Sunday, November 25, 2007

Talks About Lawmen Merger Promise Reward

The Jackson, Mississippi, mayor broke the code: Instant law enforcement consolidation.

While long overdue - now in their fourth month - discussions here about merging law enforcement responsibilities of Memphis Police Department and Shelby County Sheriff Department are mired in some turf issues, Jackson Mayor Frank Melton consummated a merger in one fell swoop.

He appointed five-term Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm McMillan to take charge of Jackson’s 409-person police department.

Unduplicating Services

It was an inspired move by the Jackson mayor, who has had very public disputes with the outspoken county law officer but appeared anxious to bring some coherency to area law enforcement. Also, the Jackson police chief’s job has a revolving door reputation that’s anchored in reality, and the mayor’s got little to lose. In roughly the same period of time that Sheriff McMillin has been in office, the capital city has had 13 police chiefs, and many left as a result of controversies that tarred the department.

What makes it especially instructive in light of ongoing negotiations here is that the mayor of Jackson is African-American and Mr. McMillin, a Caucasian, looks like he’s from central casting for a Southern sheriff. And yet, the city mayor – who defeated Jackson’s first black mayor with promises to cut crime rates – has plenty at stake: He has to prove that he is attacking crime aggressively if he’s to reduce the city’s astronomical crime rate (another similarity with Memphis) before his next election.

If there’s any lesson for Memphis from the Jackson announcement a week ago, it is that there is often no substitute for boldness. Of course, the Mississippi Mutation isn’t a permanent answer to duplicative law enforcement functions, because at any time, either of the major elected officials – the mayor or the sheriff – could pull the plug on the experiment.

Step By Step

Hopefully, Memphis and Shelby County law officers can show a similar capacity for such creativity. Here, we seem headed for incremental steps shaped by political factors but nonetheless focused on consolidating city and county law enforcement functions. In this vision of the future, Memphis Police Department is in charge of crime-fighting in Memphis, the unincorporated areas of Shelby County and Lakeland and Arlington. The Sheriff’s Department would remain in charge of the Shelby County Jail, security for the courts and serving warrants.

While we accept the sincerity of the concerns expressed by both sides, there is the potential here for a new focus that can bring higher standards to both city and county agencies. That’s why specific performance measurements have to be part of any interlocal agreement.

Predictably, there already are complaints from the mayors of Shelby County’s smaller towns, whose budgets (and lower tax rates) have long been subsidized by county government. It’s a regular feature of the political theater here, and remarkably, the mayors of these small towns win more than they lose, despite the fact that they have little skin in the game through allocation of their own taxes.

Make An Offer

For example, the mayor of Arlington is concerned about potential enforcement in his city by City of Memphis. Of course, it could be prevented at any time by his town actually forming its own police department, rather than relying on the county sheriff for enforcement (Lakeland also is protected by the sheriff department).

The mayors of municipalities with police departments have said they are concerned by the quality of protection provided by the city officers in the area adjacent to their towns. However, if they are that concerned, their cities could annex the so-called annexation reserve areas formally established as part of the Shelby County Growth Plan – which in truth are annexation agreements masquerading as enlightened growth planning.

In addition to annexation, another option is for the smaller towns to submit their own proposals for providing law enforcement within their reserve areas. As we’ve said before on this blog, if we were Shelby County Government, we’d do whatever we could to accomplish two things: 1) to contract with the towns for services within their reserve areas, and 2) to remove City Council from its involvement in the towns’ reserve areas because of Memphis’ “extraterritorial” power to approve zoning there.

Talk Is Cheap

Since Shelby County Government was “restructured” in 1976, county officials have talked insistently about consolidating services that are duplicated within Memphis and Shelby County Governments, but until the past 18 months, it was little more than sound and fury signifying nothing.

All of a sudden, it signifies an awful lot. There are talks about merging law enforcement. There have been talks about merging fire protection. There have been talks about consolidating engineering functions.

None of them will be easy. Despite compelling logic in support of all of these consolidations, there are legitimate organizational issues that have to be addressed and there is the potential of sabotage by political appointees concerned about their jobs and power.

Wanted: Open Minds

Back to the law enforcement talks, the driving force has been the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, whose ad hoc committees have defied all predictions by creating strong momentum for change in a number of areas. In the talks about consolidating the lawmen, Commissioner Mike Carpenter once again proves his ability to bring the kind of open mind that’s often sadly lacking as partisan loyalty trumps much-needed policy changes.

Then again, Commissioner Carpenter seems intent on taking the threadbare Republican rhetoric about efficiency and economy in county government and putting it into action. The proposal that he laid out 10 days ago responds to the difference between talk about consolidation and truth of consolidation, setting out a series of agreements that can move city and county governments methodically toward a new working relationship.

The centerpiece for the proposal being considered is creation (for no more than five years) of the Memphis and Shelby County Public Safety Commission, which will have no governing power but will be charged with developing the agreements between city and county governments that formalize the new responsibilities. Other cities have reached similar agreements in a matter of months, so a target date of December, 2008 has been set, but it depends on a county charter amendment to modify the sheriff’s duties (although we’re confused as to why this can’t be addressed in the interlocal agreement).

Winding Down

Along the way, there will be bruised feelings, as those exhibited recently by Sheriff Mark Luttrell when Commissioner Carpenter’s proposal was published in The Commercial Appeal prior to a task force meeting, but we predict that cooler heads will prevail and in the end, the sheriff will recognize the wisdom of moving now to define the future, because in time, with the full execution of the Shelby County Growth Plan, there will be no county law enforcement to speak of any way.

When fully executed, Memphis will have 489 square miles; Millington 74 square miles; Collierville 51 square miles; Bartlett 44 square miles; Arlington 34 square miles; Lakeland 24 square miles; and Germantown (which is already built out) 20 square miles.

That leaves a grand total of 49 square miles in Shelby County that are unincorporated, down from 326 square miles at the time the growth plan was signed. And even if Arlington and Lakeland continue to act as step-children of county government, the potential square mileage for sheriff’s law enforcement is 107.

It’s About Results

Most of all, the work of this committee has a significance as symbolically important as its actual results, because it sends a message all too often missing in this community – that its elected officials are planning for the future.

That’s why we think the committee co-chair, City Councilman Jack Sammons, summed it up best: “At the end of the day, the citizens could care less about the organizational structure. They want results.”

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

FYI. Like Germantown, Lakeland has annexed all its reserve area. Remember, that's suposed to be "urban" area. Why are they receiving any "suburban" services from the County? Time for a property tax and for them to become a real city, don't you think? The rest of the citizens in Shelby County should be screaming bloody murder, particularly the low and middle income folks in Memphis, that they are subsidizing a city where $350,000 homes are the norm.

black and know it said...

Hopefully, the Democratic majority of the County Commission will put their THINKING CAPS on and figure this IDEA out as just another assault on the pocket books of the MEMPHIS taxpaying base. Memphian pay twice for POLICE enforcement services, simply because the Sheriff won't admit HIS OFFICE should always have been funded to provide such services. Translation: Memphis' tax rate should go down and Shelby County's tax rate SHOULD go up!

A Given... Mayor Wharton's government is anemically broke and his Republican led base of "free riding, no more taxes supporters" won't allow him to cut anymore services or raise any new revenues. Therefore... it's SUCKER time!

Maybe, I will enlighten the DEMOCRATS and remind them Memphis is a CITY located in Shelby County... and when crime is out of control, the Sheriff should be FUNDED proportionately to Memphis’ population to HIRE enough DEPUTIES to fight crime in MEMPHIS!!! But of course, tax dollars that should fairly be spent on MEMPHIS CRIME would mean these SAME DOLLARS that BELONG on Memphis streets can't be used to fund say... ambulances on County roads!!! So, enter the political "WC FIELDS" idea... CONSOLIDATION! And in the meanwhile, Memphians who have PAID for THEIR own police force and the Sheriff’s budget (and Wharton’ government) simply uses those dollars else where… in those other cities and unincorporated areas of Shelby County.

Our good Sheriff (a Republican), is left in a "high and dry" position. He will be termed limited shortly, the County is half Democratic, he is afraid to "reveal" the "political trick" his fellow republicans have been perpetuating on the populous for years and yet HIS political fiefdom is the one being sacrificed.

The solution – place ALL law enforcement and jail responsibility where it belongs… under the Sheriff. Of course, this will mean Memphis’ ridiculous net property tax rate of $7.48 will fall and the unincorporated Shelby County rate will rise from the $4.09 and the other cities whose rates are spaced in between, will rise also.

Anonymous said...

If Lutrell weren't a RINO and a CINO (cop in name only), he might be ok as the top cop. Since he doesn't know what he's doing, maybe not. If the two departments are merged, it should be headed by the larger agency. A guppy can't swallow a whale.