Thursday, October 24, 2002

Change of Mind

The county commission's "line in the sand" on development suffers some erosion.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 24, 2002 at 4:00 AM

They're looking for excuses to change their vote." That was the blunt assessment of Shelby County Commissioner Bruce Thompson concerning a majority vote by his colleagues that overturned a previous vote disapproving a subdivision proposal for east Shelby County.

The first vote -- which saw commissioners deadlocked at 6-6, with one absentee -- occurred on September 23rd amid a great deal of talk about creating a "line in the sand" on new homebuilding projects in the outer county. Thompson was one of a hard core of four commissioners -- the others being Deidre Malone, Joyce Avery, and Michael Hooks -- who insisted that no new development should be approved unless a mechanism was at hand to provide funding for the additional county classrooms that would have to be constructed to service the new residents.

The matter was submitted to a revote Monday by virtue of Hooks' motion at the intervening meeting of October 7th to allow a reconsideration. Hooks did so, he said then, at the request of Commissioner Julian Bolton, who had been absent on September 23rd and desired an opportunity to vote on the project, which would allow an additional 60-odd homes to an existing subdivision project of developer Kevin Hyneman in Cordova.

Hooks, Malone, and Thompson voted no again Monday, when the project came back up, but switched sides. Avery switched sides, however, and her vote, along with Bolton's and that of John Willingham, who had passed on the proposal last month, helped provide a comfortable 9-3 margin for the additional units. (Commissioner Linda Rendtorff, another no voter on September 23rd, was absent.)

What seemed to offer a basis for the commission's approval was an argument by Michael Fahy, a spokesman for Hyneman on the Lee Line Farms subdivision project, that a county school system document had overestimated the number of students currently being served by county schools in the affected area. Fahy was supported by Commissioner Marilyn Loeffel, who said she had checked Fahy's arithmetic by calling the schools in question and finding, as he did, that surplus space was available instead of there being a situation of overcrowding.

Maura Black, director of planning for the county schools, countered that Loeffel and Fahy had overlooked another portion of the document, which allowed for a temporary drop in enrollment at certain schools because of others coming into line this year. But the report still suggested, she said later, that the overall impact of new development might be to force new school construction.

The discussion concerning the two sets of school numbers left some observers (and commissioners) more confused than enlightened. "These numbers are hard to follow," Avery said afterward. "I had planned to vote no, but when he [Fahy] presented the facts on the schools, I changed my mind. I don't want to vote to stop growth. I just want smart growth. I just want to make sure taxes are not growing sky-high because of building in the area." Loeffel, too, found enough discrepancy to justify her repeating her earlier yes vote for the subdivision units, while yea-sayers Willingham, David Lillard, and Joe Ford cited the need not to deter legitimate development nor to impose restrictions that forced it out of the county.

None of that satisfied Thompson, who said, "The idea seemed to be that bad development is better than no development." He said that the uncertainty over the school numbers should have been an argument for deferring the vote rather than, as Loeffel seemed to suggested, for siding with the developer so as to avoid unfairness.

"And too much emphasis was placed on the issue of the schools alone," said Thompson. Yes, new school construction and the need to fund it are compelling reasons to be cautious about new development, but those aren't the only costs the county -- and the taxpayer -- will have to furnish. There's a good deal of infrastructure that will be costly in and of itself."

At one point during the discussion of the issue Monday, Hooks, a property appraiser by trade, announced to his colleagues the results of his own arithmetic concerning the new units. New tax revenues would be $300,000, he said. New costs to be borne by the county would be $900,000, for a net deficit of $600,000 overall.

Unlike the case with the school numbers, these figures drew no contradiction Monday.

Cohen Wins a Prelim

In an opinion released last week, Tennessee attorney general Paul Summers supported state Senator Steve Cohen in the senator's defense of his right to use his office facilities in campaigning for the forthcoming state-lottery referendum on the November 5th election ballot.

In his opinion, Summers said explicitly, "It is not a violation of any law for a state legislator to use his or her office for fundraising calls for a not-for-profit entity formed to promote the lottery referendum on the November 2002 ballot" nor "to use his or her office to disseminate information regarding the state lottery referendum."

Former ambassador Joe Rodgers, a representative of the anti-lottery group Gambling-Free Tennessee, had argued in a debate with Cohen at the Jewish Community Center earlier last week that Cohen was in violation of state law in using his state-assigned facilities on behalf of the lottery. Rodgers had cited a previous opinion from Summers suggesting it was unlawful to "use ... state facilities to prepare and distribute only material that directly advocates voting for a particular candidate, party, or referendum issue."

Rodgers had gone further, using the last few seconds of his time during the debate to suggest that Cohen's alleged violation might be "criminal" and stating, "I think, Senator, you and General Summers have something to talk about." Cohen, who was prevented by lack of time from responding during the debate itself, called the charge "sleazeball" and said it was misleading. For one thing, Cohen said, Rodgers' citation omitted some key succeeding words from the prior Summers opinion (responding to a request from state Representative and Republican chairman Beth Harwell) -- specifically, the follow-up clause "unless access to the facilities is provided to all sides on the topic" and the even more explicit sentence, "Further, the statute prohibiting the use of public buildings or facilities does not apply to popularly elected officials such as state legislators."

Cohen and Summers did, in fact, have "something to talk about," though it resulted in the explicitly stated follow-up opinion from the attorney general that would seem to license fully pro-referendum activity by Cohen, chief legislative proponent of the lottery for almost two decades. The senator crowned 16 years of effort when, as the last step of a multistage process, he persuaded a two-thirds majority of the state Senate last spring to authorize the forthcoming referendum.

At a press conference following receipt of Summers' latest opinion, Cohen announced that, while he would honor commitments to debate the lottery issue with opponents "of good will, sincerity and moral purpose," he would no longer participate in public forums with members of Gambling Free Tennessee, whom, on the basis of Rodgers' debate remarks and other statements made during the campaign, he regarded as lacking in those qualities.

(That meant that Monday night's debate on WPTY-TV Channel 24 had to be reconfigured, with state Representative Kathryn Bowers and Memphis School Board member Hubon "Dutch" Sandridge taking the pro-lottery position in Cohen's stead and Bill Wood and the Rev. Bill Bouknight opposing the lottery.)

Cohen also used the occasion of his press conference last week to rebut lottery opponents' contentions that poor citizens are disproportionate purchasers of lottery tickets in other states and that lottery participation tends to diminish year by year. In Georgia, whose lottery-funded HOPE scholarships provided the model for his own legislation, the reverse has been the case, said Cohen: Participation and the resultant revenues have risen year by year.

The lottery in Tennessee, if voted in next month, would establish scholarships on the Georgia model. Next year's General Assembly would still be required to pass enabling legislation to establish the machinery for the lottery.

* The issue of whether to build an arena for the NBA Grizzlies may have been resolved, but the question of how to build it is still a matter for some dispute -- at least in the minds of union representatives who fear that local workers will get short shrift as the project wears on.

A rally will be held under the auspices of the Memphis Building and Construction Trades Association at the arena site south of Beale Street on Friday, November 1st, says Edward Panis, business agent of Ironworkers Local 167. "We just want to be sure that there is participation by local workers as they proceed to further stages of the project. I've talked to several of the contractors doing iron work on this project, and it seems they're prepared to bring their own people down here from elsewhere."

Panis also said some Memphis workers involved in preliminary stages of the project may have been misclassified by out-of-state contractors and paid wages less than they are entitled.

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