To the naked eye, this week's posted agenda of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners looked about as unsexy and undramatic as could be imagined. No arena disputes, no personnel issues, no overtly racial or partisan controversies, not even any funding matters, as such. Nothing but three or four zoning proposals -- the staple of county commission meetings in good times and bad, the cause of stale air and iron butts, and the bane of the evening-news TV cameras. Yawn!
Except that this was the first full meeting of the newly elected commission, and it turned out that the new members meant what they said during their campaigns when they complained about urban sprawl and the time-honored practice of giving automatic okays to developers. Almost all of the new commissioners had articulated ideas about controlling sprawl similar to those advanced most notably by former Commissioner Buck Wellford, who chose not to seek reelection this year. But, hey, the election's over now; so it's back to business as usual, right?
Wrong! Of the three housing developments that came up for zoning approval Monday, only one got the necessary number of votes, only because it was clearly identifiable as destined for single adults -- "empty nesters," in the words of the developer. Two other proposals were voted down -- one adjoining the city of Millington; another in a part of east Shelby County that has seen building boom after building boom in the last several years. Some of those latter developments, located in the Wolf River floodplain, have posed environmental problems. All of them have ended up forcing the construction of new schools to serve the newly transplanted populations. Moreover, as even the most inattentive voters must have learned during the recent political campaign, each dollar spent for capital construction on a new county school has had to be matched by three dollars raised and earmarked for the coffers of the city school system. That's the result of the ADA (Average Daily Attendance) formula so reviled during the campaign but still a fact of life in legislative statute and, therefore, in Shelby County.
Taking the lead in holding the line against the new developments was Commissioner Michael Hooks, who proclaimed what would seem to be a reasonable policy that no new construction projects should occur without provision first having been made for financing the new schools that will come in their wake. Joining in this common-sense declaration were new members Bruce Thompson and Joyce Avery, along with carryover member Linda Rendtorff. And there were enough new and old members voting no on at least one of the issues at hand to hold the line. Even some of those voting aye, like Commissioner Tom Moss, a homebuilder by trade, seemed reluctant to do so and voiced cautionary rhetoric similar to that of the opponents.
At one point, Commissioner Joe Ford, who voted aye on all proposals, lamented that some $6 million in potential tax revenues had thereby gone off the table. In his best no-nonsense manner, Hooks, a professional appraiser, forced Ford to revise those estimates downward, first to $2 million then to $1 million.
The resisting commissioners are right. To keep approving new construction without a plan to pay for new schools doesn't add up. It's about time we had a commission that can do simple math.
This week it starts in earnest — the questioning. You can't escape it. It comes from your spouse, your kids, your parents — at the breakfast table, in the car, on the phone, via email: "What do you want for Christmas?" ...