Monday, January 07, 2008

Towns Need To Consolidate Their Wish Lists And Get To Negotiating Table

This is the latest in a series of posts this week on consolidation:

Cities with consolidated governments are the exception, not the rule.

Of the 3,141 counties and 20,000 municipalities in the U.S., a grand total of 35 are consolidated, or 1.1 percent of counties.

Referenda on consolidation are anything but sure things. More than 85 percent fail.

Consolidations don’t generally save money.

Just The Facts

In fact, the overriding piece of advice from cities where consolidation has passed is: don’t sell it on the basis of cost savings. History shows that significant savings don’t usually materialize, and in fact, costs are more likely to increase initially. That’s why Louisville never talked about saving money in its successful campaign for consolidation in 2000.

We don’t say these things to throw cold water on the current consolidation discussion. We say them in hopes that we can keep this issue in perspective, that we don’t oversell it and that we need to deal in facts.

Because of the historical overselling of consolidation In Memphis, we tend to think it is the answer to all that ails Memphis and Shelby County, and along the way, we have created the misperception that every city but ours has a merged government.

Behavior Modification

This has reinforced two behaviors:

1) It feeds our feelings of inferiority. Because we aren’t consolidation, and every one else is, we aren’t as good as other cities.

2) It feeds inaction, because we use the absence of consolidation as a crutch for doing nothing. After all, the thinking goes, we can’t really get anything done here, because our government is so different from every one else.


Over the years, our failures to pass consolidation at two referenda and to create any real momentum behind this change in government have been demoralizing to an already fragile civic psyche. Because of the mythology that we are one of only a few cities that still have city and county governments, it feeds the negative self-image that lies at the heart of so many of our problems.

As a result, this time, we hope that there’s a process for evaluating the pluses and minuses of consolidation, for getting out the facts and for giving every one time to digest them without some artificial timeline forced on the process by political expediency.

While the failure to merge local government has frustrated city and county mayors for 30 years who have called for modernizing our local government structure, there’s less reason to get panicky now than anytime in our past.

Change Is Unchangeable

Here’s why. Smaller towns in Shelby County can vehemently oppose changes in our local government structure all they want. But in the end, it just doesn’t matter. Change is inevitable.

That’s because our political landscape changed with the passage of Chapter 1101 in 1998 and the creation of the urban growth boundaries in Shelby County. That was Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s finest hour, as he fought back the “tiny town” legislation, stared down powerful political forces aligned against him and protected Memphis’ financial and economic future.

As usual for these kinds of complicated issues, Chapter 1101 was largely defined by the media in terms of the personalities involved in the dispute, rather than in terms of the new world that was being created. Obscured was the long-term change that the urban growth boundary agreement was ushering in.

Leveling The Playing Field

For the first time, every city in Shelby County knew exactly what their maximum boundaries would be in the future, because the so-called annexation reserve agreements set out the specific area that would become part of each city.

When these agreements are fully implemented, the boundaries of Shelby County and the boundaries of Memphis will be largely co-terminus. At that time, only 49 square miles of Shelby County’s 755 square miles won’t be inside a city, and more to the point, 65 percent of the county’s land area will be inside Memphis.

So, even without consolidation, at that point in the future, county government will look nothing like it does today. It will in fact be transformed. Its services will be pared back to the point that it’s delivering the same primary services as the most rural county government – schools, health care and jails.

Earthquake In Political Landscape

In the years that lead to those days, political support for fundamentally changing the structure of local government will continue to mount, and by then, that can be done simply - through an intergovernmental agreement in which county government contracts with Memphis for anything but basic services.

This will for the first time in the history of Shelby County put Memphis and the other municipalities on a level playing field. No longer can the towns expect their services to be subsidized by county government. Instead, every town will have to provide the same city services as Memphis, services previously provided by Shelby County - ambulances, code enforcement and law enforcement, to name a few.

It’s because of this new world that the mayors for the smaller towns should be calling right now for meetings with Mayor Herenton and Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton to get the best deal that they can. Their negotiating position will erode with each passing year. (In fact, if Memphis is not successful in this push for consolidation, it’s time to aggressively implement their full annexation rights and to change the look of local government once and for all.)

Get To The Negotiating Table

Contrary to what the town mayors are now thinking as they instinctively oppose any consolidation proposal advanced by Mayor Herenton, this is their best time to negotiate an agreement in which they get the favorite things on their wish lists in return for supporting the merger of city-county governments.

A change is gonna come. Later, there’s little that the town mayors can do but watch as county government as they know it dwindles in power and influence. If they come to the table now, they have their best chance of getting everything from a special school district and frozen school boundaries to changes in the extraterritorial jurisdiction that allows Memphis to set development patterns in their annexation area.

Undoubtedly, there are other things they would like. There’s no time like the present.


dwayne said...

A very interesting article but the likeliood is that they will procrastinate as long as possible. One consistent theme in Memphis political history is resistance to change.

If a special school district is a negotiating point, it would be best to wait. That would make us a shining example of a reactionary, backward County since other large counties in TN have consolidated their school districts into one including Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, and Madison.

Anonymous said...

It’s because of this new world that the mayors for the smaller towns should be calling right now for meetings with Mayor Herenton and Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton to get the best deal that they can. Their negotiating position will erode with each passing year. (In fact, if Memphis is not successful in this push for consolidation, it’s time to aggressively implement their full annexation rights and to change the look of local government once and for all.)

excuse me if i ask some dumb questions. how would a memphis annexation plan force the "tiny towns" to back consolidation? wouldn't such a move hamstring both the city and "tiny towns" finances?
also, could mayor herenton force the county to fund the entire city school budget?

it seems to me that if the city scaled down their services and subsidies to the county that, perhaps we would see less resistance to consolidation. because residents would put pressure on their city to fill in the gap. maybe, i answered my own question...

Smart City Consulting said...

Memphis' aggressive annexation isn't aimed at driving the towns to support consolidation. It's aimed at resolving the problem of two large bureaucracies that largely deliver urban services. Full annexation transforms county government so much that finally, there will be more rationality in service delivery and understanding of what an urban service and a county service are.

Anonymous said...

thanks for your patience SCM! admittedly, i do not yet have my arms around your concept. so, i'll start my understanding of what you are conveying and you fill-in the gaps.

here's what i think you're saying...
expanding the city boundaries to encompass the maximum annexation, 65% from your post, it will shrink the amount of county area. thereby, decreasing the need and/or efficiencies for the county to provide services to the surrounding cities. these two events will trigger the need for the county to contract with the city to provide those services for a specified amount of revenue. in turn a significant amount of county revenue would be gobbled up by the city in exchange for services. as i stated above, i think, this is what you're

i agree, if the county whereto contract for services, at the least, we would have a far more equitable system, from a taxation viewpoint, than the current model.

this is where my questions begin...
are you assuming that the county would contract with the city to provide these services because of a legal/charter obligation or as a force of the free markets?

from a market perspective the county could contract with any business or businesses to provide services, not necessarily the city. it's true the city would be the biggest player in town but the county residents could demand services from a different provider or the sub-cities could provide those services. this consolidation issue, for most county residents, isn't one of rationality but of emotion.

one could argue, "what's wrong with that", my rebuttal would be: what if the newly annexed areas did not provide enough revenues for services rendered? the city could end up with a deficit and either need to raise taxes or reduce services, in either case the city would have the short end of the stick.
i like the boldness of the idea but it seems complicated. this complicated, if-then scenario, has multiple outcome possibilities too many to rush to judgment. one would need to study the possibilities before engaging in this strategy.

Anonymous said...

i forgot one more question: what is stopping the county from contracting services from the city, today?

Smart City Consulting said...

Nothing is stopping the county from contracting with the city today, or vice versa. But as the city expands to its maximum size, the county will be relegated to the traditional services delivered by county governments. There will be no need for roads, bridges, traffic engineering, public works, codes enforcement, planning and zoning, law enforcement, fire protection, etc., and if there is need to deliver any of these within that 48 square miles in Northeast Shelby County and Shelby Forest that remains unincorporated, the county is much wiser to contract for them.

As for Memphis, it's able to spread the cost of regional amenities like museums and arenas over a larger tax base.

It's not the optimal solution, because in our minds, the costs of those kind of amenities should be paid by all county taxpayers and not just Memphians.

Is this just making things more confusing?

Anonymous said...

no, you're not confusing me. i'm a fast learner.

so, the risk of such a move for memphis is: will the tax revenue collected exceed the increased costs of servicing an increased population? obviously, the need for infrastructure and increased personnel (police, fire, code enforcement etc.), does not go away but is shifted from the county to the city.

an opportunity...
theoretically, the county would not have the extra cost associated with infrastructure investment but will collect the same amount more or less tax revenue, (i.e. budget surplus). what if the county subsidized these regional amenities with some of this surplus?

i guess, i would need to see more definitive data to make a decision as to the viability of this assertion. i realize the tax base would be larger to spread some of the regional cost but i would also speculate that regional amenities are less than 5% of the city budget.if the tax revenue was there to support the increased cost, then forge ahead, if not, back to the drawing board.

Smart City Consulting said...


We'll second the motion for the county to fund regional amenities. We've been advocating that for years.

And you're right about what is most missing from the current discussion: definitive data. We seem to have an abundance of opinions based on a paucity of data in the halls of government.

Anonymous said...

what kind of "data" do you not have? File an FOI with recalcatrant government wankers if a written request for 'specific' information gets you nowhere.
The CA brags about doing this all the time.

Midtowner said...

What color is the sky in your post-consolidated world? I didn't realize you guys were fantasy writers.

Consolidation is not a cure all. I support just the opposite. I rather see Memphis broken up into smaller municipalities that would be more responsive to its citizens than a larger bureaucracy that seems annoyed when a citizen wants something.

I've seen the difference in going to city in Memphis and city hall in Bartlett. No, even as a citizen of Memphis, I would vote no to consolidation.

Smart City Consulting said...

Consolidation 9:09: The data that we don't have include an independent assessment of the economic impact (benefits?) of consolidation, the budgetary report that details any savings, a study of the impact on public services, the impact on the smaller municipalities' budgets, etc. While we are interested, we don't have the time to do this ourselves, so we think we'll pass on the FOI request.

Midtowner: If you hate Memphis' customer service, then we would have thought you would vote yes on consolidation, since it would eliminate city government altogether. We didn't think we suggested that consolidation is a cure-all; in fact, we thought we said just the opposite. Breaking Memphis into smaller cities would be disaster, but what about the idea of allocating budgets to areas of the city and letting citizens decide how to invest them?

Anittah N. Patrick said...

Back to the roots. This idea hearkens back to Athenian democracy. See also

Midtowner said...

Do you think those folks in the Memphis customer service will be out of a job if the county takes over??? No, they will become part of the newer, bigger consolidated county.

I do agree with you that allocating budgets to areas would be great. Especially if a specific portion of the taxes paid by that areas is gauranteed to be returned.

But who decides on how they would be spent? Do you want to hand it over to CDCs? Then who decides who runs the CDC? Would we need to elect neighborhood councils? I hope you don't think we should depend on a neighborhood council or CDC appointed by either the mayor or the city council.

And if we have smaller neighborhood councils, then why do we need the larger city government in the first place?

Memphis can give up its charter anytime it wishes. Those in power just don't want to give it up without some guarantee that they will retain some of it.

Smart City Consulting said...

Memphis can't realistically give up its charter without creating total chaos. Also, we recall that there was some legal opinion stating that it didn't really have this option. As for setting up area-specific budgets, we'll have to see if there are any good models of places where it's been done.