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VOL. 125 | NO. 168 | Monday, August 30, 2010

Charter 411

Examining the important details of a proposed metro government

By Bill Dries

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The metro government charter, to be voted on Nov. 2, would combine the Memphis and Shelby County governments into one new local government.

The 49-page charter is the work of the 15-member Metro Charter Commission, which began in November and completed its work just weeks ago.

The charter must pass two referenda on the Nov. 2 ballot, one in the city of Memphis and the other in the county outside Memphis, for the consolidated government to take power in September 2014.

Here is a complete summary of the consolidation charter coming to the ballot.

Who Pays For What

Services of the metropolitan government are divided into urban and general services taxing districts with the option open for a contract between the metro government and any of the six suburban municipalities for services the towns and cities might want from the new governments.

Here are the divisions of service by taxing district:

  • Urban (city of Memphis): ambulance services, fire protection, garbage and residential refuse collection, libraries, parks, police protection, public transportation, sanitary sewers, storm sewers, street lighting, street cleaning.
  • General (all of Shelby County): agriculture, airports, alcoholic beverage supervision, board of equalization, code management, community development and redevelopment, conservation and natural resources, constitutional county offices, courts, economic development, environmental management, Head Start, highways, bridges and traffic engineering, homeland security, health and welfare, hospitals, jails, government administration, metropolitan planning organization (MPO), planning, property assessment, public assembly facilities, railroads, vehicle registration and tax collection.


Those would be property taxes.

If you live in the city of Memphis, you live in the Urban Services District and you would pay an urban services tax as well as a countywide general services district tax.

Residents of the county outside the city of Memphis would pay the general services district tax. If those residents live in one of the five suburban municipalities with a property tax – Lakeland doesn’t have one – they would also pay that tax.

The metro council cannot raise the property tax rate in either district for the first three full fiscal years of the new government.

After that, any tax hike more than 5 percent of the previous year’s tax rate requires a three-fourths vote by the council.

Metro taxes, urban and general services and education taxes, will be listed on a single tax bill due the first Monday in October and delinquent on the first day of March – the current county tax bill schedule.

Starting Dates and Transition:

If approved by voters in the Nov. 2 referenda, the new Metro Charter would take effect Sept. 1, 2014.

But a transition period could begin as soon as the Nov. 2010 election results are certified.

A 15-member transition commission including the Memphis mayor and Shelby County mayor can work on the transition until Nov. 1, 2014. That when the metro council must adopt a transition plan recommended by the transition commission. There is no pay for being on the transition commission.

The group’s duties include adjusting the metro council district lines to reflect the 2010 census results no later than one year before the qualifying deadline for the 2014 metro elections.

City of Memphis officials elected in the regularly scheduled elections would hold their offices until Sept. 1, 2014, to dovetail with the new metro government.

The charter can’t order city and county elected officials to cooperate with the transition plan. But it urges them to “refrain from taking any action that would adversely affect the transition.”


There are no partisan primaries for metro government offices. Like the Memphis charter, the metro charter specifically prohibits them unless it is contrary to state law.

The first elections for metro mayor and all 25 seats on the metro council would be Thursday Aug. 7, 2014. Also on the ballot will be the same countywide offices, including sheriff, that were on the ballot this past Aug. 5. Those offices would have different duties under a metro charter. Also on the 2014 ballot is the office of assessor, which moves to the 2014 election cycle with or without consolidation because of Shelby County charter changes approved by voters in 2008.

That leaves only the office of General Sessions Court clerk on the 2016 election cycle.

There are no runoff elections. However, if the state approves and the voting machines have the capability, Instant Runoff Voting will be used in metro elections. Under the voting system, voters can rank candidates by number instead of simply checking a box for their preference. They can rank as many or as few candidates as they want.

If their first choice isn’t the top contender and no one in the race gets a majority, their second choices and others further down are assigned to those left in the “runoff” until a candidate gets a majority of the votes.

The Mayor

The metro mayor, the city’s chief executive officer, is elected to four year terms the same even numbered years that council members are elected. There is a limit of two consecutive terms.

It is a full-time job that pays $171,500, the same salary now made by the mayor of Memphis.

Candidates for the office must be 21 years old, registered to vote, current on all local taxes and have lived in Shelby County for at least one year.

The mayor has the power to sign and execute contracts between the city and outside companies and agencies. But if the amount of a contract is over one-twentieth of a percent of the annual operating budget, the mayor must get the approval of the metro council.

City Departments

The metro mayor appoints the heads of departments as well as a chief financial officer and general counsel for the metropolitan government. All are subject to confirmation by the metro council.

There are three “first departments” of the executive branch, meaning they are created and can only be changed by ordinance.

They are:

  • Fire Services
  • Law Enforcement
  • Transportation & Public Works

There are three “first administrative offices” of the executive branch, which are also created and can only be changed by ordinance.

They are:

  • Finance and Strategic Administration, run by the city’s Chief Financial Officer with day-to-day control of the government. The office includes an information technology (IT) officer appointed by the mayor to oversee a single IT department for metro government.
  • Inspector General, an office to audit functions of the government, investigate misuse of funds and suggest greater efficiencies.
  • General Counsel, a legal division with the power to issue binding legal opinions to all parts of metropolitan government in place of lawsuits in which one part of the government sues another part.

The executive branch must also have either a department or independent agency of economic development that reports directly to the mayor.

There are six other functions the executive branch is responsible for. The charter leaves their structure and the creation of any new departments to the new administration.

  • Health
  • Environment
  • Parks
  • Neighborhoods
  • Cultural Services
  • Planning
  • Community Development
  • Emergency Preparedness

City and County Bond Debt

The remaining debt of the city of Memphis becomes part of the tax burden in the urban services district.

The remaining debt of Shelby County government becomes part of the tax burden in the general services district.

Legislative Branch

The county is covered twice by a 25-member metro council that has 13 single-member districts that cover the entire county and a second tier of four multimember districts that also cover the entire county. Each multimember, or super, district has three elected representatives each.

The net effect is every voter chooses four representatives on the metro council since every voter lives in one of the single-member districts and one of the multimember districts.

Thirteen is a majority. Seventeen members is a quorum and a two-thirds majority.

The body meets the first and third Tuesday of each month.

Council members or “councilors” are elected to four-year terms of office. There is a limit of two consecutive terms and there are no staggered terms. The council members are all elected at the same time every four years.

Those serving on the council must be at least 18 years old, a registered voter, current on all local taxes. Each council member must have lived in the district he or she represents continuously for a year. Council members must live in the district they represent for their full term of office or the office can be declared vacant.

Serving on the council is a part time job with no government pension and council members cannot change their own salary, although they are allowed to redraw the district lines once every 10 years.

The starting pay for the first council would be $29,100 a year, which is the pay of Memphis City Council members and Shelby County Commissioners as of Sept. 1.

The council passes resolutions and ordinances including ordinances setting the city’s operating and capital improvements budgets as well as tax rates for the urban and general services districts.

The urban services district tax rate is set by three members of the council who live in Memphis, the urban services district, and are required by state law to set the urban services tax rate each year. They are selected each year by other council members to serve on the body whose only function is to set the tax rate.

District Lines

The metro council district lines had to be drawn based on the 2000 census because the 2010 census results aren’t due until December. The goal was to have districts that as much as possible separated the urban district areas or the city of Memphis from the rest of the county outside of Memphis.

That wasn’t possible in every case. Nine of the single-member districts are entirely within Memphis. District 5 includes the unincorporated Bridgewater area, which is surrounded by Memphis and is in the Memphis annexation reserve area.

Seven of the 25 council members – four from single-member and three from multimember districts – would be elected from outside Memphis, which is 28 percent of the council. That corresponds to the percentage of the county’s population that lives outside Memphis, according to the 2000 census.

Each of the 13 single-member districts has an average population of 69,036.

Six are majority white and seven are majority black. Each of the four multimember districts has an average population of 224,368.

Two are majority white and two are majority black. In each case the racial majorities are 70 percent or higher.

These are general geographic descriptions of each district. Districts 14-17 are the multimember districts:

  1. Millington, Lakeland, Arlington and Gray’s Creek
  2. Eastern portion of Raleigh and Bartlett
  3. Collierville, Southeast Shelby County and part of Hickory Hill
  4. Germantown and Memphis precincts on the southern and western border of Germantown
  5. East Memphis including Bridgewater
  6. Frayser and western portion of Raleigh
  7. Midtown and East Memphis
  8. Downtown, North Memphis, Kingsbury, Nutbush
  9. South Memphis
  10. Southwest Memphis
  11. Southeast Memphis and Airport area
  12. Parkway Village
  13. The rest of Hickory Hill
  14. All of Shelby County outside Memphis including the six suburban municipalities
  15. Midtown, East Memphis into Cordova and Bridgewater
  16. Hickory Hill, Parkway Village, Whitehaven
  17. Frayser, Raleigh, North Memphis, Downtown, Southwest Memphis

The Budget

The metro budget is prepared and presented by the metro mayor to the metro council. It must be balanced and accompanied by a five-year strategic plan for metro government.

If the council doesn’t approve the budget proposal by the end of the fiscal year, June 30, the city would continue operating with a continuation budget until a new budget is approved.

The mayor can shift money around in the approved budget within a division or department. But if the shift is over 1 percent of the department’s budget or there is a cumulative annual transfer over 5 percent of the department’s budget, the council must approve the shift.


The charter specifically rules out any consolidation of the two public school systems in Shelby County unless the two elected school boards vote to merge.

Local funding of the two school systems would become single-source funding with the new government since there would be no more city government and no more county government.

The funding would still be based under state law on average daily attendance of each school system.

Government Employees

Every civil service employee, city and county, keeps their job at least for now. The new government makes decisions on what it needs in terms of employees and a human resources system. The goal is a “professional, customer focused, performance driven and dynamic workforce.”

All existing pension and retirement agreements as well as labor memoranda of understanding and contracts with city and county employees remain in place and in force. The new government can create a new retirement and/or pension plan for employees hired as part of the new metro government.

A five-member civil service review board appointed by the metro mayor and confirmed by the metro council will hear appeals. The board serves without pay.


The annexation reserve areas remain as they are per the growth plan worked out by Memphis and the six suburban municipalities in the 1990s. The plan is due to be renegotiated under state law.

The six surburban towns and cities each continue to set the terms and timetables for annexations.

Annexations by the new government of those areas in what are now the Memphis annexation reserve areas would require in this charter approval in a referendum by those living in the areas to be annexed.


Within four months of taking office, the metro council must adopt an ethics ordinance governing the conduct of elected and appointed officials of the new government. The ordinance must establish an ethics commission and set the terms for the appointment and service of an ethics officer.

The commission hears ethics complaints and issues opinions on matters of ethics. It also oversees ethics training for government officials, elected and appointed. The ethics officer gives legal advice to the ethics commission. The commission makes an annual report to the mayor and metro council on suggested additions or modifications to the ethics code.

The code is built around a set of general rules that include disclosing any personal relationships that may give even the appearance of a conflict of interest; no use of power to provide favors of benefit to a family member, business client or business partner; no solicitation or acceptance of gifts or favors from those doing business with metro government; and no direct or indirect investment in any business that has a contract or agreement with metro government among others.

Vacancies, Resignations and Removals

There is no taking back a resignation. It is irrevocable.

No special elections to fill vacancies on the council. If there is more than two years left on the departing council member’s term of office, the position goes on the next scheduled metro election ballot. The rest of the council can appoint an acting council member until the election results are certified.

If there is less than two years left in the term of office, the council appoints someone for the rest of the term. In either case, the person appointed cannot run for the seat in the next election.

If the mayor leaves for any reason, the metro council sets an election within 80 days of the vacancy. If a regularly scheduled election is within a month of the time under state law to have the election, the election can be held on that date.

The metro council chairman becomes acting mayor until the election for an interim mayor is decided. The acting mayor cannot run for the job of interim mayor. If the chairman or vice chairman don’t want to or can’t become mayor, the council makes an appointment.


Any elected metro official can be recalled if 15 percent of the registered voters eligible to vote for the office sign a recall petition. A vacancy in the office is then declared. The official who is recalled is not eligible to compete for the appointment or in the election that follows.

They can, however, run for the office in subsequent elections.

Law Enforcement

A police director appointed by the metro mayor and confirmed by the metro council is responsible for all law enforcement with the exception of the suburban municipalities that have their own police departments.

Continued police protection for Lakeland and Arlington is required by state law.

The Shelby County sheriff runs the jail as well as the corrections center, serves warrants and provides courthouse and courtroom security.

Fire Protection

The Memphis and Shelby County fire departments would be consolidated. Fire protection is an urban services district function meaning Shelby County residents outside Memphis – the urban services district – would continue to pay a fire fee to the metro government for fire protection which would be provided by the metro fire department. Fire departments in the suburban municipalities would remain as they are.

Memphis Light Gas and Water Division

MLGW remains a municipally owned utility under state law. It could not be sold unless such a sale was approved in a referendum of voters living in the urban services district.

Other Boards

Appointed boards including the airport authority and The Regional Medical Center would remain as they are.

Two new boards or commissions would be created: A Neighborhoods commission bringing together leaders of neighborhood groups and a Multi Modal Transportation Commission that would bring together the heads of MATA and similar public transportation entities including the Airport Authority. This does not affect their individual status as boards and authorities.


City courts would become part of General Sessions Court with the records of the court handled by the General Sessions Court clerk. The office of City Court clerk would be eliminated.

The other courts and clerk positions would continue as required by state law which also controls how much they are paid.

The offices of public defender and divorce referee could be continued by ordinance approved by the new metro council.


The elected trustee collects all taxes eliminating the post of city treasurer.


The register continues all current duties and becomes manager of all records of the new government also developing a record retention policy with whoever is in charge of information technology.

Metro Clerk

This is what is now the Shelby County clerk, still collecting business fees and issuing marriage and motor vehicle licenses. Added duties include being clerk of the metro council.

Changing the Metro Charter

Several methods are in the charter.

The Metro Council, by a two-thirds vote, can propose charter amendments that then go to voters in a countywide referendum.

Voters can petition for a charter amendment, which would then go to voters in a countywide referendum.

Another charter commission could be formed.

A 15-member charter revision commission will be formed at least once every 10 years to review the charter, hold public hearings and nine months later report to the council on its recommendations.

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