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VOL. 127 | NO. 140 | Thursday, July 19, 2012

City Moves Closer to Cutting Auto Inspection Funding

By Bill Dries

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Two weeks after the Memphis City Council approved an either/or change to auto inspections against the advice of the city administration, the council took another step as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. embraced the earlier change.

Charles Weaver, from left, Tammie Savage and Dekeishia Tunstall test automobiles at the city of Memphis Motor Vehicle Inspection Station at 2355 Appling City Cove. 

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

The council in committee this week gave preliminary approval to a resolution that would cut all city funding of auto inspections effective July 1, 2013.

The proposal by council members Jim Strickland and Shea Flinn is designed to start a discussion about Shelby County government taking over the inspection and possibly expanding auto inspections to all county residents including those outside Memphis in approximately 11 months.

It will be voted on by the full council at its Aug. 7 meeting. The measure had seven votes or a majority of the full council during the Tuesday, July 17, executive session.

The resolution is a next step after the council approved at its July 3 meeting an option for those who fail the emissions test because of a “check engine” light but pass an “on board diagnostic” test. The options are a tail pipe test used on older cars or the diagnostic test, whichever one the vehicle passes.

“The council took bold action and what happened yesterday? The mayor jumped in front of the parade and said that’s a great idea,” Strickland said, referring to Wharton’s decision Monday to make the council change the policy at auto inspection stations effective immediately.

“What we need to do is take bold action now. It’s a simple choice in my mind. Either you want the city to continue to pay 100 percent of the remediation of this county problem or you don’t. In my mind, if you vote no, you are fine with the status quo.”

Council members were told by the administration two weeks ago that auto inspections for city residents only are mandatory to meet federal Clean Air Act standards and that ending the inspections would jeopardize federal funding for road projects. It’s been the same answer those asking about the city-only inspections have gotten from several mayoral administrations over the decades.

This week, General Services director Martha Lott and Bob Rogers of the county Health Department’s Air Pollution Control Board said if the city stops doing auto inspections, an option is for county government to take over the inspection process or for the state to do it and charge car owners a fee as part of the inspection.

They both doubted the city would lose $300 million in federal road funding. But Lott said the move might jeopardize recent federal funding for the Harahan Bridge boardwalk and the new Airways Boulevard-Interstate 240 interchange.

“There is a requirement under the Clean Air Act that the city of Memphis maintain at a minimum the tail pipe idle test,” Rogers said. “Someone needs to run it or there are difficulties.”

But Strickland had a 2009 letter from state officials saying if Memphis got out of the auto inspection business the state would step in and run the process. Rogers said the state already does that in other major Tennessee cities.

“I am just beyond disappointed that is what it has taken us to get to this point,” Flinn said, adding that he had relayed what city officials had been saying about the requirement to constituents when it wasn’t a requirement but an agreement by the city to do it. “It just seems like Memphis has been the only mule in the barn for some time.”

City Chief Administrative Officer George Little said he has talked with county leaders about a shift and they have not been receptive to it. Strickland argued that is reason enough to start public discussions just a bit shy of a year before the council could cut off the funding.

“Then let the county mayor and the County Commission tell Memphians we want you to continue to pay 100 percent. Put something in front of them and see if they’ll tell 70 percent of the county that we want you to pay for 100 percent,” he said. “They may want Memphians to pay 100 percent. But until we put something in front of them, it’s just academic discussion.”

A cutoff of city funding for auto inspections would mirror, in some ways, the council’s 2010 decision to cut the city’s share of funding to what had been the Memphis-Shelby County Health Department making the department and its expense the sole obligation of county government.

The council took the action after Strickland and others argued that none of the suburban municipalities were paying any of the funding to operate the health department.

The auto inspection stations are a bit different because county government currently has no role in the auto inspection process.

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