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VOL. 127 | NO. 175 | Friday, September 07, 2012

Luttrell to Reassess Local Air Quality

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell is about to examine county government’s entire approach to air quality issues after the Memphis City Council voted last month to cut all city funding for vehicle inspections at the end of the current fiscal year on June 30.

Vehicle inspectors test cars at the city of Memphis Motor Vehicle Inspection Station at 2355 Appling City Cove. 

(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)

The council vote is one of several decisions in recent months and years that have prompted what Luttrell views as a much-needed look at how the county responds to air quality requirements.

“I think it’s a fair reassessment of the entire issue of air quality,” Luttrell said. “What’s a federal responsibility versus a state responsibility versus a local responsibility. We’re going to have to sort all of that out.”

The county complied with ozone standards in 2010 according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. But it has been recently designated as being in non-attainment by the same agency for new tougher standards that just took effect.

The new non-attainment area is a metropolitan area that includes DeSoto County. Mississippi officials are considering legal action to get the DeSoto County border area out of the non-attainment zone.

“What I think we need to do is just kind of sit back and take a very holistic view of this whole problem of air quality and find out what our responsibilities are – what our obligations are and how we can improve the air quality,” Luttrell said.

Co-chairwoman of the 13-member group is Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy who is also on the state air quality board. The co-chairman of the group is Luttrell’s chief administrative officer, Harvey Kennedy. The group also includes Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, Shelby County Health Department director Yvonne Madlock, county public works director Tom Needham and Memphis General Services division director Martha Lott.

Luttrell wants the committee report to include what the county’s specific options are for possibly taking on something it doesn’t handle now – vehicle inspections.

Memphis residents are the only ones in the county required to get an annual inspection for their cars and trucks in order to get their state car tags renewed. The inspection is now primarily an emissions test of cars and trucks using on-board diagnostics for newer model automobiles and an emissions wand for older model vehicles.

But after months of trying to parse bureaucratic answers from various parts of City Hall to a basic question, the council voted to end the funding as a prelude to talks with the county on vehicle inspections. Auto inspection stations and the personnel to run them are a $2.8 million line item in the current city budget.

The council wanted to know if the city is required by any law to be the government entity that inspects cars. The city is not. The practice has been an unchallenged and unquestioned city government and city motorist responsibility for decades.

It was Lott who finally gave the council a clear answer, saying the city is not required to do the auto inspections. If the city doesn’t, the county could take over the responsibilities and if it doesn’t, the state would as it does in several other Tennessee cities. She also said the city is not likely to lose federal funding or have to repay federal funding used to build the recently opened Appling Road inspection station.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Attorney Kelly Rayne issued a legal opinion in response to an inquiry from Shelby County Commissioner Chris Thomas saying county government does not automatically inherit the vehicle inspection duties.

“I think there’s been an assumption on the part of many that we would just naturally assume the car inspection process – not necessarily,” Luttrell added this week.

“The first question I had was … is there an obligation on our part to pick it up? Not necessarily pick it up, but we do have some responsibilities when it comes to air quality. We need to investigate what those responsibilities are.”

County responsibility for auto inspections comes with a whole list of other questions about whether that means car owners outside Memphis have to go through the inspection process.

Rayne’s legal opinion questioned whether county government could mandate auto inspections anywhere but in unincorporated Shelby County. Luttrell wants the air quality group to explore the question as well.

“What is the scope of our authority? Can we only mandate certain air emission issues in the unincorporated areas or do we have responsibilities in each of the seven municipalities?” he asked. “We’re not going to make any hasty decisions about continuing or discontinuing anything.”

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