Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Consolidation Is A Tough Sale On Its Best Days



With the prospects looming in coming weeks of a return to rhetoric in which the “c” word is hurled, it’s worth remembering the facts of consolidation, whatever your point of view.

Despite the pervasive belief that Memphis is somehow different than most cities in the country with our two-headed local government, the truth is that of the 3,034 counties in the U.S. and the 20,000 cities, only 35 have consolidated governments, and only nine of these are in the top 100 largest cities.

It’s amazing how widespread the confusion is. A few years ago, one of Memphis’ leading CEO’s was speaking to a Leadership Memphis class about what should be done to move our city ahead. One suggestion was to consolidate our governments so we could compete with Dallas, Atlanta and Houston. Of course, none of those three cities has consolidated governments, but nobody seemed to notice.

Another misperception is that more and more cities are chosing to consolidate. Actually, most major cities that consolidated did so in the 19th century and the first few years of the 20th. In fact, no city and county the size of Memphis and Shelby County have consolidated in the past 100 years.

Therein lies the starkest lesson about the difficulty in pursuing consolidation. In the past 80 years or so, there have been almost 150 consolidation referendums, and only 25 were approved, most of them for smaller cities. Even the widely reported consolidation of Louisville and Jefferson County in 2000 came after three previous votes had failed.

Meanwhile, in Tennessee, although we think Memphis is unique in having both a city and county government, Nashville is the exception, not the rule. No other metro area has a consolidated government. Besides Nashville, the only other consolidated governments in Tennessee are the metropolises of Lynchburg/Moore County and Hartsville/Trousdale County, and together, their population doesn’t equal Millington’s.

Since consolidation was allowed by the state legislature in 1953, consolidation votes have failed twice in Memphis. But we are not alone. Knoxville has voted down four consolidation charters, Chattanooga has turned consolidation down twice, and Nashville passed it in 1962 after turning it down in 1958.

In other words, on its best day, the consolidation of governments is a tough sell, and the outcome is more likely to be failure than success. That’s because Tennessee law sets the bar so high that only a few governments can vault it. The law says that for consolidation to take effect, it must be approved by voters within the largest city and by voters outside the largest city. In other words, there are two tallies kept, and if consolidation loses on either, it is defeated.

And because tens of thousands of Memphians have already voted with their feet and moved to the bulging cities of Germantown, Collierville and Bartlett, it defies common sense to suspect that they would now approve a large government dominated by the city they are trying to escape.

While it is tempting to sell consolidation as a way to reduce taxes, the track record in this regard is contradictory. But the argument that consolidation produces a unified vision for the community, its economic development policies and its priorities is undoubtedly true. That was a point made recently on Smart City (you can hear the interview at www.smartcityradio.com) when new Louisville Metro Mayor Jerry Abramson talked with Carol Coletta about the changes wrought by the new government.

In fact, Louisville is the poster child for consolidated government, as Abramson cut the combined workforce by 10 percent and righted a $40 million budget shortfall.

At the end of the day, however, the greatest benefits of consolidation are more intangible than tangible. It is seen in the new spirit that is unleashed in a city that modernizes its governmental structure. It is the feeling of hopefulness that is generated, the pride in being innovative and the powerful message about the city’s self-confidence and progress.

Ultimately, the primary test of consolidation here is whether it would reduce taxes for Memphians, who pay a disproportionate share of the tax burden in Shelby County – 100 percent of city taxes and about 70 percent of county taxes. This means that in joint operations like the health department, Office of Planning and Development and other joint agencies, Memphians pay a premium for services when compared to non-Memphians.

Whether consolidation is in the future for Memphis and Shelby County, the overriding public policy issue that needs to be addressed is the disincentive that exists to live in Memphis. Presently, Memphis taxpayers are called on to subsidize their own decline, tempted by their own governments to abandon older neighborhoods in favor of new ones, producing a decline in the quality of the urban infrastructure and creating an incalculable social cost – decline in sense of community, the inequality caused by the flight of wealth, the inefficient use of land for suburban sprawl and the redundancy in public investment.

This deserves the attention of every elected official who represents the citizens of Memphis, because with or with consolidation, there are ways to equalize the tax burden for Memphians by shifting services from the city’s tax base to the larger, more regional tax base of the county. In this way, the tax rate paid by Memphians could ultimately be only slightly more than the rate paid by Germantown and Collierville residents.

And if that day were ever to come, it would overshadow the benefits that could come with consolidation.

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