Toy (Town) Story 

The city-county squabble

The city-county squabble

In Memphis

Memphis—Imagine Nashville without Bellevue, Donelson, or Madison. Imagine Metro with a large swath of land cut out of it between Tyne Boulevard and the Williamson County line. Then imagine a dozen or so other small neighborhoods in Davidson County, far from the inner city, who want to form their own governments so they’ll never be part of the city itself.

That’s roughly the position Memphis finds itself in, thanks to the so-called “toy towns” movement. Suburbs that Memphis planned to annex are suddenly filing petitions that would allow their residents to vote on whether to become towns in their own right. If the suburbs choose to “incorporate,” or become separate towns, they—along with their lucrative residential and commercial property tax base—would be kept out of the hands of Memphis. Incorporation, however, would also prevent their being swallowed up in what they perceive to be the hell of Memphis.

Incorporation has literally become the talk of the town here, consuming the city to a degree that has rarely been seen in the last decade. The issue is dominating “letters to the editor” columns, talk radio, and newspaper editorials. It has divided Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and his counterpart, Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout (who succeeded 1994 gubernatorial candidate and former County Mayor Bill Morris), to a degree that is unusual even by Memphis standards.

Herenton says nothing less than the future of Memphis is at stake. Others agree. The proposed towns that are up for incorporation include more than 100,000 residents and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of property, including the brand-new Wolfchase Galleria shopping mall, which is the biggest in the state of Tennessee.

As city fathers cast about for the direst prognostications, they are also spending time bashing the almost unnoticed piece of legislation that slipped through in the final days of the 1997 legislative session and caused this scenario to develop in the first place.

The bill that became a new state law is now called Chapter 98. It essentially makes it easier for small communities close to urban areas to form their own towns. The author was Lt. Gov. John Wilder of nearby Fayette County, who claims his only intention was to help Hickory Wythe, a tiny community in his home district.

Around here, “stealth legislation” and “city killer” are a couple of the terms being used to describe the bill. Wilder has also become about as popular as Tennessee Oilers owner Bud Adams in some quarters of Memphis. Another casualty in the process has been the Tennessee Municipal League (TML), which supposedly helps cities and ought to have known about the bill and stopped it. In the wake of the toy town fiasco, the Commercial Appeal recently tore into TML with a wide-ranging exploration of TML’s management.

If some are searching for people to blame, however, there are others who are quite happy about what may soon transpire. In suburbia, successful incorporation efforts will mean that certain individuals will find the key to their independence. They will not get gobbled up by the city of Memphis. In fact, they will have their own little governments, with no city taxes, no city intrusions, no city headaches. There will be so much independence, in fact, that “Independence” is the name of one of the proposed new towns.

The underlying cause of the particular frustration right now may be hard to grasp by a city like Nashville, which has had a consolidated government for 35 years. Memphis and Shelby County have separate governments. There is one government for the city, and one for everything that lies outside the city but still within the county lines.

Because of the twin governments, Memphis and Shelby County have separate mayors, school systems, property tax rates, and legislative bodies. The city has a population of around 610,000, 56 percent of whom are black. The county itself—not including the city—has a population of 225,000, and is mostly white, thanks to a heavy concentration—and steady influx—of white suburbanites.

If you live in Memphis, you pay both city and county taxes. If you live in an unincorporated area of Shelby County, you pay only county taxes. Memphis Countians, in other words, pay about half what Memphians do. It doesn’t take much sophisticated economic theory to figure out where people will want to live.

In the best of times, Herenton—who is black—and Rout—who is white—have cobbled together an amiable and occasionally constructive buddy-buddy partnership. In the worst of times, they feud and insult one another.

These are the worst of times. The name-calling has been going on now for several weeks. Depending on your perspective, the situation is increasingly amusing or tragic, or both.

“He’s insecure, and he lacks courage,” Herenton recently said of Rout.

“Un-American,” “knee-jerk,” “full of holes,” and “totally inappropriate,” Rout said in describing Herenton’s proposal to get out of the mess.

Last year—1996—the city and county agreed on a compromise called “The Balanced Growth Plan.” Under that plan, the county government supported Memphis’ right to annex unincorporated areas. In return for that concession, the city promised the county it would extend sewers into the county. Now, because of the toy town law, and the fact that the places Herenton was going to annex are becoming their own towns, he has said this 1996 growth plan is moot. As a result, he is threatening not to turn on the sewers in selected developments that are going up in the county. He has also threatened to deny sewer services to the toy towns.

Two weeks ago, Herenton marched over to Rout’s turf, the Shelby County Commission chambers, and personally delivered his “Formula for Fairness,” which would replace the 1996 plan. The Formula for Fairness would shift more tax burden and more services to the county and impose a five-year moratorium on new annexations. Herenton describes his plan as a “pro-city” agenda, and in arguing for the greater good of the city, he may be hoping to take the issue of race off the table.

Rout, a Republican who has to run for reelection in 1998 and is a resident of one of the proposed new towns, has refused to take a position on incorporation. Claiming it is an issue for the courts to decide, he has proposed establishing a “Committee on Alternate Futures.” On Monday of this week, he responded to Herenton in detail, calling the city mayor’s formula “an exercise in accounting, not an exercise in community vision.” County government, he said, is “not the enemy of anyone, including the city. We are the best friend the city ever had.”

What the incorporators have going for them is grassroots support. They also have the legal support of the state attorney general’s office, which has successfully defended the new law against the challenges of the city of Memphis. Last week, the Shelby County Election Commission scheduled the first incorporation votes for Dec. 9.

For its part, the city has the support of prominent developers who have challenged the constitutionality of Chapter 98 in federal court. Also, the city’s control of the sewer system for Memphis and Shelby county is a powerful weapon.

Geographically speaking, Memphis is a big city, bigger than St. Louis, Atlanta, and Birmingham combined. Through annexation, it has grown to some 280 square miles. But only one small annexation has been completed in the last 20 years. Others were thwarted by lawsuits. Now it looks like Chapter 98 might do the job.

John Branston is editor of special projects for The Memphis Flyer and Memphis magazine.


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