Thursday, November 16, 2006

Ready or Not

Will the City Council follow through on annexation next week?

Posted By on Thu, Nov 16, 2006 at 4:00 AM

Members of the Memphis City Council face one of the most important and trickiest votes of their political careers next week.

The issue is annexation, and the stakes include 37,000 new Memphis residents, population bragging rights, several million dollars a year in property taxes, and custody of seven schools in the annexation areas.

There are wild cards aplenty. Residents opposed to annexation, which includes the areas of Bridgewater east of Cordova and Southeast Extended south of Nonconnah/Bill Morris Parkway, are getting organized for next Tuesday's public hearing. Mayor Willie Herenton is wary of expanding the city at a time when the police department is already stretched thin. And politicians, lawyers, and developers have already struck deals exempting a few neighborhoods next to the annexation areas, including the exclusive gated community Southwind and a subdivision adjoining the new Southwind High School, which is one of the main things driving the whole process.

Time is short. The annexation is supposed to take effect on January 1, 2007. The City Council has already approved it on two of the three required readings. The Land Use Control Board has approved the plan for implementing services. The new high school is scheduled to open next fall, taking students -- most of them black -- from Germantown and Houston high schools. Southwind High School will eventually become part of the city school system.

Here's a closer look at the key issues and players.

Bragging rights. If the annexation goes through, Memphis will grow to just over 700,000 people. Thanks to previous annexations of Cordova and Hickory Hill, Memphis has been able to stay off of the list of shrinking cities such as Detroit and Buffalo. Memphis, currently the nation's 18th-largest city, would become the 16th-largest.

Schools and race. Because of the surrounding neighborhoods and the boundary lines, Southwind High School will be a majority-black school the day it opens. In Memphis and Shelby County, the trend is that such schools steadily lose most of their white students, as Kirby High School did in the 1990s and as Cordova High School has more recently. The city school system is more than 90 percent black and Hispanic.

Germantown High School is a majority-black school even though the city of Germantown is less than 5 percent black. Many of those students will be shifted to Southwind.

Separate and unequal taxes. The annexation map creates three classes of citizens: Memphians, Shelby County residents, and provisional Memphians. In several places, all three groups share the same street and live within sight of each other, but the city residents will pay roughly twice as much in property taxes. Real estate agents and homebuilders sell subdivisions along Shelby Drive and other east-west roads with signs saying "COUNTY SCHOOLS" and "NO CITY TAXES." A sign that says "MEMPHIS CITY LIMITS" might as well say "WEST NILE VIRUS ZONE." One tax oasis, the Whisper Ridge subdivision by Signature Builders, is immediately west of the new high school and nearly surrounded by annexed territory.

Another kind of tax haven is represented by Southwind and Windyke, along Winchester. Residents negotiated their way out of annexation until 2013. For the next six years, 494 homeowners around the Southwind Tournament Players Golf Course will save as much as $30,000 a year, while 517 middle-class homeowners in Windyke will save about $1,500 a year. Collectively, county assessor's figures show Memphis is exempting 1,011 homes and leaving $19.7 million in property taxes on the table.

Fear of foreclosures. Memphis, as everyone knows, is the bankruptcy capital of America. A real estate closing attorney and a developer say thousands of soon-to-become Memphians in Bridgewater are living on borrowed money, with little or no equity in their homes. Five or 10 years ago, they bought starter homes with interest-only loans. Put another $125 a month in taxes in their tight budgets and bankruptcy lawyers could be the next ones doing a land-office business.

Mayor Willie Herenton is on record saying that "mayors don't annex" and that the Memphis Police Department needs 650 more officers. In previous annexations, Herenton's division directors met with community groups to buck up their spirits. If the mayor criticizes the plan of services or is a no-show at the council meeting, it could make some council members decide to oppose annexation or take it off the table.

City Council chairman Tom Marshall, the council's senior member and most adept compromiser, may find himself in an

click to enlarge Tom Marshall - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
uncompromising position. An architect by trade, Marshall is the link with the Memphis City Schools and the Office of Planning and Development. He has been meeting with developers and planners for the city and county and the two school systems to draw the all-important line. He has mayoral aspirations, so don't look for Herenton go out of his way to help. If this annexation goes through, it will be because of Marshall, not Herenton.

The black middle class: A fixation on the past plus the Memphis City Schools' take-the-money-and-run certification of schools as low-income so that students can get free lunches gives a distorted picture of the city. The black middle class is thriving, among other places, in subdivision after subdivision in southeastern Shelby County. Rufus Washington, head of a neighborhood coalition opposed to annexation, has lived in his home for 13 years. There is a county public library less than a mile away on six-lane Shelby Drive and Germantown Road. Sheriff's cars patrol the streets. Neighborhood children attend Highland Oaks Elementary School and Southwind elementary and middle schools, all county schools with higher ratings than city schools. The notion of "county services" as rural or second-class is outdated.

When is a deal not a deal? Putting off annexation for another day has its own problems. Memphis and surrounding suburbs reached a historic agreement on annexation reserve areas six years ago. If densely populated subdivisions that are clearly within the Memphis annexation reserve area cannot be annexed, then the deal is meaningless. The City Council represents 670,000 Memphians already in the city limits. Their taxes have helped pay for the roads, sewers, and schools in the suburbs. Now that the bills are due, will the council collect?

Costs and benefits: Property taxes account for 63 to 65 percent of city and county revenue, according to Shelby County trustee Bob Patterson. It takes roughly 12 years for an annexation to pay for itself, Patterson says, but less than that if libraries, schools, and fire stations are already built. But there's another risk that can be called the Fox Meadows Factor. Twenty-five years ago, Fox Meadows was a thriving southeastern suburb near the then-new Mall of Memphis. After it was annexed, the mall closed and tax collections declined. The same thing is happening in Hickory Hill.

The bottom line. Annexation opponents' best hope is delay, probably pegged to 2013, like Southwind and Windyke, in return for a promise not to file a lawsuit. If they simply engage in Memphis bashing, they will anger council members who may accuse them of being ungrateful freeloaders who don't pay their share.

Proponents have to unite the city powers-that-be -- including Herenton, Marshall, police director Larry Godwin, and Superintendent Carol Johnson -- in a sales job and a promise of safe streets and safe schools. But the damage may already have been done.

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