Double Stuff 

When one of my friend's parents moved to the area, they bought a nice house in Collierville. Their daughter, a tried-and-true Midtown girl, asked them why they would want to live so far from the center of town.

Their answer was simple: For the same amount of money that they would pay for property and taxes in the city, they got a much larger house in the suburbs.

It's hard to argue with economics like that. For most Americans, their home is both their greatest asset and largest investment. And when faced with a decision that gives you more house for your money (and probably a better rate of return) or spending that same budget on taxes, it's a wonder anyone is still living within the city limits.

Of course, the city has a way of keeping its population stable and propping up a slumping tax base: annexation. Because of a state-mandated growth plan, the unincorporated areas of Shelby County have already been divvied up between the municipalities. It's not a question of if they'll be annexed, it's a question of when.

And for some of the Memphis reserve areas, when might be as early as the end of this year.

In mid-October, the City Council began the process of annexing two areas of the Memphis reserve: the Bridgewater area near East Memphis and a piece of southeastern Shelby County. If approved, the areas will become part of Memphis December 31st. A public hearing and the final council vote on the matter are scheduled November 21st.

The annexation proposal came at the request of the Needs Assessment Committee, an all-volunteer body created to review facility needs in both the city and the county school systems. Because of earlier annexations in the Countrywood and Berryhill areas, Memphis City Schools (MCS) officials were looking at an additional 2,500 students next year but not enough schools to handle them.

The proposed Bridgewater annexation would help solve this problem, giving MCS "the Dexters," an elementary and middle school crucial for serving students in that area. But though the annexation is necessary to solve some of the problems, it doesn't solve the main one: sprawl.

Shelby County and the city of Memphis are like a pair of conjoined twins, intricately connected and utterly dependent on one another, but the division of resources is not always equal. In part it's that inequality that pushes people to the east and eventually pushes Memphis east, as well.

Are two heads really better than one?

Some services, such as the health department, are funded equally between the city and the county governments. That means that city residents pay for their share once in their city taxes and once in their county taxes.

And that's not the only spot where citizens see double: look at the Memphis Police Department and the Shelby County Sheriff's Department, schools, mayors. The county and city governments are in discussions to combine fire services, but it looks like it will be a tough sell.

It would be one thing if the city and the county were two land masses, sitting side-by-side instead of overlapping. As it is: Why pay for the same -- or similar -- services twice?

In the past decade, the population of Shelby County Schools (SCS) has remained fairly stable. In 1995, it had 43,800 students. In 2005, it had 45,000. But the equation should look more like a complex algebraic formula: As citizens migrate to the reserve areas, bumping up the population of the county schools, the city schools lose students. Then Memphis annexes an area and the numbers reverse: SCS loses students while MCS gains them. And because both systems are "growing," they build new schools.

If you have the same number of students, why would you need to build more schools, you ask? Whether it's within the Memphis city limits or not, the local population is amassing in the southeast area of the county. SCS may have room for additional students in Millington, but busing them from the crowded southeast schools would cause skyrocketing transportation costs. The same could be said of the city schools. While they have space in their schools near downtown, they have an over-capacity problem in the southeast area, as well.

Wouldn't it be more efficient to provide services based on geography rather than jurisdiction? We don't want to get to a point where the only people who live in the city are the rich (because they can afford to) and the poor (because they can't afford to move).

Someone needs to draw a line on sprawl ... as long as it's not right down the center.

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