Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Business As Usual

Why suburban residents might favor a new metro charter.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 25, 2010 at 1:47 PM

And they're off.

Rebuild Government has started running regular commercials touting the benefits of a new metropolitan government. The vote is on November 2nd.

If it passes, the changes won't begin until 2014 or later, by which time Memphis could be sliding toward a population of 500,000 if the dire predictions and trend lines of the rebuilders are right.

"If we are to turn around our economy, we need government to be as streamlined, entrepreneurial, and innovative as the economy in which we are trying to compete," says one Rebuild Government press release.

Try telling that to the current governments, where it's business as usual this week.

Interim Shelby County mayor Joe Ford and commissioners held their last meeting before the new mayor and commission take office in September. The main piece of business was maxing out paid time-off and vacation benefits for more than 6,000 county employees.

If you're a city or county employee, the beauty of two governments is lateral mobility, not innovation. Ford and Memphis mayor A C Wharton are among the hundreds of employees who have worked both sides of the street.

Even on the long chance that consolidation passes, city and county employees and elected officials have four more years to max out their pensions, salaries, job security, and benefits. Suburban governments have four more years to annex territory, build walls, and cherry pick wealthy residents and jobs with the lure of better schools, safer neighborhoods, better grocery stores, better sports facilities, and a location closer to the commercial heart of Greater Memphis along Poplar Avenue between Interstate 240 and Germantown.

And, of course, lower taxes. Wharton calls property taxes "the mother's milk of municipal finance." Taxes in Memphis are 75 percent higher than they are in some parts of Shelby County. The new charter doesn't change that, not in November and not in 2014. It simply makes Memphis "the urban services district" as opposed to the lower-taxed suburban "general services district." Rates are capped until 2017.

Some give more milk than others. To take one example, Southwind, the gated residential golf course community, was annexed by Memphis in 2006, but the culmination was postponed until 2013. Residents pay a rate of $4.06 compared to the $7.21 rate paid by Memphians. When I called the Memphis/Shelby County Division of Planning and Development — a consolidated agency — to ask if passage of the charter referendum would nullify the annexation or subject it to voter approval, no one knew.

Over at the Memphis City Council, the big debate was over historic preservation and the merits of a proposed new drugstore in Midtown. The Commercial Appeal editorialized in favor of the Midtown District Overlay: "That means brick, with parking in the back or side, plenty of glass on the front, and a close connection with the street."

That sounds like the giant abandoned Sears Crosstown building in Midtown, with the glass in the form of hundreds of broken windows and the blight so close you can touch it. I'd take a CVS Pharmacy there any day.

The Center City Commission, which operates independently of the city and county, is trying to attract Pinnacle Airlines to downtown with a package of incentives that includes a property tax freeze (call it mother's milk lite) and free parking. In a state like Tennessee with no tax on earned income, a property tax freeze is a big deal.

The problem is that one company's tax abatement is someone else's tax obligation. And what future downtown newcomer is going to take less than Pinnacle or Bass Pro was offered?

Rebuild Government is urging people to read the charter. If they do, suburban residents may well realize that they are being offered a good deal: a separate school system, a separate tax rate, and annexation rights within their boundaries, among other things.

Memphis residents, on the other hand, will see that they are stuck with the city school system and its debt load, an unfavorable urban services tax rate, and a shrinking tax base. They are also likely to be on the hook for a special tax assessment to cover $57 million owed to the schools in back payments.

One government instead of two won't eliminate the inequities in taxes, schools, and amenities in the urban and general services district, or in Memphis and the county, whichever you call it.

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