Friday, February 28, 2003

CITY BEAT

How Shelby County came to have a slow-growth policy.

Posted By on Fri, Feb 28, 2003 at 4:00 AM

END OF THE LINE This is what a no-growth policy looks like. The mayor of Memphis, the mayor of Shelby County, the mayors of six municipalities, 13 Memphis City Council members, 13 Shelby County Commission members, two school superintendents, nine Memphis Board of Education members, and seven Shelby County Board of Education members can't agree on how to pay for a proposed new high school in Arlington, so nothing happens.

And, for a while at least, suburban sprawl along Interstate 40 in northeastern Shelby County is slowed if not stopped.

That's it. No seminars, no proclamations, no conferences, no consultants. Just good old politics and inaction.

Contrary to a recent Commercial Appeal editorial, no action is always an option, maybe not the best option but not necessarily a bad one either.

One of the stranger notions of our time is the alleged "crisis" that is forcing Shelby County to build a new high school in Arlington, which the great majority of Shelby County residents could not find without a map. Arlington has become the focal point of the whole debate about how to fund public education and the cost of new schools in Memphis and Shelby County.

The Arlington Express looked like it was running out of steam this week. Mayor Willie Herenton showed no signs of budging from his insistence that the only real solution is to combine the two school systems, but no other mayor or elected body has seconded the motion. County mayor A C Wharton's counterproposal has been embraced mainly by the 30 percent of Shelby County residents who live outside the city of Memphis and are represented by an all-white school board.

Other alternatives to the current policy in which new school construction in the county triggers new school construction in the city also lack key support. This week the Shelby County Commission postponed a vote on the use of rural school bonds as a white Republican, Joyce Avery, joined a black Democrat, Julian Bolton, in voicing concern about that idea and the assumption that Arlington is more needy than, say, Millington.

"I really think we're at the end of the line," said commission chairman Walter Bailey, who doubts that rural school bonds have enough votes to pass.

As long as there are two systems, Bailey favors the current funding formula because he thinks it is fair to the city of Memphis. He worries that Herenton's challenge to the county to pay for its own schools without taxing Memphians could come back to haunt Memphis when its own schools need repairs.

"That's letting the camel get his nose inside the tent," he said.

Avery and Bolton's sudden alarm about Millington High School, which is part of the county system, is bad news for Arlington. As Bolton noted, Millington residents have been paying municipal and county property taxes for years and their old high school needs work.

Millington is the designated Needy Old School of the day, but a better choice would be Central High School, which has seen five generations of Memphians walk through its nearly 100-year-old halls with that unmistakable smell of Old Building. If more than 1,000students can go to the same school that Machine Gun Kelly attended and perform capably, even exceptionally, then what's the rush in Arlington?

Here are three things that haven't been done yet in Arlington:

  • Tax the neighbors. Homeowners in nearby Lakeland pay zero property taxes. That's right, zero. Lakeland, with several new subdivisions, is the only municipality in Shelby County without a property tax.

  • Tax the residents. Arlington has a property tax rate of $1, which is lower than Millington ($1.23), Germantown ($1.30), Collierville ($1.45), or Memphis ($3.23).

  • Tax homebuilders. Every time somebody suggests an impact fee of $1,000 or $2,000 a lot, the homebuilders and their agents shoot it down as an intolerable hardship that would cause home construction in Shelby County to dry up.

    The plain evidence suggests this is nonsense. Developers and builders say people are taking money out of the stock market and putting it in their homes instead.

    "The question people ask is how much house can I afford," says suburban developer Jackie Welch.

    The spread of new subdivisions in Shelby County shows strong demand, and rock-bottom mortgage loan interest rates of 6 percent offset the added cost of impact fees that would be passed on to buyers and rolled into the loan. Home loan demand is so strong that Wall Street Journal ran a story this week about truck drivers who are getting rich in their new careers as home mortgage brokers.

    The bottom line is that new schools are magnets for growth or flight, whichever you want to call it. The crowded county school system is the product of an ad hoc "growth policy" that's let developers choose and sell sites to the school board in close proximity to their subdivisions and shopping centers for the last 15 years.

    There has been no formal discussion of changing to a policy of "slow growth" or "no growth." It has just happened by gridlock and inaction. Underlying that inaction is the revolutionary notion that if the Shelby County Board of Education wants a new high school in the boondocks, then maybe it should A) look more like the rest of Shelby County and B) ask the direct beneficiaries to help pay for it.

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