Unexpected Consequences

Annexation at all costs sometimes means we are paying for the decline of our own city.

The business of the Tennessee Legislature is enacting laws, but the predominant ones on display in Nashville often are the law of unintended consequences and Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

That was certainly the case with proposed bills by some suburban Shelby County legislators about school consolidation and annexation. Both ended up producing exactly what the legislators were trying to prevent. One propelled the vote in Memphis to merge the city and county school systems and the other started the process for Memphis to annex eastern Shelby County.

Both are classic examples of why the legislative process, as it is now practiced, is characterized by lack of communications, an emphasis on political one-upmanship, and the use of divisiveness as political strategy.  It may be smart, albeit cynical, politics for some, but it rarely produces smart public policy because it is built on dividing Shelby County into “them and us” and on fanning anti-Memphis fires.

That’s what makes the outcomes on schools and annexation so ironic. After years of chasing special school district status for Shelby County Schools, suburban legislators set out to make it happen, an action which moved Memphis City Schools to surrender its charter and create a countywide school district. Making it even more ironic was that the merger movement came in the wake of the resounding defeat outside Memphis of government consolidation, which, had it been approved, would have protected the two school districts.

The same unintended consequences came into play in this year’s annexation controversy. After some suburban legislators penned a bill to keep Memphis from exercising its legal rights to annex eastern Shelby County, City of Memphis put a target on the Gray’s Creek and Fisherville areas for immediate annexation. Without the state legislators’ action, the area would not have been annexed in decades, if ever.

Some members of the Wharton administration and the city council had begun to question long-held city attitudes about annexation. Past practice has been for Memphis to chase people and revenues and gobble up county land as part of the ever-expanding city limits. The annexations propped up the budgets of city government, but the cost was paid by Memphians who were effectively subsidizing the decline of their own city. 

It’s difficult to look at the hollowing out of middle-class Memphis neighborhoods, the deterioration of neighborhood infrastructure, and the climbing costs of city services and not wonder if the annexation-at-all-costs policy might have been a contributing factor.  

Memphis needs a serious debate about when big is too big.

The population today within the 1970 city limits of Memphis is 28 percent less than it was then. In other words, 124,348 people within the 217.4 square miles of the 1970 Memphis borders are no longer there.

When the twentieth century dawned, Memphis covered a grand total of 18.5 square miles with a population density of 7,125 per square mile. By 1970, it was at 178 square miles (almost a doubling of the size of the city since 1950 and 40 square miles bigger than today’s Atlanta). The density of Memphis now, however, is about 2,000 persons per square mile — down from about 4,000 in 1960, about 3,500 in 1970, and about 2,500 in 1980. 

Today, Memphis is bigger in land area than New York City — 346 to 305 square miles. Public services over such a massive area stretch already underfunded services even more and suggest that Memphis needs a serious debate about when big is too big and about how size matters when it undermines the effectiveness and economy of public services.

As happens often in government, no data and analysis of annexation conclusively answers the question of what’s best for the future of Memphis. No one has tried to determine the “real” cost of annexation, because annexation studies were only about new revenues to be generated from the newly annexed areas and the costs of city services to the areas.

In other words, it has always been an arithmetic problem — revenues minus expenditures — to determine if the city “made” money on the annexation. Unfortunately, it was never an exercise to determine the full costs, which included the implications for inner-city neighborhoods and the scenarios for all the options — annexation, no annexation, or even de-annexation.

This may run counter to American’s obsession with size as the ultimate definition of success, but perhaps, in the future, Memphis’ policy about annexations will change and its focus will shift from expanding its size with new territory to focusing its attention laser-like on improving the neighborhoods it already embraces.  

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