Thursday, January 10, 2008

Our Consolidation Poster Children: Nashville And Louisville

It is inevitable.

It’s the “consolidation moment,” the time in every meeting where the future of Memphis is being discussed. It’s when someone holds up the merger of city and county governments as the answer to all that ails our city.

Frequently mentioned in these merger moments is the poster child of all things virtuous when it comes to Memphians’ perceptions of consolidation – Nashville. But these days, Louisville is more and more added to the mix.

We’ve cultivated a mythology about consolidation. It’s consolidated government that turned Nashville into a boomtown. It’s consolidated government that’s responsible for its impressive job creation trends and economic growth. It’s consolidated government that’s responsible for the ambition that is such a core part of the city’s psyche.

Voting On Pride

Of course, most of these positive trends happened no less than 25 years after the Nashville and Davidson County governments merged, but such is the power of the myth.

As for Louisville, its passage of consolidation in 2000 seemed especially prescient for Memphis, because of our similar demographics, civic culture and set of downtown, economic and educational challenges. There, the campaign to merge the governments was built on a single, unshakeable foundation – civic pride. Louisville was about to be passed by Lexington – a consolidated government - in population and become the largest city in Kentucky, and the idea was just too much for Louisville citizens to fathom.

So, the argument for consolidation in Louisville was centered on the fact that it would move up on the list of the U.S.’s largest cities - from 58th to the 23rd.. Boosters said the higher ranking would immediately attract the attention of corporations looking to relocate, but that of course was specious, since it’s the regional population that matters today, not a city’s.

Power Of Popularity

But Nashville and Louisville did have one thing in common that provided pivotal to passage of consolidation – wildly popular political leaders who set consolidation as their priority and put all of their political chips on the table to get the merger passed by the voters.

In Nashville in 1962, it was the dominating influence of Davidson County Judge Beverly Briley. The Nashville Mayor, Ben West, was distrusted by voters outside of Nashville, who came to see the referendum as a vote of confidence for either Briley or West. That was critical, because consolidation in Nashville, like Memphis, had to be passed in a dual vote of Nashville voters and non-Nashville voters.

In this way, the political dynamics seem to mirror the situation here, and why Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton’s recent endorsement of consolidation could be a pivotal point in our long-time quest for consolidated government.

Modernizing Government

In Louisville, the political realities were just the opposite of Nashville’s. In Kentucky, consolidation is passed when a majority of all voters in the county approve it, so there’s only one vote total. There, the wildly popular former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson – with a 90+ percent approval rating – led the fight for consolidated government and became its first mayor.

Unlike many cities, there was no crisis or scandal in Louisville that served as the catalytic event for consolidation. Instead, it was all about creating a modern government structure that would make the city more competitive, more entrepreneurial and more successful.

There were no claims that consolidation would result in big savings – a claim frequently made in these pushes for merger but which have not been born out in follow-up research – and instead, the business and political leadership made it a vote of confidence about the future of their hometown.

Keep It Vague

Interestingly, proponents refused to conduct an in-depth cost-benefit analysis, because the strategy was for the vote to be about civic pride, not about a parsing of the numbers. Considering the magnitude of the consolidation proposal, details were vague - intentionally so.

The pro-consolidation campaign spent about $2 million while anti-consolidation forces ran a shoestring campaign that was regularly derided by the news media.

Like Memphis, Louisville had been pursuing consolidation without success for decades - 23 years there. Even with the single majority referendum, voters turned it down in 1982 and 1983. In 2000, consolidation passed 56% for and 44% against.

Simplicity In Government

If Louisville had a dual majority requirement like Memphis, the mayor’s office told us that consolidation would have failed, because suburban voters were against it. Inside Louisville, African-American voters opposed the merger, fearful of diluting their political power in the existing city government.

The most striking lesson for Memphis in the Louisville vote is the reminder of how simple our governmental structure is. The most obvious contradiction to the widely held perception that we are hopelessly complicated here is this: There are 8 governments in Shelby County; in Louisville, there were 118 local governments in Jefferson County.

Back to Nashville, it was the first Tennessee city to put consolidation on the ballot after passage of the 1953 constitutional amendment that allowed merged governments. That same amendment set up the dual majority requirement that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton has set out to change, so that consolidation can be implemented if approved by a single majority vote.

We’re Not Alone

By the way, the last consolidation votes in Memphis were in 1962 and 1971. In one of those votes, the merger failed because it was voted down outside of Memphis, but in the other, it was voted down both inside and outside of Memphis.

By way of reference, the civic frustration caused by failed consolidation votes is not limited to Memphis. It failed at the ballot box in Knoxville in 1958, 1978, 1983 and 1996. Chattanooga voted it down in 1964 and 1970. It also was voted down in Jackson in 1987, Clarksville in 1981 and Bristol in 1982 and 1988.

Besides Nashville, it’s only passed in two other counties, Lynchburg/ Moore, in 1987 and Hartsville/Trousdale in 2000, with respective populations of 4,700 and 2,400.

One Last Fact

Secret to Nashville’s success in passing consolidation was that voters outside the city limits preferred the merger to being annexed. In keeping with Tennessee law, two taxing districts – urban services and general services – were required, and voters outside Nashville saw tax advantages to the general services designation and its lower tax rate – a strategy that might prove fruitful here in recruiting supporters outside Memphis.

OK, OK, this is way more than you really wanted to know, but we find all of this interesting, because this time around, city and county leaders might find it instructive to see what lessons they can learn from campaigns in other cities.

Finally, one last factoid: If Memphis passes consolidation, it will be the largest city that has merged its city and county governments in more than a century, dating back to the 19th century, the heyday of the consolidation movement.


Anonymous said...

Don't forget Indianaplis.

Anonymous said...

Smart City,

You are right. Louisville is the best model for Memphis, not Nashville.

I think there are three reasons to support consolidation of city & county government and cost savings isn't one of them.

1. Economic Development -- I believe a single philosophy about bringing business here, limited regulation and one group of political decison-makers could go a long way toward recruitment of new business and expanding our economy.

2. Streamlined government for better service delivery -- even though there are only 8 governments here as opposed to 118 in Louisville, we could do a better job delivering services and helping citizens navigate government. Merging similar or duplicate departments, merging technology and eliminating functions best performed outside of government could lead to better service delivery.

3. Unifying the community -- No, consolidation in and of itself won't do that, but it's an important symbol of the racial and economic divide that exists still today. Consolidation would go a long way toward setting a tone for cooperation, tolerance and reconcilation.

As the cliche` goes, the devil is in the details, but in general I believe consolidation is right for Memphis and Shelby County.

Thanks to Smart City for pointing out the facts about taxing districts. The scare tactic that county residents would automatically pay higher taxes is not true. That and many other issues can be sorted through if people are willing to have a serious conversation about them.

Respectfully yours,

Mike Carpenter

Smart City Consulting said...

Commissioner Carpenter:

Thanks for your comments. From our point of view, you are right on target.

Anonymous 8:52: The reason Indianapolis wasn't included is because it was consolidated through an act of the Indiana Legislature. It's a real anomaly among the cities that have been merged.

Harvey said...

Smart City,
Thanks for the week about consolidation. It has been an education and a welcome one.

Anonymous said...

The reason to include Indianapolis is not because of the way in which consolidation occured; rather it is because of the success which ahs resulted from it. Indianapolis is a vibrant metropolis now and a major reason is the consolidation that occured.

Smart City Consulting said...

No question about Indianapolis' turnaround, which speaks to the brand of mayors that the city has attracted as much as anything. Consolidation there wasn't full consolidation, but it was such a dramatic break from the past that it sent a strong positive message about a new direction for the city. Whether a consolidated government really delivers on all of the other promises in Memphis, it would be a dramatic break from the past. We need it.

Midtowner opposed to annexation said...

If the judges were to actually follow TN law on annexation, annexation would be much more difficult.

6-51-102. Annexation by ordinance. —

(a) (1) A municipality, when petitioned by a majority of the residents and property owners of the affected territory, or upon its own initiative when it appears that the prosperity of such municipality and territory will be materially retarded and the safety and welfare of the inhabitants and property endangered, after notice and public hearing, by ordinance, may extend its corporate limits by annexation of such territory adjoining its existing boundaries as may be deemed necessary for the welfare of the residents and property owners of the affected territory as well as the municipality as a whole; ... (emphasis mine).

Now who really thinks that the prosperity of the any territory in the county will be materially retarded and the safety and welfare of the inhabitants and property endangered and that it is really necessary for the "welfare" of the people being annexed???

Memphis needs to take care of what it already has rather than spread out the resources even more.

Smart City Consulting said...

We've written before about our concern that annexation masks problems within Memphis and gives an artificial sense of security that's not warranted as the middle income hollows out. That said, the option is worse, because Memphis' regressive tax structure - three worse among 50 largest cities in U.S. - would only become more and more onerous.

Thanks for the comments