It is not quite a year after Memphis was able to extricate itself from what had seemed an inescapable fate, the Carter-Watson bill in the Tennessee General Assembly. It seemed to come out of nowhere, passing the House in a jet-propelled jiffy and seemingly destined, on the strength of rural members' and suburbanites' resolve, to sail through the state Senate, saddling the city with what looked to many like a death sentence.
The bill's authors, both from the outskirts of Chattanooga, had already succeeded in passing a measure that abolished the former prerogatives of Tennessee cities to annex new territories at will, giving the residents of the state's unincorporated areas what amounted to a veto over their possible annexation by adjacent municipalities. In the process, they had rendered virtually null and void a compromise agreement of 1998, which had provided significant brakes on the cities' ambitions for growth but had acknowledged their right to certain areas as potential annexation reserves.
The measure proposed by the Hamilton County duo last year was designed not just to stall or hamper or regulate the growth pattern of cities. It was clearly and plainly meant to cut the cities down to size — literally — and Memphis had been a fairly blatant offender by the standards of the two sponsors, whose bill would have allowed any area annexed since that pivotal year of 1998 to escape its encompassing municipality with a petition signed by 10 percent of its residents, followed by a majority vote in a referendum.
It was only by the most heroic exertions by Mayor Jim Strickland and other city officials, in emergency collaboration with the local Chamber of Commerce and sympathetic allies in other Tennessee municipalities, that the bill was blocked in a state Senate committee and remanded off to summer study. The "study," such as it was, is over, and, with the General Assembly back in session, the word is that Carter and Watson could bring their bill up again, as Draconian as ever.
An implicit condition of the bill's tabling last year was a gentlemen's agreement of sorts: The city of Memphis, which had from time to time considered the principle of de-annexation as a useful option and a means of conserving its resources, might submit an alternative proposal. Last week, a city/county task force presented a plan that would divest the city of several relatively uninhabited areas that are expensive to service, as well as two recently annexed areas — Southwind/Windyke and South Cordova — that have been champing at the bit to be de-annexed. According to the report's authors, the bill would shrink the city's population by only 1.2 percent and its annual operating revenue by a mere 1.1 percent, while allowing a "right-sizing" that would benefit the city now and in its future planning.
Among other things, the task force's plan is a reminder of reality, a rebuff to escapism, a dose of brass tacks. It may, in fact, be the best option facing Memphis at the moment. It is, in any case, worth careful study by the city council, which can adopt and enact it this spring — perhaps pre-empting the legislature in the process.
Sometimes victory can be gained — and loss forestalled — through a judicious compromise.