Sides Firm on Annexation but Stand Down

On February 2, 2012, in News 2012, by Mark Norris

By Bill Dries,
February 2, 2012

A year after the Memphis City Council and Republican state legislators from Shelby County had their first race to see who could pass their school consolidation measures first, there is hesitancy on both sides to stage a second political drag race on annexation.

There is also not a lot of trust.

Council member Harold Collins and state Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville struck up an email conversation Tuesday into Wednesday, in which Norris said he signed on a Senate sponsor to the two annexation bills in question despite some continuing doubts about whether they are constitutional.

One bill would allow citizens being annexed to petition for a referendum on an annexation and also permit a “deannexation” referendum. The other bill would take the unincorporated Gray’s Creek area west of the Fayette County line out of the city of Memphis annexation reserve.

What happens in the area – where Shelby County Schools are on one side of a line from Memphis City Schools – is critical to the success of the forming schools consolidation plan. It’s also a crucial turn in suburban efforts to form municipal school districts.

Norris expects a legal opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General’s office by the end of the week.

“Suffice it to say the bills will not advance unless and until the AG says they are defensible,” Norris wrote in the email exchange with Collins, saying at that point he wants all sides to meet face to face to discuss what comes next. “In short, no surprises. But I will be surprised if the AG blesses these bills, which is what I conveyed to the House sponsors when they brought the bills to me.”

Council members are also hesitant.

“I don’t want to compound a mistake by them with a mistake by us,” council member Jim Strickland said of an annexation move by the council that is up Tuesday, Feb. 7, for the first of three readings.

Council member Shea Flinn is among those who don’t want to call special council meetings to accelerate the three readings.

“I don’t want to see the sober analysis of the pros and cons of annexation to get lost in a right to be angry at the mistreatment we are receiving at the hands of our legislators in Nashville,” Flinn said. “I think that is a very separate issue from annexation. … Just like I don’t want them telling us what we can’t do, I don’t want to do something we wouldn’t do because of their actions.”

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. spoke on the issue, too.

“There is no way to outrun Nashville. They can undo what we do quite frankly,” he said. “When you’re making the rules as you go along, I’m not going to sit here and tell anybody that we can do this and it can’t be changed.”

The legislature appeared poised last year to approve legislation that would have called off or changed the terms of the Memphis-only referendum on schools consolidation. The city braced for a possible legal challenge of such a law and looked forward to a court case in which the state would have been arguing against a referendum.

But when he took the bill to the Senate floor, Norris didn’t try to stop the referendum at all. Instead, he amended the bill to set new terms for the process of schools consolidation to include a longer two-year timeframe to the schools merger and the creation and appointment of a consolidation planning commission in which the mayor of Memphis had no appointments.

Still pending is Norris’ bill that would require school buildings owned by Shelby County to be turned over to a municipal school district at no cost.

The annexation discussion is also a counterpoint to claims in the reports by Southern Educational Strategies LLC that are the legal argument for turning over the schools at no cost.

SES includes a legal opinion that pins the claim on court decisions in cases of annexations by cities in which public facilities are turned over to the cities at no cost.

Jim Mitchell of SES pushed the point in several presentations of the reports in the last month.

Mitchell told groups in Collierville and Germantown that auditors hired as part of the report could find no record that any city in the state had ever paid for public facilities turned over to them in an annexation.

Wharton told council members this week that the city of Memphis has already invested $80 million in sewer lines to the area at the center of the annexation dust-up and the city has already bought land for a fire station.

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