Building the Next Memphis

Memphis has the potential to be one of America’s greatest cities. Unfortunately for all concerned, for nearly a century, the government of Memphis has failed to nurture that potential, and today–with its suburban areas revolting against its government–Memphis is paying the price for its failures. It is time for the residents of Memphis and Shelby County to put aside their differences and build a better government to replace the one that has failed.

Why Memphis hasn’t worked. The main problem facing Memphis in 1997 is that it is not one, cohesive city. Instead, Memphis today is a hodgepodge of settlements that have been annexed from time to time. In the years before World War II, the city confined itself to its natural growth area; after the war, annexations across the Wolf River and Nonconnah Creek brought in Frayser, Raleigh and Whitehaven, distinct communities with individual identities. The popular bumper sticker that reads “Midtown is Memphis” is more than a slogan; Memphis proper ends near the Parkways. The remainder was an afterthought at the time; today, Downtown and Midtown are still the only areas that are truly considered an important part of Memphis by its government.

Outside of Downtown and Midtown, the city’s government has annexed over a hundred square miles of property to continue favoring Downtown and Midtown. While Memphis’s government has poured millions into projects in “Memphis proper,” citizens of outlying areas have footed the bill. Some of Memphis’s neighborhoods, annexed decades ago, still lack essential city services; residents of Truse-McKinney, an African-American neighborhood in East Memphis, sold their community to developers after years of neglect by the government of Memphis. These failures of government would be hard to overlook with a truly representative city government; the current system makes oversights like these far too common.

Memphis’s city government has been able to virtually ignore the electorate since the Home Rule Charter of 1967 was established. The charter established 13 city council positions: 7 council members would represent districts, while the remainder were elected at-large. This arrangement was designed to prevent individual areas of the city from having effective power, and it worked beautifully to prevent the outlying areas from influencing policy. The 6 at-large districts made it possible for the proponents of “Memphis proper” to channel all of their energies toward Downtown and Midtown, without a unified opposition from the outlying areas. The recent realignment of the council, splitting the at-large seats into two 3-member super-districts (one predominantly white, the other predominantly black), while addressing some concerns about underrepresnting the city’s minority population (then blacks, now whites), did nothing to reduce the power of the “Memphis proper” lobby.

The solution. The problem with the current Memphis government is its unresponsiveness. Elected officials have no stake in effectively representing their constituents, so they pursue grandiose schemes in “Memphis proper” instead. The solution must be to return power to the people.

My plan, to establish a new type of government for greater Memphis, is designed to do exactly that. Unlike the current types of metropolitan government permitted under current law, this plan, which allows communities to voluntarily join in a “regional municipality,” permits the parts of the municipality to have district councils that can make planning decisions and decide what services will be made available in their areas.

The regional municipality of Greater Memphis would include the current city of Memphis and any other incorporated or unincorporated communities in west Tennessee that would want to join. The regional municipality would be divided into a number of “districts,” based on the traditional communities within the municipality; a proposed arrangement of Shelby County into 36 districts (31 districts from the existing City of Memphis and its reserve area, with the remainder allocated to the existing suburban cities and their reserve areas) is outlined on the enclosed map (viewable as a GIF or a PNG). For example, there would be districts of Midtown, Frayser, Parkway Village, Raleigh, and Whitehaven, to name a few. Each presently-incorporated community that chose to join the municipality would also have its own district.

Greater Memphis’s government would include a mayor and council members representing geographic areas within the municipality; each council member would represent a single district. The Greater Memphis government would have all of the powers of a city under present law, except it would not be able to expand its boundaries without the consent of the residents who are affected, and it would be barred from providing any services to areas outside the municipality for a lower rate than it provides those services to municipal residents for. Unlike the current metropolitan governments authorized by the state (Nashville-Davidson County, for example), it would be allowed to take in territory outside of Shelby County with the consent of voters in that territory.

Each district would have its own council, elected from wards in the larger communities and at-large in the smaller ones. The district councils would receive a per-capita allocation from the municipality to spend on local projects. They would also have first approval on all planning changes in their areas, and the municipality’s council would only be allowed to override a district council’s planning decision by a two-thirds vote. The areas that previously operated under a municipal zoning ordinance would be permitted to continue operating under those laws, and the municipal government would not be permitted to override decisions made under that pre-existing zoning ordinance. Each district council would also have input into the municipality’s road planning program.

Each district council would also have the power to hold referenda on upgrading services from the rural level of service to the urban level of service provided by the municipality. In areas with the rural area of service, sewer service and street lighting would be restricted to those areas already served by the City of Memphis or another current municipality. Property owners in rural service areas would also be responsible for their own waste disposal. In return for the lower level of service, property owners in rural service areas would not be levied the full municipal tax rate.

The existing public education system in Shelby County would remain intact. In the long run, it would probably be in the best interests of all Shelby County residents for the Memphis City Schools to be absorbed into the Shelby County School District; however, this topic is beyond the scope of this document, as the school systems have operational independence from their respective governments.

The hurdles. Allowing the residents of Memphis and Shelby County to create a regional municipality would require a bill to be passed by the state assembly providing for this form of government as an addition to Title 7 of the Tennessee Code. It would also require majority votes of residents in the existing city of Memphis and any other areas that would want to be included in the municipality. It will also require a change in the mentality and rhetoric of the leaders on both sides of the annexation-incorporation divide, and a willingness to recognize that a lot of time and money can be saved if both sides can get the vast majority of what they desire (for Memphis, more territory and a broader tax base; for suburban areas in Shelby and the surrounding counties, a greater voice in the future of their communities and an end to annexation without consent). Our community can’t afford the costs (financial and otherwise) of anything short of a fair settlement for all sides.

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