Thursday, November 23, 2006

Not So Smart Growth

Special interests trumped public interest in non-debate over annexation.

Posted By on Thu, Nov 23, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Leadership punted when it came to the future of Memphis.

On the day that the Memphis City Council was scheduled to vote on annexation, Mayor Willie Herenton sent out an audio promo on his upcoming boxing match with Joe Frazier. Talk about picking your fights. The incoming chairman of the council, Tom Marshall, recused himself.

Harold Ford Jr. and Bob Corker spent a million dollars on negative ads, but nobody spends a penny selling the pros and cons of annexation to 36,000 new Memphis residents or 670,000 current ones.

Specially created authorities are fine for running pieces of the city such as the airport, industrial parks, or the riverfront. They can build arenas and ballparks. But they're powerless when it comes to a decision that will impact our neighborhoods, taxes, public schools, and services for years.

The Urban Land Institute, which includes developers from the Boyle, Belz, and Turley companies, is great if you need a critique of a plan for a land bridge to Mud Island or a speaker about the past and future of cities. But its members were strangely silent on the messy and complex issue of annexation here and now.

Suburban developers are good at making profits, drawing annexation lines, and building subdivisions. Lawyers are good at keeping Southwind, Windyke, and other subdivisions out of Memphis as long as possible so that residents can enjoy a personal tax freeze. Real estate agents are good at putting up signs that tout the benefits of enjoying public services without having to pay city taxes for them. But it's not their job to represent the common good.

Local television news isn't much interested in a bloodless story with lots of dots that have to be connected. A "Does It Work" segment on annexation doesn't.

The Memphis Board of Education has 118,000 students to worry about. The Shelby County Board of Education has 45,000 students to worry about.

The Office of Planning and Development says annexation will net $100 million in new taxes and fees over several years. But the same report includes stretchers like this one: "Memphis City Schools makes decisions about the need and location of all city schools for students in the city." If only. In fact, Memphis City Schools acquires schools in annexation areas from Shelby County, and the sites were chosen by county school officials and developers.

And wouldn't you love to have seen Police Director Larry Godwin's face when he read that "The city of Memphis Police Department will provide many services that will result in a significant improvement over and above the services currently being provided by the County Sheriff's Department." The Southeast Extended annexation area has averaged one murder a year for the last five years. How much better can you get?

Whatever it does on annexation -- yes, no, wait -- the Memphis City Council will be criticized, which is unfortunate because they're the only ones looking squarely at the issue and its consequences and making a decision that matters. Shelby County mayor A C Wharton and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, whose predecessors crisscrossed the suburbs with six-lane and eight-lane roads, are waiting in the wings to see how the hand plays out. The rest of us are just kibitzers.

Annexation opponents get all the publicity, but it's the current residents of Memphis who ought to be mad. Their combined city and county taxes -- roughly twice the tax burden of residents of unincorporated areas -- paid for the sewers, roads, and schools in the annexation areas while devaluing their own neighborhoods and undercutting city schools and shopping centers in the process.

Doing nothing has as many consequences as doing something. Either way, students have to be assigned next year to the new Southwind High School. Overcrowded schools have to be relieved. Or both the city and county systems could take matters into their own hands and build new ones. Either that or find some more vacant grocery stores.

In the end, annexation is just too big -- the challenge, not the area.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Ready or Not

Will the City Council follow through on annexation next week?

Posted By on Thu, Nov 16, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Members of the Memphis City Council face one of the most important and trickiest votes of their political careers next week.

The issue is annexation, and the stakes include 37,000 new Memphis residents, population bragging rights, several million dollars a year in property taxes, and custody of seven schools in the annexation areas.

There are wild cards aplenty. Residents opposed to annexation, which includes the areas of Bridgewater east of Cordova and Southeast Extended south of Nonconnah/Bill Morris Parkway, are getting organized for next Tuesday's public hearing. Mayor Willie Herenton is wary of expanding the city at a time when the police department is already stretched thin. And politicians, lawyers, and developers have already struck deals exempting a few neighborhoods next to the annexation areas, including the exclusive gated community Southwind and a subdivision adjoining the new Southwind High School, which is one of the main things driving the whole process.

Time is short. The annexation is supposed to take effect on January 1, 2007. The City Council has already approved it on two of the three required readings. The Land Use Control Board has approved the plan for implementing services. The new high school is scheduled to open next fall, taking students -- most of them black -- from Germantown and Houston high schools. Southwind High School will eventually become part of the city school system.

Here's a closer look at the key issues and players.

Bragging rights. If the annexation goes through, Memphis will grow to just over 700,000 people. Thanks to previous annexations of Cordova and Hickory Hill, Memphis has been able to stay off of the list of shrinking cities such as Detroit and Buffalo. Memphis, currently the nation's 18th-largest city, would become the 16th-largest.

Schools and race. Because of the surrounding neighborhoods and the boundary lines, Southwind High School will be a majority-black school the day it opens. In Memphis and Shelby County, the trend is that such schools steadily lose most of their white students, as Kirby High School did in the 1990s and as Cordova High School has more recently. The city school system is more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.

Germantown High School is a majority-black school even though the city of Germantown is less than 5 percent black. Many of those students will be shifted to Southwind.

Separate and unequal taxes. The annexation map creates three classes of citizens: Memphians, Shelby County residents, and provisional Memphians. In several places, all three groups share the same street and live within sight of each other, but the city residents will pay roughly twice as much in property taxes. Real estate agents and homebuilders sell subdivisions along Shelby Drive and other east-west roads with signs saying "COUNTY SCHOOLS" and "NO CITY TAXES." A sign that says "MEMPHIS CITY LIMITS" might as well say "WEST NILE VIRUS ZONE." One tax oasis, the Whisper Ridge subdivision by Signature Builders, is immediately west of the new high school and nearly surrounded by annexed territory.

Another kind of tax haven is represented by Southwind and Windyke, along Winchester. Residents negotiated their way out of annexation until 2013. For the next six years, 494 homeowners around the Southwind Tournament Players Golf Course will save as much as $30,000 a year, while 517 middle-class homeowners in Windyke will save about $1,500 a year. Collectively, county assessor's figures show Memphis is exempting 1,011 homes and leaving $19.7 million in property taxes on the table.

Fear of foreclosures. Memphis, as everyone knows, is the bankruptcy capital of America. A real estate closing attorney and a developer say thousands of soon-to-become Memphians in Bridgewater are living on borrowed money, with little or no equity in their homes. Five or 10 years ago, they bought starter homes with interest-only loans. Put another $125 a month in taxes in their tight budgets and bankruptcy lawyers could be the next ones doing a land-office business.

Mayor Willie Herenton is on record saying that "mayors don't annex" and that the Memphis Police Department needs 650 more officers. In previous annexations, Herenton's division directors met with community groups to buck up their spirits. If the mayor criticizes the plan of services or is a no-show at the council meeting, it could make some council members decide to oppose annexation or take it off the table.

City Council chairman Tom Marshall, the council's senior member and most adept compromiser, may find himself in an

Tom Marshall - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
uncompromising position. An architect by trade, Marshall is the link with the Memphis City Schools and the Office of Planning and Development. He has been meeting with developers and planners for the city and county and the two school systems to draw the all-important line. He has mayoral aspirations, so don't look for Herenton go out of his way to help. If this annexation goes through, it will be because of Marshall, not Herenton.

The black middle class: A fixation on the past plus the Memphis City Schools' take-the-money-and-run certification of schools as low-income so that students can get free lunches gives a distorted picture of the city. The black middle class is thriving, among other places, in subdivision after subdivision in southeastern Shelby County. Rufus Washington, head of a neighborhood coalition opposed to annexation, has lived in his home for 13 years. There is a county public library less than a mile away on six-lane Shelby Drive and Germantown Road. Sheriff's cars patrol the streets. Neighborhood children attend Highland Oaks Elementary School and Southwind elementary and middle schools, all county schools with higher ratings than city schools. The notion of "county services" as rural or second-class is outdated.

When is a deal not a deal? Putting off annexation for another day has its own problems. Memphis and surrounding suburbs reached a historic agreement on annexation reserve areas six years ago. If densely populated subdivisions that are clearly within the Memphis annexation reserve area cannot be annexed, then the deal is meaningless. The City Council represents 670,000 Memphians already in the city limits. Their taxes have helped pay for the roads, sewers, and schools in the suburbs. Now that the bills are due, will the council collect?

Costs and benefits: Property taxes account for 63 to 65 percent of city and county revenue, according to Shelby County trustee Bob Patterson. It takes roughly 12 years for an annexation to pay for itself, Patterson says, but less than that if libraries, schools, and fire stations are already built. But there's another risk that can be called the Fox Meadows Factor. Twenty-five years ago, Fox Meadows was a thriving southeastern suburb near the then-new Mall of Memphis. After it was annexed, the mall closed and tax collections declined. The same thing is happening in Hickory Hill.

The bottom line. Annexation opponents' best hope is delay, probably pegged to 2013, like Southwind and Windyke, in return for a promise not to file a lawsuit. If they simply engage in Memphis bashing, they will anger council members who may accuse them of being ungrateful freeloaders who don't pay their share.

Proponents have to unite the city powers-that-be -- including Herenton, Marshall, police director Larry Godwin, and Superintendent Carol Johnson -- in a sales job and a promise of safe streets and safe schools. But the damage may already have been done.

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Thursday, November 9, 2006

Individual Retirement Plan

Herenton throws a retirement party for his friend Sara Lewis.

Posted By on Thu, Nov 9, 2006 at 4:00 AM

So you think retirement means a gold watch, fond farewells, penny-pinching, and spending time with the grandchildren? Not if you're a public official in Memphis.

Mayor Willie Herenton, who will step into the boxing ring with Joe Frazier this month, gave a city job to the school board bully, Sara Lewis, on the eve of her retirement.

It was Lewis, remember, who prompted former superintendent Johnnie B. Watson, the most gentlemanly of public officials, to file a harassment complaint against her in 2002. And it was Lewis who pitched a memorable televised fit at a board meeting last year that caused Superintendent Carol Johnson to suggest that maybe the board should hire another superintendent. Her new job is "special assistant to the mayor responsible for the office of Youth Services and Community Affairs." In a prepared statement Monday, Herenton said, "We will seek to use the city's 28 community centers for various after-school programs. Also, this office will be a major part of the crime abatement strategy in the areas of prevention and partnership building."

The sudden need for these revolutionary programs comes as the mayor completes his 15th year in office and prepares for a 2007 reelection campaign. Lewis, who is 70, will earn a salary of $75,000. It is not clear what impact the appointed job, which does not require City Council approval, will have on her pension benefits. Herenton spokeswoman Gale Jones Carson said the position is not new but has been vacant for a couple of years.

Lewis was elected to the school board in 1991. She is a former Memphis teacher and school principal who was promoted to assistant superintendent for curriculum in 1983 when Herenton was school superintendent. From 1990 to 1998, she ran the Shelby County Free the Children program, and from 1998 to 2000, she was director of Shelby County Head Start. She resigned following a critical federal audit.

As a school board member, Lewis has been a champion of rebuilding Manassas High School, her alma mater. With 391 students, Manassas is the smallest high school in Memphis. Herenton has said several times that underused schools should be closed, as several of them were when he was superintendent.

Pensions and padding the city payroll with appointed jobs are a hot issue with City Council members and watchdog groups. They were the impetus for the Memphis Charter Commission, although the main proponent of rewriting the rules, John Malmo, was not elected to the panel, which is just now gearing up.

In his fourth term, Herenton has warned many times that the city has to closely watch its pension obligations and employment numbers to insure a balanced budget and strong bond rating. He was critical of MLGW's severance agreement with former president Herman Morris, whom Herenton replaced with Joseph Lee.

Herenton himself "retired" from the Memphis City Schools under controversial circumstances in 1990-1991. As Flyer reporter Jackson Baker, who broke the story, wrote back in 1992, Herenton's retirement package stretched his 28 years of service to 30 years, a milestone for higher benefits for public employees who retire before age 55. Herenton was 51 at the time. In addition to a payout package worth $227,000, Herenton remained on the school system payroll as an active employee for six months while he was mayor.

Cronyism, of course, is business as usual. One of the beauties of city-county government is the political arms race between the two mayors. Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton hired his buddy and campaign manager Roscoe Dixon before the former state senator was indicted. Wharton also hired Shelby County Commissioner Linda Rendtorff as director of community services. Herenton hired City Council member Janet Hooks last year as manager of the office of multicultural and religious affairs.

Key city and county officials who "leave" government typically don't retire or stray very far. Former city mayor Dick Hackett is the new head of the Children's Museum of Memphis, former county mayor Jim Rout heads the Mid-South Fair, and former police director Walter Crews was Wharton's choice to fix the Homeland Security office. With several City Council and school board members facing reelection this year and next, Lewis may not be the last beneficiary of a public retirement party.

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Thursday, November 2, 2006

Dubious Distinction

More controversial than BCS football rankings: surveys that name "most violent" cities.

Posted By on Thu, Nov 2, 2006 at 4:00 AM

St. Louis had only one weekend to enjoy its World Series championship before a survey came out naming it the most dangerous city in the United States.

Memphis knows the feeling. This summer, the Memphis metro area (including parts of Arkansas and Mississippi) was ranked the second-most crime-ridden among the 100 largest metro areas in the country, based on FBI crime reports. And, based on instances per 100,000 population, it was number one for burglary and robbery and number two for murder behind New Orleans.

People who study crime patterns -- including Michael Heidingsfield and Tom Kirby at the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, Lieutenant Joe Scott at the Memphis Police Department, and the FBI -- agree that city comparisons are badly flawed because of demographic differences. (The city of St. Louis, for example, includes only one-fourth the population of St. Louis County.) But they admit that they're as inevitable as football rankings and can't be ignored in a media age that bombards readers, viewers, and listeners with a steady diet of "best and worst" lists. And crime rankings are an illusion with a powerful impact. They clearly influenced Mayor Willie Herenton to ask for more cops and are driving people to leave Memphis.

The MPD and the crime commission look at trends within Memphis. Maps and trends tell stories. But a general statement about an increase or decrease in crime is meaningless. There are four main categories of personal crime (murder, rape, robbery, and assault) and three categories of property crime (burglary, theft, and auto theft).

Murder gets the most publicity, but your chances of being murdered by a stranger are miniscule. Over the last 15 years, the mean number of murders in Memphis was 160 a year, and Scott thinks Memphis, now at 137, will be below that in 2006. Of the 128 murders this year in which the perpetrator has been identified, 99 were black on black. In 71 percent of murders, victims knew their killers. There were 137 murders in all of 2005, 105 in 2004, and 213 in 1993.

"In the 1990s, we were a much more violent city," says Scott.

Then there's the problem of sample bias. What about gunmen who wound their victims, shoot and miss, or threaten someone but don't pull the trigger? There is no single category for that, although the difference between a shooting and a murder is usually a quarter of an inch, as New York City police commissioner William Bratton notes in his book Turnaround.

Some bad news: The rate for aggravated assault has nearly doubled in 10 years and soared more than 30 percent last year alone. Larceny-theft has trended upward for 10 years. And the burglary rate is consistently one of the highest in the country. Overall, the FBI Uniform Crime Report (UCR) count of violent crimes for Memphis was up 25 percent in 2005 and, at the current pace, will be up about 3 or 4 percent this year.

Some good news: MPD clears 55 percent of felony assaults, a number Scott calls "amazing." Burglary was down in the month of October compared to the first nine months of 2006. Car theft is down 15 percent this year because police busted some chop shops and manufacturers have made cars harder to steal. And forcible rape has dropped more than 60 percent in 10 years, although the crime commission says reporting procedures account for some of that.

"Over the last three months, the things we implemented have helped," said Scott. "I think Blue Crush is slowly starting to make some type of difference."

Like football rankings, crime stats can be maddeningly complex. The Survey That Slimed St. Louis, aka the Morgan Quitno Awards, is compiled by a private research and publishing company. The Shelby County district attorney general's annual report looks at both Memphis and Shelby County. The UCR looks at metro areas. Television is preoccupied with the crime of the day. The crime commission would seem well-suited to bring some clarification to this, along with some policy recommendations.

Shoot the messenger if you like, or pick a different one, but the final measure of how dangerous a place Memphis is probably depends on your personal experience.

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