City’s Car Inspection Debate Shifts Gears

By Bill Dries

With the closing of the city’s four auto inspection stations Friday, June 28, a new phase begins in a political dispute that started its present path in the last year.

Memphis automobile inspections ended Friday, June 28, after the city ended funding and the county and state haven’t stepped in.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

That is when the Memphis City Council voted to cut funding for the stations and the city employees who work in them.

With that much advance notice, the council’s hope was that either Shelby County or that the state of Tennessee would take over the inspection responsibilities and make it mandatory countywide.

The pressure began to build when state officials said the earliest the state department of environment and conservation could or would take on the responsibility was in two years.

“In other localities, we do run it, but we don’t pay for that,” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam said during a Wednesday visit to Memphis. “Where we run it, the users are paying for it or the local county is paying for that. My understanding is … we were willing to run it, but we don’t pay for it anywhere else so it’s not fair for us to pay for it here.”

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has said several times county government has no intention of either manning the stations or paying the city to continue doing the inspections even for an interim period.

When Luttrell said on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines” that the city had a contract with the state to do inspections for at least the next fiscal year, several city council members said there is no contract and challenged Luttrell to produce a copy of one.

The council also approved a severance package for the inspection station workers.

The closing of the stations Friday was to be followed Tuesday with an expected final vote by the council on an ordinance sponsored by council member Lee Harris that would exempt Memphians from having to get their cars inspected in order to renew their car tags annually.

He plans to amend the ordinance to make it retroactive to July 1. Council actions take effect when the minutes of a meeting are approved at the next council session.

“It will be a little weird,” Harris said.

The council action would follow a decision late last week by County Clerk Wayne Mashburn to renew car tags for city vehicle owners without an inspection indefinitely.

Because the city closed the inspection stations on June 28, with two days left in the month – including a Saturday when the stations would normally be open, the decision means motorists with tags that ran out at the end of June also can get their tags renewed without an inspection.

The council action to come however is important because it sets up a possible court fight that council attorney Allan Wade outlined for council members earlier this year as he reviewed Harris’s proposal.

If the state were to challenge the exemption, Wade said it could clear the way for the city to claim in court that the state, in requiring the inspections to continue for Memphis vehicle owners only, is violating the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution when the inspections should apply to all vehicle owners in the county.

Council members have also explored some kind of fee for all drivers on city streets but have faced tougher questions about the legality and even enforcement of such a fee.

Emissions testing began at the inspection stations in the 1980s. Safety inspections for lights, turn signals and other car features have been a ritual of car ownership in Memphis for much longer.