Thursday, October 26, 2006

Off Track

After 50 years, the Memphis growth-by-annexation strategy has run off the rails.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 26, 2006 at 4:00 AM

The toughest job in Memphis is selling annexation to the 36,000 residents of southeast Shelby County and Bridgewater who are supposed to join the city next year.

By comparison, selling Grizzlies tickets to Shane Battier fans, extra homework to seventh-graders, and E-Cycle Management to state legislators is a piece of cake.

After 50 years, during which Frayser, Raleigh, Parkway Village, East Memphis, Whitehaven, Hickory Hill, and Cordova were annexed -- boosting the population of Memphis to 672,277 and the land area to more than 300 square miles -- the policy appears to have run off the rails. The proposed annexation of land 20 to 25 miles from downtown would further stretch an already undermanned police force and shake up the uneasy truce between the city and county school systems. Politicians and lawyers have gerrymandered the boundary line to exclude the wealthy residents of Southwind while taking in their middle-class neighbors who share the same roads, sewers, stores, and public services. Mayor Willie Herenton all but pulled his support for the annexation this week, warning that the cost of extending city services could outweigh the increase in tax revenues.

And, most important, many of the Memphians-to-be feel the same way as Rufus Washington, president of the Southeast Shelby County Coalition.

Last week the Memphis City Council set the wheels in motion to bring Washington and his neighbors into our fair city on January 1st, 2007, by passing an ordinance on the first of three required readings. Due to a procedural screw-up by the council, however, Washington and 20 others who came downtown to protest the annexation were denied a chance to speak until a public hearing on November 21st. In an interview last week, he said he and his neighbors were "bamboozled" by the City Council.

"A lot of people are pissed off," said the 68-year-old retired RPS/FedEx Ground manager, grandfather, and ex-Marine captain, who can still fit into his dress blues.

Washington bought his house in 1993 for $165,900. Today it is appraised at $189,000, giving him a negative annual return when adjusted for inflation, while suburbanites outside the annexation have enjoyed double-digit annual appreciation.

"Annexation does nothing for me," said Washington. "It is not a value-added move. It's all about revenue, all about the dollar."

Eleventh-hour protests may not do Washington and his neighbors much good. "If you don't have a solution you are going to get annexed," says Jackie Welch, who developed Washington's subdivision and others along Winchester. An attorney familiar with annexation procedures agreed.

"The most effective strategy has been to negotiate it out several years, which the city has been more than willing to do," said the lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But the opponents are not going to beat it."

The delaying strategy allowed thousands of residents of Cordova and Hickory Hill, most of them white, to move outside the ever-expanding city limits and avoid paying city property taxes for as long as 10 years. The importance of the boundary line and the effective date of annexation is especially clear in the case of Southwind, the gated residential community around the Tournament Players Golf Course.

According to the Shelby County Assessor's Office, there are 494 dwellings in Southwind with a total appraised value of $308 million. Thanks to an agreement negotiated by their attorneys and agreed to by city attorney Sara Hall in May, the residents of Southwind and Windyke, a less-exclusive area south of Winchester, will not be annexed until 2013.

"It was an unfortunate turn of events in the courtroom," said City Council chairman-elect Tom Marshall. "It should have required the approval of the council."

In Southwind alone, the city is leaving $2.6 million in property taxes on the table for six years, or $15.8 million total. Using the Memphis Crime Commission's figures, that $2.6 million would pay for hiring and training 26 new police officers.

After annexation, Washington will pay another $1,620 a year in property taxes. A neighbor in the nearby Richwood subdivision, former Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, will pay an extra $2,145 a year on his house, appraised at $250,000. But Southwind's residents get a six-year tax holiday. Jerry West, president of basketball operations for the Memphis Grizzlies, will save $31,727 a year on his $3.7 million house, and Alan Graf, chief financial officer for FedEx, will save $14,577 a year in taxes on his house, which is appraised at $1.7 million. (As part of the deal, which neither Graf nor West had anything to do with, Memphis has annexed a commercial strip along Hacks Cross Road and, therefore, its share of the sales tax from businesses as well as the world headquarters of FedEx at Winchester and Hacks Cross.)

Higher taxes and last week's little lesson in parliamentary procedure was only a taste of what the city has in store for its future citizens. In addition to being denied the right to speak until the third reading of the ordinance -- which won't become effective until the minutes of that meeting are approved later, giving council members yet another chance to change their minds -- this is what comes with the annexation deal:

* City schools instead of Shelby County schools.

* Law enforcement by the Memphis Police Department, which Herenton and Police Director Larry Godwin recently said is understaffed by 650 officers. Asked this week if annexation would further stretch law enforcement, Herenton said "the mayor does not annex" and suggested that the City Council and planning office give the matter "careful analysis."

* City parks, which tend to become overgrown and neglected every time the city coffers run dry or the mayor wants to make a statement, as he did in the summer of 2005.

* Roads and sewers, which residents already have in abundance but haven't had to pay for, or at least not the city share.

* Garbage service and the bills and add-ons that come with it.

* Streetlights and annual car inspections.

If the annexation is completed, the population of Memphis will "grow" overnight to more than 700,000, or more than twice the population of St. Louis, which cannot annex. Schools and libraries, including the new Southwind High School opening in 2007, will sooner or later shift to the city, if the city doesn't immediately take possession. And the history of Memphis since 1950 suggests that over time most white residents who have not left already will move out of the annexed areas into Germantown, Collierville, and other parts of Shelby, Fayette, and DeSoto counties beyond the grasp of Memphis.

The annexation line in the Southeast Extended area is so gerrymandered that it looks as if it were drawn by a drunk with the shakes. At one point, just east of the new high school, it makes an elaborate jigsaw cut to exempt a developer's partially completed subdivision, while taking in others a few hundred yards away. Marshall said it is possible that the line will be redrawn to conform to more logical natural boundaries.

Overriding all annexation decisions is this stark reality: Directly west of Southwind's gated community, on the west side of six-lane Hacks Cross Road, there is an attractive, tree-covered parcel of land that retains the pastoral look of this area 20 years ago. When Nonconnah Parkway, now Bill Morris Parkway, was extended to Collierville in 1997, a developer put in streets, curbs, sewers, and utility hook-ups for a high-end residential subdivision. But the property was inside the Memphis city line, if only a stone's throw from Southwind. Today, not one single house has been built.

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