Thursday, February 2, 2017

Game on: City Gets a Deannexation Plan Of Its Own to Mull Over

Under pressure from Nashville, task force gets consultants' report on a strategy for "rightsizing Memphis;" decision due in April, unless legislature acts first.

Posted By on Thu, Feb 2, 2017 at 9:15 PM

click to enlarge City CAO Doug McGowen lays out the deannexation report to the city/county task force. - JB
  • JB
  • City CAO Doug McGowen lays out the deannexation report to the city/county task force.

The Strategic Footprint Review Task Force, the ad hoc city/county task force created last year to explore formulas whereby the City of Memphis might de-annex specific areas, met Thursday afternoon at City Hall to receive a consultant’s report from Caissa Public Strategies with recommendations on how to go about that process

As Memphis Mayor Jim Stickland had indicated it would when he hinted at the outlines of the report to Shelby County legislators in Nashville on Wednesday, the report identified specific communities —six in all — that conformed to some or all of three benchmarks that argued for de-annexation. As laid out by Memphis CAO Doug McOwen in a brief presentation to the 11 task force members (and a roomful of other interested parties) in the City Council’s fifth-floor conference room, the guiding principles were (1) the relative population density of an area; (2) the pluses and minuses of providing city services to the area; and (3) the extent to which residents of an area were clamoring to be de-annexed.

The six areas singled out in the consultant’s report were: a relatively uninhabited “river bottoms” area in the city’s southwest corner; a sparsely populated section of Frayser; a similar area in Raleigh; the Southwind/Windyke area in the southeastern part of the county; a ribbon of land in the Eads area between Highway 64 ands Gray’s Creek; the area north of Walnut Grove between Forest Hill Road and Rocky Point Road; and south Cordova.

Density figures because a stated goal of the city is to concentrate service demands for efficiency’s sake in areas where population is relatively large in relation to geographical spread. In 1960, as the report notes, the city’s density-per-square-mile was 3,371; by 2016, it was considerably more diffuse, with an average of 1,902 persons per square mile, a decrease in density of 56 percent.

The expenses of providing services (fire, police, sewers, etc.) to a given area vis-à-vis the tax revenues generated by that area is another index.

And the degree of residents’ professed reluctance to be taxpaying citizens of Memphis is a factor that speaks for itself. The clamor for separation has been expressed most unmistakably in the Southwind/Windyke and South Cordova areas, where annexation has been relatively recent.

The consultants’ report, wherein all the relevant factors are considered in depth, can be accessed here:
With the consultants’ report in hand, the city/county task force will deliberate on what to do about it and is scheduled, at some point in April, to make its recommendations to the City Council. The Council will then have the opportunity to vote up or down on some version of the de-annexation plan.

Pressure from Nashville

There is an urgency to the process. The consultants’ report declares that “rightsizing our city is the right thing to do” and makes the case that judicious de-annexation “is important to the health of our city” and a means whereby the city’s vitality could in fact be focused and regenerated. But the primary reason why the city is seeking to come up with a de-annexation plan lies not in such abstract and high-sounding motives but in the simple fact of self-defense..

Though the virtues of de-annexing this or that area had been discussed by Council members and city officials over the years, the issue is being forced by imminent and serious pressure from elsewhere in the state.

Memphis found itself basically compelled to provide a formula for annexation during the 2016 session of the General Assembly when a bill, introduced by rural legislators from elsewhere in the state, was about to be rushed through to passage. That bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Carter (R-Ooltewah) and Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson), would have allowed a relatively easy means to de-annexation for residents of any area annexed by a city since 1998 (the year in which the legislature redefined annexation procedures).

All that the Carter-Watson bill required for a given area to be de-annexed was a petition signed by a tenth of the area’s population, followed by a majority vote in a referendum.

The potential consequences of such a procedure were reckoned by city officials to be potentially ruinous, with a possible population loss of some 120,000 citizens and revenue losses, in property tax and local-option sales tax proceeds, of as much as $78 million annually. Strickland and other Memphis officials, assisted by the Chamber of Commerce and by allies in other affected Tennessee cities organized a hasty defense and were able to head off the Carter-Watson bill on the implicit promise to generate an alternative plan.

The Strategic Footprint Review Task Force was the result, and the repercussions for the city of the course suggested in the just-issued consultants’ report were far milder and arguably positive. The report states of the recommended plan, “It shrinks by 8 percent the area served by city government, immediately increasing service levels for the new, more dense municipal service area,” and it contends, apropos the current anxieties about an undersized police force, “Shrinking area patrolled by the MPD is the equivalent of adding officers to the force.”

By way of further minimizing the costs of its recommended course, the report says, “It shrinks city population by only 1.2 percent, and annual operating revenue by 1.1 percent.”

Potential problems

There are obstacles, perils, and unknown quantities associated with carrying out the plan, however. Even assuming that the task force should endorse the report in full and that the Council would respond in kind, there are no guarantees against the prospect of rival, more draconian plans in this year’s legislative session.

The premise of the city’s offering its own deannexation procedures is that it could thereby head off more drastic measures like the Carter-Watson sort, and, during their visit to Nashville this week, Strickland and his team members made an effort to touch base with the sponsors of that 2016 bill.

Perhaps a gentlemen’s agreement keeping harsher measures at bay can indeed be achieved, but the April deadline for resolving the Memphis plan in-house is close to the normal adjournment date for the General Assembly, and, in a legislature still dominated by rural elements with little love for the slick ways of cities, it could prove difficult to suppress impatient partisans of more punitive de-annexation remedies.

Also, even amid the expressions of Kumbaya after the unveiling of the consultants’ report at City Hall on Thursday afternoon — with Councilman Bill Morrison, who chaired the meeting, endorsing the report and County Commissioner Terry Roland calling it “awesome…a giant step forward” — there were misgivings.

City Council member Patrice Robinson appraised the presentation of the report as “great” but saw it as incomplete and, pending elaboration of several particulars (including evidence that services for the residual Memphis core would indeed be enhanced) cast a symbolic ‘nay’ vote in what seemed otherwise a tide of acclamation by the task force. Just as such inner-city legislators at state Representative Joe Towns have expressed reluctance to diminish the city’s “brand” by even minimal de-annexations, so might there be a strong undercurrent of resistance when the full Council comes to render its judgment.

And there is sure to be serious debate about projected annual revenue losses of roughly $6 million from the surrender of South Cordova and Windyke alone. As it happens, there were rumors going around Thursday that representatives of those two hotbeds of de-annexation sentiment were headed to Nashville next week to lobby for stronger and more immediate de-annexation than is called for in the provisional Memphis plan.

Still, Memphis has now made a decisive move of sorts in a game that will soon be played in earnest – on chessboards in both Memphis and Nashville — and one that will have real and enduring consequences.

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