Friday, November 17, 2006

Memphis Annexation Vote Looks Like a Fiasco in the Making

Posted By on Fri, Nov 17, 2006 at 4:00 AM

The scheduled November 21st Memphis City Council vote on annexation, assuming it is not aborted, is starting to look like a fiasco.

The list of key players who have either recused themselves, said they will not be present, changed jobs, or backed away from supporting the annexation added more names this week. And on Friday, a scheduled briefing for council members was cancelled because so many of them are out of town or unavailable.

At a briefing on annexation plans Thursday, City Councilman Tom Marshall said he would recuse himself. Marshall is the council's leading expert on annexation and has worked closely with city schools officials and planners. He recused himself because his architectural firm does business with the city school system. Also Thursday, city council attorney Allan Wade, who emerged as the main proponent of annexation, said he will be out of town next week and urged the council to put off the vote until December 5th. A third key player, Louise Mercuro, the director of the Office of Planning and Development, recently moved to a new position with the Memphis city schools.

Already Mayor Willie Herenton has voiced concerns about the cost of annexation and police protection in the annexed areas at a time when he said the police department needs 600 more officers to protect the city's current residents. The annexations of Bridgewater and Southeast Extended would bring 36,000 more people into the city and expand its eastern boundary along Interstate 40 and Bill Morris Parkway. The city estimates it would collect $148 million in additional taxes and fees over the next five years in the annexed areas, offsetting the costs by more than $100 million.

Financial estimates given to council members Thursday, however, appear to understate the cost of police protection. OPD says it would cost $3.5 million for additional officers for Bridgewater, which has about 8,000 residents, and $700,000 for Southeast Extended, which has 29,000 residents. According to police reports, there were 279 burglaries and 244 assaults but no murders in Southeast Extended in 2005. The areas are to be annexed effective January 1, 2007, but it takes two to three years to hire and train new officers.

"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," says OPD's plan of services. But Police Director Larry Godwin has publicly stated that the department is understaffed and overworked already, particularly in southeast Memphis.

The OPD report also misstates the policy on new schools. "Memphis City Schools makes decisions about the need and location of all city schools for students in the city," says the services plan. In fact, Memphis takes over county schools in annexed areas such as Cordova, Hickory Hill, and Berryhill, and those school sites were picked by suburban developers and the Shelby County School Board.

The OPD claims about improved parks may also draw fire from annexation opponents. The report says "the City of Memphis will ensure that park and recreation facilities available to the annexed area meet the standards compatible with the rest of the city." But city parks are so neglected in older parts of the city that Herenton has recommended that some of them be closed because the city can't maintain them.

The City Council is scheduled to vote after a third and final reading of the annexation ordinance on Tuesday. Opponents will get their first chance to speak after being rebuffed at the first reading of the ordinance in October. Current city residents may also want to attend because they have a vested interest in the schools, sewers, and roads that they paid for to enable the growth of the suburban areas now targeted for annexation. — John Branston

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