VOL. 131 | NO. 63 | Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Amendments Cloud Issue of De-Annexation
By Bill Dries
Tennessee state senators go back to work Tuesday, March 29, in Nashville on a modified de-annexation bill.
The Senate State and Local Government Committee will be reviewing a set of amendments to their version of the bill, which changed substantially from the House version in a committee session last week.
The Senate version of the bill as amended would allow for any community in any part of the state to petition for a de-annexation vote.
The House version of the bill permits de-annexation referendums in only five cities in the state, including Memphis.
“The biggest annexed communities have been in Rutherford County and Williamson County, the wealthiest community in the state of Tennessee,” Democratic state Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis said on the WKNO TV program Behind The Headlines.
“All of those folks are now involved in this,” Harris added. “I think the bill has some serious challenges.”
Democratic state Rep. Joe Towns of Memphis said the Senate version isn’t likely to pass in the House where bill sponsors have said their intent is to target “egregious” annexations – meaning annexations in five cities across the state.
“I don’t think the Senate version will pass in the House,” Towns said on the same television program. “Everyone now begins to feel the gravity of losing money, losing revenue, losing population … which is actually to me going to illuminate the hypocrisy of the House.”
Towns and Harris are the most vocal opponents of de-annexation in their respective chambers.
Proponents of the legislation were invited to be on the program, but couldn’t make the Friday taping because of the Easter holiday. They are being invited to the next taping of Behind The Headlines.
Backers of the de-annexation proposal say past annexations have included promises of city services that the city didn’t follow through on, most notably in south Cordova. They also cite declining property values in those areas.
“The city didn’t intend for that to happen, did not really cause that to happen,” Towns said of property values. “You had a problem across the country, so those numbers should not be taken into account.”
Harris said city government shouldn’t have to answer for the condition of the economy.
“The city of Memphis faces severe challenges and the city of Memphis has not lived up to its potential. I don’t doubt that,” he said. “The question is where do you go from here? Do you blow up the city and bankrupt it because you’re not satisfied with some decisions that have been made? I’m not satisfied either and I decided to get in the game.”
Harris also said Shelby County government isn’t ready to step in with services for areas should they de-annex, because of the quick effective date of such decisions in both bills.
“This is a major structural change with no plan in place for service delivery,” he said. “It is not just a challenge. It may very well be impossible.”
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell has not accepted Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s estimates of the impact of de-annexation, saying further study is needed. And de-annexation proponents have questioned City Hall’s presumption that citizens in all 10 residential areas annexed by Memphis since 1998 would get the signatures necessary for a de-annexation referendum and then vote to de-annex.
At the outset of Tuesday’s committee session, the Senate bill also has no date for how far back the annexations eligible for de-annexation votes can go. That could change quickly Tuesday on Capital Hill.
The House sponsors settled on, and the House passed a bill that allowed de-annexation referendums for annexations that happened as far back as May 1998.
When that date was set, Strickland said the defeat of the bill was his administration’s top priority in the current legislative session.
He said the impact on Memphis would be “devastating.”
Prior to that, Strickland said he was willing to talk about de-annexation in the Southwind-Wyndyke and south Cordova areas, the city’s two most recent annexations.
They are likely the last for some time since the Tennessee Legislature outlawed annexation by ordinance in 2013 and state law now requires referendum approval by those being annexed for any annexation to take effect.
“Those other communities seem to become necessary to withstand some sort of legal challenge because Southwind and south Cordova are majority white and Hickory Hill (annexed in 1998) is majority minority,” Harris said. “You can stave off some equal protection challenges if you have a majority minority community included.”
And 1998 was also the year of the last sea-change in annexation law before annexation by referendum. That was the year each county began moving to “growth plans” in which the cities and towns within a county negotiated and agreed to a plan in which each laid out their annexation reserve areas.