the early 80's when it was decided that the rural areas needed professional fire services, ambulance services, roads and too many schools built way before their time so greedy developers, mainly Jackie Welch, could build more houses than our economy could possibly support.

One could write 2 or 3 books on this disgraceful performance by our local elected officials and the lack of backbone from their appointed puppet who served as Director of Planning in the 90's.