Friday, October 31, 2008

Detroit Aerotropolis Takes Flight

In the aerotropolis sweepstakes, Detroit is the first city to take flight.

There, the Detroit Region Aerotropolis has used the nation’s latest economic development big idea as a vehicle for regionalism, bringing together politicians and business leaders from two counties, seven cities, and two airports – Detroit Metropolitan Airport and Willow Run Airport.

Quoting the ubiquitous University of North Carolina professor John Kasarda, Detroit leaders tout 20 square miles of developable land, supportive community leadership and an infrastructure that puts rail, sea and rail within a one-mile radius. Holding up Amsterdam and Louisville as its model, the Detroit aerotropolis professes to be “creating a global logistics hub that moves people, products and information.”

The Cast Of Characters

As for Mr. Kasarda, he’s suggested that the cities with the greatest opportunities for aerotropolisdom are Detroit, Memphis, Dallas/Fort Worth and possibly Kansas city and Phoenix. He’s also cited the presence of FedEx and Honda Aircraft at the Piedmont Triad International Airport as giving Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point, North Carolina a chance for aerotropolis status.

Meanwhile, in Memphis, the Chamber-backed aerotropolis initiative continues to lay the foundation for our city to leverage its considerable resources to set the aerotropolis standard for the U.S. where Memphis International Airport becomes a magnet for economic growth, commercial development and neighborhood redevelopment.

Of course, Memphis begins with a major leg up with the dominating presence of FedEx and the motivating leadership of Tom Schmitt, president and CEO of FedEx Supply Chain Services, and that’s reason enough to be optimistic. After all, it is often unappreciated here that FedEx was in fact the inventor of international commerce.

And yet, it alone is not enough to fulfill dreams of Memphis as aerotropolis.

More And More

After all, in Asia, where the aerotropolis phenomenon were first seen, Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport will have shopping malls, office buildings, hotels, hospitals, an international business center, conference and exhibition space, warehouses and even a residential community. Singapore’s Changi Airport has movie theaters, saunas and a swimming pool.

As it’s prone to do these days, Dubai took the concept and went one better. Its World Central International Airport will have office towers, hotels, a casino, golf course and one of the world’s largest malls.

In addition, any U.S. city with aerotropolis aspirations must engage in the thoughtful development planning that includes direct passenger rail connections between the airport and downtown.

Something’s Got To Give

And yet, ultimately, the greatest challenge to the aerotropolis concept may be that as far as airlines are concerned, something’s got to give. As one of the fastest-growing sources for greenhouse gases and with energy prices portending changes that could be as simple as skyrocketing airfare or as dire as industry collapse.

All of this comes in the midst of uncertainty for the airline industry that is unprecedented. Dipping oil prices are encouraging but likely temporary, doing little to mitigate the looming crisis caused by the fact that the business model for many airlines essentially doesn’t work with oil selling for $135 a barrel. Already, the cost of fuel for airlines is up 80% when compared to a year ago, layoffs and fewer flights are becoming a regular occurrence, and we’re hard-pressed to think of a single airline that’s not at risk.

If some doomsday predictions come to pass, like the one made by a respected Canadian bank economist that gas prices will be $7 per gallon in two years, it will not only result in millions of fewer cars on our roads but significant fewer airplanes in the sky.

Fuel’s Up And Opinion Down

Already, in Europe, the high cost of fuel is changing public opinion toward air travel, with protesters shaming airline passengers and a growing feeling that flying is synonymous with ignoring the imperative to reduce greenhouse gases. There are the first signs of legislative support for higher taxes on air travel and opposition to any new runways.

These days, suggestions that U.S. passengers will be cut in half and that there will only be 50 major airports in less than 20 years (roughly 85% fewer than today) are no longer discounted as inconceivable. Such is the seriousness of the crisis facing the airline industry and the cities that depend on it for major economic activity and employment.

In keeping with the general denial that federal agencies have exhibited during the Bush years, the FAA continues to predict that passengers will double in just over 15 years, which is just short of dumbfounding considering that the number of passengers has already dropped by about three million this summer.

Back To The Future

In the end, it could well be back to the future, with the options conjuring up memories of the 1960’s when our parents dressed us up in our Sunday best to pick up flyers. In those days, anyone traveling on an airplane was special, because air travel was for the elite (the same folks also owned color televisions and FM radios).

If oil prices climb, it may be so again, and cities like ours whose economies are based on a heavy dependency on cheap oil and airlines could be especially hard-hit.

It’s an ominous warning for Memphis, because the $21 billion economic impact created by the airport could be as much risk as opportunity. It’s also why development of the Memphis aerotropolis could be anything but linear, and why its planners need scenarios for a future that could be far different.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

This Week On Smart City: Charter Schools and Local Eats

Both Barack Obama and John McCain embrace the idea of publicly financed, independently run charter schools as a way to reform the education system. But what is a charter school, and how do they differ from traditional public schools? Our guest, Nelson Smith knows a lot about it. He's the President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and he joins us today to talk about what charter schools are and what they need to work.

Plus: they say all politics is local. But how political is the food you eat? Smart City Producer Scotty Iseri found out when he attended the Eat Local Challenge at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He'll find out how delicious it can be when the food you eat comes from near by.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Voting No On Big Government And Yes On Better Elections

Despite predictions of a Constitutional crisis in county government if we don’t pass the two charter amendments, we still vote no.

Meanwhile, on IRV, we vote yes.

First, the county charter amendments. There are just too many reasons to vote against them, chiefly that there is no justification for the covey of elected officials that should be staff jobs within the county administration.

No Again

We voted it down on the August ballot, but county officials were slow to get the message and put it up for referendum again. It’s a classic case of a tone deaf decision based more on political calculus than on the practical opportunity to improve the efficiency and economy of county operations.

As one former county mayor once described it, the county’s organizational structure is tantamount to holding Fred Smith accountable for FedEx’s performance, but without giving him control over FedEx Ground.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When county government was restructured in 1974, the lumbering three-headed administration was scrapped in favor of a single county chief executive to be called a mayor, an appellation that allowed him to elbow his way into a spotlight previously reserved for the Memphis mayor.

More Efficiency

But the rhetoric far outstripped reality. Even when home rule was approved a decade later, it did not stop Shelby County Government’s repeated forays to the Tennessee Legislature to plead for powers automatically given to cities and their mayors.

In the past 20 years, there’s been no serious study of how the county structure could be changed to improve its operations and deal with an entrenched culture that repulses innovation. Unfortunately, with the opportunity now to reduce the inefficiency that comes from the county’s Hydra-like structure, county commissioners blinked when given to consider what county government could be rather than what it is.

We had predicted that county government in the end would take the path of least political resistance and do nothing to improve things. Unfortunately, we were right. The only way to send the strongest possible message about our frustration and about the need for a more streamlined government structure is to once again vote against the charter amendments. And that’s just what we plan to do.

Instant Winners

Meanwhile, Instant Runoff Voting gives our community a chance to be a trend setter. It’s a proposal that could be the antidote to costly runoff elections where often a tiny percentage of voters determine the winners.

It could be different. There is a way that it can be cheaper, more efficient and the results could be immediate. That’s the beauty of Instant Runoff Voting. Memphis voters would no longer have to vote twice to get a winner. On election night, a majority winner would be proclaimed.

The Process

Here’s how it works:

When voters go to the polls, they vote for candidates in order of their preference. The pick their first choice, their second choice, their third choice, and so on.

If a candidate wins a majority, that person obviously is the winner. If there is no candidate with a majority, all ballots are recounted, and the candidate receiving the least number of first place votes is eliminated. The ballots are counted again, and voters who chose the eliminated candidate now have their votes counted for their second-ranked candidate. The weakest candidates are progressively eliminated and votes redistributed until a single candidate has a majority of the votes.

In this way, IRV offers the chance for better voter choice and wider voter participation in selecting the winner, because it allows voters to vote for their favorite candidate without the fear that they are helping to elect their least favorite candidate.

It Works There

For five years, San Francisco has been using IRV, and the response from the public has been highly supportive. Soon, Oakland and Minneapolis will add the instant runoff to its election process after voters overwhelmingly approved it at referendum.

North Carolina is beginning to use it in certain judicial races, and Arkansas, South Carolina and Louisiana use the ranked ballot for overseas and military voters. Meanwhile, Ireland uses it in its president’s election, London in its mayor’s election and Australia for its House of Representatives.

Instant Runoff Voting has been credited with reducing negative campaigning. Because candidates aren’t just campaigning for people’s votes, but also for second and third rankings, it means that they are less likely to vilify opponents whose supporters can mean the difference between victory or defeat.

Change For The Better

No part of American society is more resistant to change than the public sector, but voters have the opportunity to strike a blow for innovation in our election process by voting yes on this referendum. One Commission member has said IRV is too complicated for Memphis voters, a pretty damning statement considering that all it does is require voters to rank candidates 1-2-3.

So far, some people seem perplexed by IRV, saying that it’s not easy to explain. Then again, it’s a lot simpler than the electoral college which decides who will be elected to the highest office in the land next week.

It would be exciting if Memphis could be known for its commitment to progressive policies for a change. IRV is one way to do it.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

No Crisis Can Pave Over Roadbuilders' Influence, Part 2

Continued from the previous posting:

All of this concern that $2 billion isn’t enough for roadbuilders must seem extremely misplaced to officials in higher education, like our university president Dr. Raines, who are making increasingly tough decisions because of state cuts to their budgets.

Our university presidents are making budget decisions that will decide which young people have opportunities for the future and which will not. Our university presidents are left with no decent options, and the end result will be abysmal for Tennessee – fewer students attending our public universities and fewer professors to teach them and many fewer numbers of poor students who will be able to pay hikes in tuition that are inevitable.

Already floated in Nashville as ideas for more funding for the roadbuilding industry is increasing the 21.4 cents per gallon state tax on gas or raising the current $24 state registration fee.

A Different Question

Here’s our question. If we are considering raising these taxes and fees, why can’t we consider other uses for them? Why should they automatically go to roads?

Here’s the context for all this: with its recent $4 million cut in state funding, the State of Tennessee has now cut its investment in the University of Memphis by $11 million, or 9%, in a couple of years. And rumors of more cuts are rumbling in Nashville.

The recent emergency cuts instituted by Governor Phil Bredesen call for higher education budgets to be slashed $43.7 million. It could not possibly come at a worst time for Memphis. Earlier this year, Portland economist Joe Cortright, speaking at Leadership Memphis’ community breakfast, said that the single most important indicator of whether a city will be successful in the future is its percentage of people with college degrees.

Stopping The Race To The Bottom

Unfortunately, Memphis languishes near the bottom of the list of the largest 50 metros, and Mr. Cortright said that if Memphis could move to the middle of this list, it would produce $3 billion in economic growth. The state of Tennessee, in its past funding and with the recent funding cuts, only makes that hill steeper to climb for our city.

How about the Legislature amending the law to give it the flexibility to divert money from the $1 billion in state gas tax revenues to maintain even more essential services like higher education until the state budget outlook improves? If the state gas tax and registration fees are to be increased, how about directing it to public universities like the University of Memphis whose success ripples throughout our city and defines our options for the future?

There is one glimmer of good news. Faced with the prospects of fewer roads to build, the roadbuilding industry seems willing to consider more seriously the possibility of state toll roads. As we’ve suggested before, State of Tennessee should start by putting up the toll gates – and taking down the I-269 signs – on the circumferential highway – Tennessee 385 - looping around Shelby County, yet another half billion dollar gift to the development industry.

Getting Green

Most of all, it’s past time for state government to give leadership to a more sustainable Tennessee. Rather than giving incentives to create more driving, state government should be investing and encouraging in more sustainable behavior by its citizens, and this should include emphasis on public transit, which for decades has received lip service and little money in discussions about transportation funding. In fact, if there’s any transportation that deserves a dedicated funding source, we’d suggest that public transit deserves it, not roadbuilders.

In a state legislature controlled by rural legislators, urban public transit is stereotyped as something for urban dwellers, largely those of a different race, and as a result, we lose opportunities for the kind of modern 21st century public transit system in Memphis that attracts more riders, improves our sustainability, and reduces our public bond debt.

If the special study committee members have consciences, they should encourage state government to make public transit a centerpiece for transportation planning and funding. There’s so much that Tennessee needs to be doing and investments that we need to be making to be competitive in the knowledge economy, and better public transit in our cities is a key one of them.

Getting The Priorities Right

Meanwhile, if state government wants to appoint special study committees, we’d recommend one that once and for all gets our state serious about higher education.

And if such a committee is appointed, we suggest that its review should begin back when State of Tennessee made the visionary decision to plug the gap in the state budget with the hundreds of millions of dollars of tobacco settlement money. Instead of doing something transformative – such as setting up something like an endowment to produce yearly funding for government innovation or investing in higher quality higher education or investing in transformative strategies, state officials simply put this unexpected massive funding into the state cash register.

It was the budgetary equivalent of eating your seed corn. Because of all this, there are long odds that state government or the new study committee will get it right this time. So far, there’s little reason to be optimistic.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

No Crisis Can Pave Over Roadbuilders' Influence

You can never underestimate the power of the roadbuilding industry.

While University of Memphis President Shirley Raines is forced to cut a budget that long ago lost any fat in it, while the state shortchanges our community’s schools with BEP funding, while sprawl is busting the budgets of Tennessee’s urban governments and while Tennessee ranks as one of the states with the most highway lanes per person, the Tennessee Legislature has appointed a special committee to worry about how to build more roads.


Money For Road Builders

Of all the priorities of state government that deserve more attention and more money, it’s hard to understand why highways right now are even in the top 20. For way too long, state government has acted like its obligation is to enrich the roadbuilding industry. In that world, there will never be enough highways, and the traffic engineers – who depend on more roads for their incomes – and the politicians – who depend on the roadbuilding industry for so many campaign contributions - will always find justification for more lanes that have to be built.

So, for that reason, it’s really no surprise that a “study committee” has been created by the Tennessee Legislature to consider ways to increase funding for highway construction and maintenance. They may even talk about other transportation issues – they may even utter the treaded p-word, public transit – but in the end, it’s primarily theater to pump more money into laying more asphalt.

It’s all so preordained that state legislators don’t even attempt to mask the fact that for them, state transportation policy equals more highway construction. After all, one of the state’s most powerful lobbies – roadbuilders – and the largesse that flows into campaign coffers make the conclusions of such committees foregone for years.

Politics Trumps Public Interest

If there’s ever been a poster child for how cavalierly the public interest can be set aside by Tennessee legislators for personal political opportunism, it is their obsession with more and more lanes of roadways. In the process, there’s little debate about how this attitude has fueled sprawl across Tennessee, especially in major urban areas, and how a wiser focus on sustainability – with transportation policy leading the way - could create a better way of life in our state.

Tennessee Department of Transportation Gerald Nicely has done an admirable job of dragging his operations into this century, because for decades, it was widely accepted that TDOT’s role was to do whatever the roadbuilders wanted. At least, he’s been able to create some sensitivity to environmental issues, context sensitive design and light rail (although we despair that the plan is to connect Nashville and Chattanooga to Atlanta, doing nothing for the most economically desperate grand division of Tennessee – West Tennessee).

Despite Commissioner Nicely’s efforts, he has been unable to transform the cultural attitudes of his bureaucracy or to make much of a dent on the road-happy members of the state legislature. As a result, there’s always pressure to build more roads, and there’s always one more report saying that we need $15 billion to deal with the transportation and utilities needs of Tennessee.

Special Interests

Too often, however, these needs are not determined by an independent, third party expert, but by people who benefit from the construction of new roads. It’s really shouldn’t be a surprise that engineers, roadbuilders and the special interest groups like the Tennessee County Highway Officials can always find new projects to build.

However, the words of former design director of the National Endowment of the Arts Jeff Speak, speaking in Memphis earlier this year, still rings in our ears: “Build Memphis for humans, not just for cars. Don’t leave the design of your city to highway engineers.”

The same goes for the state. Here, we need only look at the incredulous design of Walnut Grove Road entering into the west side of Shelby Farms Park to understand the wisdom of his words, but we can see it also across Tennessee where highway engineers have been given freedom to create a state with too many lanes on too many highways.

Misplaced Priorities

Of course, any questions about this are met immediately with justifications based on economic development and safety. That said, Tennessee’s struggling economy has fundamental structural problems that deserve the attention now given to roads. Meanwhile, safety would improve if highways had fewer lanes. Studies have proven to every one but roadbuilders that wider roads result in higher speeds which cause more accidents, and yet, state transportation plans continue to act as if adding lanes is a panacea.

Despite all this, we have a 20-member task force in Nashville now wringing their hands over the fact that our state spends only about $2 billion a year in our traditional patronage to roadbuilders. If you question it, there is the ready answer that state-levied taxes on gasoline are designated for roads, and $900 million in federal Highway Trust Funds can’t be spent any other way.

But that’s clever deceit. These dedicated taxes were of course set up by legislators in either Nashville or Washington. Back here in our state, why should roads get dedicated tax sources rather than higher education? Just because we have gas taxes, why should they only go to transportation?

Tomorrow: Part Two - More Important Priorities Like Higher Education

Thursday, October 23, 2008

This Week On Smart City: Using the Internet to Explore Your City

This week, we're talking with people who use the internet to help you explore your city. Want to find out what's happening in your neighborhood? Adrian Holovaty knows. He's the creator of, a website that provides hyper-local news tailored to your street address. We'll give the site a test run and see what's happening on our block.

We'll also speak with Jennifer Coleman. She produced a series of audio tours called City Prowl that illuminate the special stories and places of her home city of Cleveland. We'll hear a sample from one of her tours and talk to her about the future of her site.

Smart City
is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City
is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Who Says There's No Good News In The Paper?

It’s hard to remember when we’ve seen two more hopeful headlines:

One yesterday said: “Shelby County Commission rejects Wal-Mart Supercenter.”

A day earlier, there was another: “Riverfront plaza to replace lot.”

Is it possible that the sustainability movement in our community is now officially under way in Memphis and Shelby County? Perhaps, for once, we won’t be on the back end of a trend, but that we will in fact have the chance to shape and define this one as it continues to unfold nationally.

Greening Memphis

Most of all, it said to us that the outpouring of interest in the greening of Memphis was no aberration. More than 1,000 people turned out on a brisk winter night to support the Greening Greater Memphis manifesto about 18 months ago, calling for a heightened awareness about sustainable issues and for public support for a green necklace of outdoor recreation that includes the Shelby Farms Park transformation, the Memphis Greenline rails-to-trail project, Wolf River Greenways connecting the eastern border of Shelby County to downtown Memphis and a reinvigorated riverfront.

It’s beginning to look like Greening Greater Memphis was a precursor to an emerging ethos that is coming into full bloom now. There seem to be sustainability projects all around us, and the Sustainable Shelby project launched by Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton issued its about 150 draft strategies to the 130 members of its seven committees.

There’s no more appropriate prelude to those strategies being considered than the 10-3 vote by the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to block plans for one of those godawful 152,000 square foot Wal-Mart supercenters.


There are so many reasons to celebrate.

One, there are few single buildings more unsustainable than Wal-Mart’s big boxes. They often fuel sprawl, they are often fatal blows to locally-owned businesses, their employee policies are questionable and their relationships with suppliers borders on extortion.

Two, this vote is a watershed victory for professional public planners, whose opinions have been roundly ignored and their recommendations routinely reversed by a Land Use Control Board essentially owned by the development industry. This case followed a familiar pattern: the city-county planning staff recommended disapproval, the Land Use Control Board ignored them and approved it, and it was forwarded to the county legislative body for the expected rubber stamp.

But, those days are fading fast. Broke and retrenching, Shelby County Government can no longer blindly approve any scheme proposed by politically-connected developers, but better still, this Board of Commissioners seems disinclined to continue the 30-year old policies that pushed county government to the brink of bankruptcy, policies that glibly mimicked propaganda that sprawl was a force for economic growth.

Overhauling The Board

Third, this vote to disapprove the Wal-Mart came as a result of a relentless and highly effective neighborhood campaign that should become a template for other similar efforts. Led by Brian Stephens, who has become a leading and effective voice for the interests of neighborhoods, citizens banded together to demand that their opinions were heard for a change. Perhaps, finally, county officials will understand that these same people deserve serious representation on the Land Use Control Board, where the gifted Emily Trenholm is a reliable, but lone, advocate for neighborhoods that work.

Hopefully, someone will finally call for an overhaul of the Land Use Control Board’s membership, and that the unwritten rule that you have to be in development, be related to someone in development or work for someone in development to get serious consideration for membership is overturned.

The most graphic evidence of the damage done by the delivery of this important city-county board into the hands of developers is this: prior to the take-over, about 15% of the professional planners’ recommendations on planned developments were reversed by the Land Use Control Board. That compared to an 85% reversal rate of the planners’ recommendations once developers had a stranglehold on the board.

The Right Trends

Finally, the argument by Wal-Mart proponents – whether mouthed by the handful of commissioners voting for the project or the company’s attorney – that the supercenter would create $1 million to $1.4 million in sales tax revenues is nothing short of specious. Surely, no one really believes that the Wal-Mart is really creating new incremental growth. It merely shifts spending from one location or store to another. It does nothing to create new net sales tax revenues for county government.

Here’s the bottom line: we always are quick to criticize commissioners when they do something wrong, so this time, all of us should give them kudos for taking this stand for planning and against sprawl.

The other headline that excited us was about the conversion of the parking lots behind the former downtown post office and custom house into greenspace. We can’t remember any other time that parking downtown has been traded for a green plaza, and we hope it becomes a trend.


We wrote last week about the elegant idea of the Memphis Art Park and connecting the greenspace behind the future University of Memphis Law School to the promenade behind the downtown library and to the Art Park would create a dynamic place from one that’s now dreary and dead.

The $2 million plaza project behind the old post office is a refreshing reimagination of a place where cars were unfortunately given priority over people. Hopefully, it will result in a fresh look at how our city literally faces its most precious natural resource – the Mississippi River.

To get a sense of this dismal relationship between city and river, take a drive on Riverside Drive from Jefferson to Beale. Given the opportunity to magnify and amplify the spectacular views of the river, instead, the back of the post office was used for a parking lot; the garage at the southwest corner of Monroe and Front was built flush against the trolley tracks, offering flat, concrete walls fronting the riverfront; the main fire station used this precious overlook for its parking lot surrounding by a chain link fence; and then there are the parking lots and the dumpsters that punctuate the space between the trolley tracks and the buildings facing the river.

The Brutal Facts

There’s no better opportunity for beautifying the riverfront than in converting these poorly maintained parking spaces into a green plaza leading to Beale Street Landing. More to the point, it’s time for a real plan to improve the vistas of the river and to turn downtown around so that it faces the riverfront.

This greater interest in green space and the greater emphasis on sustainability obviously could not have come at a better time. We often write here about how Memphis generally finishes in the bottom 5-10 cities in most key economic indicators, and just to show how consistent we are, Memphis finished # 46 in recent rankings by of the most sustainable cities among the largest 50.

Categories that dragged down our ratings were planning and land use (#46), green building (#50), local food and agriculture (#47), green economy (#50), city community (#42). Thank God for water quality, which got us a #6 ranking.
The report concluded that Memphis is “living for today,” but it added that Memphis “has a great foundation on which to build a movement so that the city may endure well into the future.”

Perhaps, the first big steps in that movement were made in the last two days.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Booking A Different Future For Memphis

We asked recently how deep the hole can get before Memphis can't climb out of it, and we thought of this seminal question again this week when the electrifying young mayor of Newark, Cory Booker, came to town.

Newark is one of those cities that can't climb out of the hole that it's in. It can create programs that improve things on the margins, it can build some major new buildings, as it did with its performing arts center a decade ago, that helped improve the city’s image. It can see some encouraging changes – new, funky and bohemian restaurants and businesses – and it can shake off the fatalism of the old days and adopt a new hopeful vocabulary.

But, in the end, there is little chance that Newark will turn around. It just allowed the hole to get too deep.

The Renaissance Word

Mayor Booker reminds us of how a dynamic mayor can improve a city’s image and the impact that can come from installing a modern management philosophy. But in the end, Newark will need sustained, neighborhood-by-neighborhood programs to lift up its poverty-laden public, and it will need this sustained attention for decades.

Two decades ago, Newark began calling itself Renaissance City, but if any city has represented the entrenched, cancerous problems of urban areas, it’s still Newark, often paired in this category with Detroit. It has shown signs of progress, but it remains one of America’s most violent cities, has the lowest-performing schools in New Jersey and a high school graduation rate of about 55% and the deep housing problems that result from a city that’s about half of its largest population (although city officials are ecstatic that population has grown 10,000 in recent years).

Newark problems are amplified and intensified from the fact that its 280,000 people – about a third fewer people than its historic high, with a high poverty rate and low educational attainment – live in 23 square miles. Memphis, on the other hand has about two and a half times more people in about 15 times more land area.

Higher Office

That's why some political friends of Mayor Booker - who moved from an affluent New Jersey suburb to run for mayor of the dysfunctional city – suggest that he’s established his bona fides and has captured national attention, but he should enthusiastically accept a major appointment if Barack Obama is elected as U.S. president. The ties between the two post-racial politicians are close, and it’s no secret that Mayor Booker would be on the short list for a couple of appointments. Some of his friends don’t see much future to being the person whose political potential is shaped by whatever progress Newark makes.

What we like about Cory Booker is the intellect, the themes and philosophy, and the motivation that he brings to his work. The next few mayors will need all of these - and more - because as economic and demographic trends prove in Newark, even the most motivational speaker can't transform the city.

That's why Mayor Booker's appearance in Memphis is rich with lessons for Memphis.

Causes Rather Than Symptoms

If we don't start now working on the root causes of Memphis' problems, the hole in fact can simply become too deep. After all, it's pay now or pay later, and the costs of personal interventions now are in thousands of dollars but to pay later costs millions of dollars.

We write often about the economic measurements of the largest 50 metros that routinely find Memphis in the bottom 10, and too often, in the bottom five. The fact that Newark ranks worst than Memphis is no source of pride, because over the years, Memphis has unfortunately drifted closer to Newark in key ratings.

As a result, it cries out for a sense of urgency. It is within the realm of possibilities that our city might join Newark and Detroit.

A City Of Possibilities

It is also within the realm of possibilities that we can stem the tide. We can come to grips with the fact that we are the first metropolitan area with more than one million people in history that will shortly be majority African-American and find ways to prove that it is a competitive advantage in a world known for its diversity and in a nation that will be minority majority in 35 years.

We can identify and relentlessly pursue leap frog strategies that move us to the middle of U.S. metros in measurements that matter, and chief among them is the indicator that matters most in deciding which cities are successful and which are not - the percentage of college graduates in Memphis.

We can develop interventions that take our city’s bulge of students that is an anomaly among the largest metros and find ways to get them through high school and college. Ultimately, they are the keys to unlocking Memphis’ future – one way or another.

Celebrating The Creatives

We can celebrate the creative workers in our city, because they are the heart and soul of Memphis. But more to the point, innovation comes from the edge, and no city has proven this truer than our own. We need to nurture, finance and expand our creative workforce, and more to the point, we need creativity to be infused in everything we do – from breakthroughs in the private sector to creative solutions in the public sector. If we want to find a brand that speaks to who we are and who we need to be, we vote for Memphis: Creative City.

Successful cities generally do have great mayors, but more to the point, they have great non-public leaders. That's one of the most encouraging things about Memphis these days - the caliber of ideas, energy and imagination coming from the grassroots - in culture and arts, in neighborhood development, in community development organizations, in neighborhood groups, and in young leaders groups from MPACT to Urban Land Institute.

All of this is building a current for a young, nontraditional person to run for city mayor. At this point, the prohibitive favorite to take the oath of office as the city mayor in 2012 is Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton. It's just a political reality - it's hard to beat someone with an approval rating in the 80 percentile and with a campaign fund that is likely to be in the middle six digits in 18 months.

The Next Mayor

In other words, the Booker biography may have another lesson for those seeking someone with his profile - young, well-educated, smart and motivational. They, like him, may also have to experience a losing mayoral campaign before they are successful.

There’s no question that Mayor Wharton will be on the ballot. He has been expected to file the paperwork to create a political organization for mayor for weeks, and it is said to be imminent. It will be followed closely by a campaign fund-raiser designed to send a clear message that anyone interested in running against him faces formidable odds.

Meanwhile, there was another speech being given Friday that was probably even more relevant to Memphis' future than Mayor Booker's. At the Economic Club, nationally respected political observer Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report talked about the presidential election and the increasing inevitability of an Obama victory.

New Federalism

Absent something historic to capsize current trends, he said the country’s first African-American president will take office. But here’s the more important message that he delivered: regardless of who wins this election, taxes will rise.

Economic turmoil, international challenges, foreign policy crises, and the cost of war demand it. With a stalled economy come stalled revenues. Or put another way, Memphis – and other cities – are about to witness a major period of federal retrenchment. The reality of this is there will be even less money for the problems of cities.

In other words, cities, including ours, need to fight the temptation to see Washington as the center of the university. We need to fight the notion that we should craft policies that treat Washington as the solution.

The experts on Memphis are on our own Main Street today. That's why we need them to develop plans and programs that address and solve our own problems and to create the "do it yourself" attitude that not only characterizes successful cities but could be absolutely essential in the coming years.

Friday, October 17, 2008

This Week On Smart City: What is a Social Entrepreneur?

We have two answers to that question on this week's show. First we'll speak with Dan Biederman. He's the co-founder of the Bryant Park Corporation in New York, a private organization that transformed Bryant Park from a dangerous and depressing eyesore to one of the best loved and most intensely used urban parks in the world.

We'll also speak with Pamela Hartigan. She's the founding director of Volans, a venture company dedicated to social innovation. She's written a book about social entrepreneurs called "The Power of Unreasonable People." We'll speak with Pamela about the book and what Unreasonable People do to enrich and improve the world around them.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ideas Flower At Grassroots

The most exciting things happening in Memphis these days are found at the grassroots level.

There’s no lack of new ideas, new programs and new vision that are springing from the imagination and creativity that we find when we get off the Memphis grid that too often turns to local government for the answer anytime a need is identified and a new idea is discussed.

These days, as a result of the vacuum created by the public sector – largely because of budgetary limitations that will become even more of a straight jacket in coming months – but even more so, as a result of an increasing “can do” attitude, there are new faces and new energy being put to bear on some overdue priorities.

The Power Of One

Rather than ask for a meeting with a mayor or government officials, this breed of Memphian simply operate on a simple premise – that they can make a difference – and they follow their own inspiration, take on the cause and set out to make things happen. It’s a far cry from a civic tendency rooted in the Crump culture that too often sees the public sector as the answer to every problem.

In other words, these new leaders and their movements – in everything from sustainability to the arts to downtown revitalization – are encouraging developments in an age when “do it yourself” cities seem to be prospering. It’s hard to understand why Memphis isn’t one of them.

After all, Portland, Oregon, wasn’t always the Portland we see today, a city at the top of most livable cities list, greenest cities list, most bikable cities and more. In the 1960s, nothing was working in Portland’s favor. There was no great research university, there were a couple of Fortune 500 companies and there were no natural assets to brag about.


In the word of one longtime Portland resident, the city was nothing short of a dump. These days, whenever Portland is cited as an example of success for metro areas in a Memphis meeting, someone invariably will say that Portland is different because it had so much going for it.

Since just the opposite is true, the real question is if Portland could transform its national image, reputation and reality in about 25 years, why can’t Memphis?

We recently asked two experts on Portland’s transformation to tell us what triggered its turnaround and its rebirth. Both of them said the same thing. The change sprung from a “do it yourself” attitude among the people of Portland who simply set out to make things better in their city. In fact, the presence of a weak city government (a commission form which still exists today, puncturing the notion that only a strong mayor can turn around a city) spurred grassroots solutions even more.


Hopefully, we are now seeing the strong stirrings of that same kind of attitude, because if Portland offers a lesson, it is about the importance – and the ability - of citizens standing up and taking risks to improve their city.

We think of the creativity of John Kirkscey and his idea for the Memphis Art Park, an exciting concept that has sprung from the creative cauldron for which our city is famous. His plan is for a moribund part of downtown, trapped between a forlorn parking garage and a decrepit downtown library, to become a lively, colorful place where the talents Memphis’ artists, musicians and other creatives converge to create place-based vibrancy that is too absent in most parts of downtown.

We think of Margot McNeely, whose passion for a better Memphis and her energy as an agent for change, led her to start Project Green Fork. Her program to bring restaurant recycling to Memphis has national implications, and her work with the equally talented Ben Smith of Tsunami can become the model for other local restaurants. She needs some support from city government to test her plans, and Councilman Bill Morrison is looking into ways to do it. Hopefully, he can, because restaurants can be seedbeds for recycling, composting, non-toxic cleaning products and energy and water conservation.

Skating Ahead

We think of the inspiration that we continue to draw from Aaron Shafer, the creative energy and the driving force behind the great idea of building the country’s largest skatepark on Mud Island, where it would be a magnet for families and activity downtown. Despite predictions to the contrary, he has proven in a series of imaginative events and projects that Memphis is hungry for a first-class skatepark. More to the point, we are impressed by the underlying philosophy for his work, a compassion for needy families that spurs him to pursue other ideas that can improve their lives where they live and work.

We think of the ongoing work of the UrbanArt Commission, which is a symbol of and the catalyst for the artistic talent that exists in our city and an investment in better neighborhoods and public space. In particular, we like the imagination of its idea for its UrbanArt Show and Tell program in early November. At the show and tell, anyone who is “a little bit obsessed with creative culture” should ask for the chance to show 20 slides in just under seven minutes that demonstrate a passion of yours. It’s the kind of event that mixes the fun, the imagination and the conversation that we need to have more of, because it’s an activity that connects diverse and disparate people and who knows what good can come from these relationships?

These are just a handful of the things in Memphis that makes us excited about the future and hopeful in particular about the new thinking that is coming from a new generation.

It’s Creativity, Stupid

All of these things speak to the creativity that is our birthright as Memphians. The challenge now is to do everything possible to foster it and to provide the support and the money that usher it into the mainstream of our city where it is rewarded and revered.

That’s why the discussion at 6 p.m., October 22, at Memphis College of Art is so timely. In a panel discussion sponsored by the College and MPACT Memphis, six creative entrepreneurs will talk about the role of creativity in their lives and in the life of the city. It’s one of the most important conversations that should be taking place all over Memphis.

Getting To The Point Of The Pyramid Plan

Some county commissioners are like the guy who doesn’t kiss his wife for 20 years, but gets mad when somebody else tries to.

That’s a relatively accurate version of how Memphis City Councilman Jack Sammons summed up some county commissioners “I don’t want her, but you can’t have her” attitude toward The Pyramid.

Mr. Sammons, completing the remainder of the term for the seat vacated by former Chair Scott McCormick, has always had a remarkable knack for summing up a complex issue with a pithy saying or story, but it seemed especially true on the occasion of the proposal for Shelby County Government to sell its interest in The Pyramid for $5 million (along with its interest in property at the Fairgrounds).


On its face, it seemed like an easy sale, but in point of fact, it’s created a strange political dynamic on the board of commissioners. Although the buy-out by city government would remove any risk to county government, which the commissioners have said is their ultimate objective, they at the same time just can’t let go.

Whether they like the idea of the retailer as marquee tenant of the building or not, Shelby County Government has not just taken a backseat to negotiations with the company. Most of the time, it’s not even been in the car.

Of course, commissioners – whose votes are necessary for any agreement to be consummated – have every right to ask questions, but this one is taking on all the characteristics of one of those political exercises that’s somehow become more about pot shots than political solutions. Rightly or wrongly, commissioners questions seem to be aimed at bedeviling the Herenton Administration for reasons that often seem to have little to do with the proposal at hand.


We admit to expressing skepticism about redevelopment of The Pyramid, preferring instead that it was razed. Even now, there are varying opinions here, but generally skepticism has morphed into pragmatism.

Here’s that journey: It became clear that there was no chance that The Pyramid was going to be demolished, it became equally clear that the only proposal with money was Bass Pro Shops and most of all, it had the least risk for taxpayers.

That’s because in the end, the $30 million in bonds for infrastructure, parking garages and street improvements are revenue bonds, so taxpayers are not on the line if something unforeseen happens, the private investment is 3:1 to public investment, and the primary funding source is sales tax revenues that would otherwise go to state government.

The Kicker

But here’s the clincher for us. Over the initial 20-year term of Bass Pro Shop’s contract, the retailer will generate about $160 million for schools. Meanwhile, in the same period, about $18.5 million will be generated for city and county governments’ hotel-motel taxes, which will be used to step up payments for the Memphis Cook Convention Center.

That’s why it seems like a no-brainer for county government. The buyout gets the county debt paid on The Pyramid. It doesn’t give up any property tax money because no Tax Increment Financing district was needed to fund the project as was commonly expected. It doesn’t give up any county sales tax, because it wouldn’t have received them anyway.

There is a lingering question about whether The Pyramid should be sold to Bass Pro Shops in order to receive property tax, but since $30 million in public improvements are being put into the asset, it seems logical that city and county governments should retain ownership. It seems largely academic anyway, because if Bass Pro Shops did own the building, surely there first task would be to receive a lengthy tax freeze that would mean it wouldn’t pay taxes for a couple of decades. Meanwhile, the rent payments of at least $1 million a year would be eliminated.

The Right Priorities

With a to-do list that includes school funding, functional consolidation, revenue shortfalls, budget challenges and a regressive tax structure, there’s plenty of issues that deserve attention from the Shelby County Board of Commissioners right now. In particular, at a time when so many people are talking about consolidation because it would increase government efficiency and accountability with streamlined decision-making, it seems a good time to do the same when it comes to the future of The Pyramid.

More to the point, it seems to make sense that city government takes charge of this project since city taxpayers paid twice for it – 100% of the funding for the city’s half and 70% of the funding for the county’s half.

If we’re lucky, maybe the growing consensus for single source funding by county government for schools will in the future result in single source funding for projects like this one. One, it’s fairer for Memphians who shouldn’t be paying twice for services or buildings, and two, it allows one government to be in charge and be held accountable.

That sounds like progress to us.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Shelby Farms Won't Park Ambition

Nothing contributes more to success with the public sector than timing, persistence, and positioning.

There’s no better proof than Shelby Farms Park.

Considered DOA six years ago by Shelby County Government, it has risen from the political graveyard with a vengeance. Today, it is well on its way toward a massive overhaul that could cost $100 million. That’s a third more than the Memphis parks division’s capital funding wish list over the next five years, but when compared to the price tag of the Great Park in Irvine, California, it sounds like a bargain. Costs there for a much smaller park have been estimated at $1 billion.

Never Say Die

Perhaps that’s one reason the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy chose the lighter touch of New York-based field operations over two other more ambitious master planning concepts. First, it responds to concerns by long-time park activists that the other plans were too dramatic and disruptive, but more to the point, it responds to the practical: There’s really not much reason to adopt a master plan that you can’t afford to implement.

It began in March, 2002, when Memphis business leader and then-chairman of the Shelby Farms Board (back then, it didn’t even have park in its name) Ron Terry proposed a $20 million plan for the park. He called for the park to be managed by an independent conservancy, for resolving the long contentious highway alignment through the park, and for creating a conservation easement to preserve the land for park use.

Four months after being presented, the Terry proposal was declared dead when the lame duck administration of Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, who asked Terry to “dream a new vision for the park,” could not pass two crucial resolutions. Vociferous opposition of former commissioner Walter Bailey and the hostility of unaccountably powerful Agricenter International created hurdles that could not be cleared.

The Measured Approach

But reports of its death were greatly exaggerated. About 14 months later, the first serious stirrings of resurrecting the proposal were seen, and they came in the Friends of Shelby Farms, the grassroots group that had developed a reputation for opposing anything that changed a blade of grass at the park.

Its new president, Laura Adams, had been involved in the Terry proposal and had learned a critical lesson well. If a conservancy was to be created, it could not appear full-blown on a county agenda. Instead, a strong foundation had to be laid, and it had to be the result of a process that planted the idea in the public mind and allowed it to unfold in stages that seemed incremental and progressive.

So, the rejuvenated Friends of Shelby Farms adopted a new mission, and despite all odds, sent the unmistakable signal that it would consider a compromise on Kirby-Whitten Road through the park when it sent new Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton a recommendation for context sensitive design, which loosely meant that the road design had to adapt to its park setting.

Building Steam

The new attitude was propelled forward when a special Shelby County Advisory Committee headed by Gene Pearson, University of Memphis director of city and regional planning, issued a report that confirmed some of the founding principles of the Terry plan and set the framework for a new push for a conservancy.

A week later, Wharton formed a new committee to develop consensus recommendations to resolve the highway dispute. Its approach: context sensitive design. Another committee followed about a year later when he appointed the Shelby Farms Park Master Plan Task Force to pick a master planner for the park.

In other words, this time, momentum was built one step at a time, and plans came together brick by brick. As a result, funding goals for a new park grew to $80-100 million, and this time, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners overwhelmingly approved the creation of the conservation easement, a management contract with the new Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, and a master plan.


And it all really began when a grassroots group made the decision to move from being defined by what it was against to what it was for, and as a result, Friends of Shelby Farms morphed into Shelby Farms Park Alliance which fundamentally morphed into the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, which now, finally, has a free hand to deliver what it promises – the standard for all 21st century urban parks.

Even in a city notorious for chasing big projects as the magic answers to its problems, this one may actually deserve its hyperbole.

This post was previously published as Memphis Magazine's City Journal column.

Friday, October 10, 2008

This Week On Smart City: The Power of Perception

Barack Obama's candidacy has raised a host of issues surrounding race in America. To help address some of those issues we have Dr. Camille Charles on the show this week. Camille is the Director of the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and talks about how race has played a role this political season.

While Dr. Charles is studying the language we use around race, Lindsay Zaltman has written a book about the language we use to describe what we buy. He's the co-author of the book, Marketing Metaphoria, about the use of language and how a powerful metaphor can be used to change perceptions: perceptions of a candidate or a city.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City
is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Bringing Shelby County's Grand Experiment To A Close

The grand experiment that began 32 years ago to reinvent Shelby County Government as an urban government is coming to a close.

It began with such promise on a clear, unseasonably warm New Year's Day in 1976 when Shelby County's first mayor, Roy Nixon, took office and sent the clear message that he was intent on creating a "strong mayor" form of government that would demand equal footing with the mayor of Memphis.

In the two decades that followed, county government achieved Nixon's founding vision and more, taking on such a strong Memphis focus that it prompted a rivalry between Memphis and Shelby County Governments and the men who were elected to their highest offices. The uncomfortable alliance was often punctuated with dueling press releases and with one mayor elbowing the other out of the way at groundbreakings and major announcements.

Ground Zero

Joint projects became the norm — even though it meant that Memphians were being taxed twice for many of the same services — and Shelby County Government set up new programs for senior citizens, urban neighborhoods, downtown redevelopment, and economic development that were aimed at convincing Memphians that county government mattered to them.

It was light years from the county government that was so rurally dominated that it was ground zero for the landmark U.S. Supreme Court's "one man one vote" ruling in Baker vs. Carr that changed reapportionment not only for Shelby County, but for every legislative body in the entire country. Until then, although the majority of Shelby County's population had always lived inside Memphis, the majority of the county's legislative body members was from outside Memphis.

This new urban majority and focus provoked new momentum to adopt a modernized structure for county government. When Nixon took the oath of office in 1976, he headed up a new government that mirrored the structure of Memphis city government. There was the hope that the similarity would be so obvious that voters would see the overwhelming logic of consolidation.


It was not to be. Not only was there not a vote on consolidation, but in the end, instead of having just one massive urban government, taxpayers had two that they could not afford — each today with more than 6,000 employees and tax rates of about $4.00 per $100 of assessed value. The burden was especially heavy for Memphians who paid 100 percent of the city property taxes and about 70 percent of the county's, prompting a historic hollowing out of the city's middle class.

In time, something had to give, and there were two options.

One was for Memphis to whittle back its services to mimic other cities — mainly police, fire, and sanitation — while Shelby County took responsibility for museums, libraries, parks, and schools, moving their budgets to its broader base of taxpayers and cutting the Memphis tax rate to a level comparable to Germantown and Collierville.

The other option was for Shelby County to yield the field to Memphis and scale back to the traditional services provided by most counties in Tennessee — jails, elections, schools, and public health.

The Road Taken

A recent newspaper headline seemed innocuous, but in truth said volumes about which option was chosen. It said that Shelby County intended to sell its only golf course. The subtext was that county government was ridding itself of services considered to be typically urban. It had already eliminated funding for libraries.

These changes reversed a trend that began in the earliest days of the new restructured county government. From the beginning, it blurred the lines between urban and rural services. The philosophy until that time was that if people outside Memphis wanted higher quality law enforcement and fire protection, they would get it through annexation. But with county government providing urban level services, resistance to annexation by Memphis deepened.

Then, to compound that mistake, county officials threw good money after bad by fueling unbridled sprawl and by never meeting a developer's project that they didn't like. With much of their political base lying outside Memphis, this special attention made political sense for the mayor and a majority of the board of commissioners, who thought it was the only way to keep white voters inside Shelby County.

The Legacy

Thirty-two years and $2 billion in debt later, Shelby County government is down-shifting and the structure once hailed as a "twenty-first-century county government" is destined to atrophy.

Ironically, the lasting impact of this experiment may be the one most subjected to ridicule over the years — the office of the county mayor. Other county executives were so impressed by the higher profile that resulted from being called "mayor" that a state law was passed. Now every Tennessee county has a mayor.

This post was previously published in the June issue of Memphis magazine in the monthly City Journal column.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Test Your Knowledge About Consolidation

Consolidation is equal parts fact and fiction.

More than 35 years of spasmodic attention has done little to increase understanding of consolidation in Memphis and Shelby County. As the discussion continues, here's a 25-question quiz to test your knowledge.

Here's the grading scale: 25 right - a consolidation genius; 20 right - pretty smart on consolidation; 15 right - you know more than most people; 10 right - go to the back of the line; and 5 or less right - you flunked.

1 – What percentage of consolidation votes in U.S. pass?

a) 50% b) 75% c) 15% d) 5%

2 – If Memphis and Shelby County Governments are consolidated, would the governments in the smaller towns be affected?

Yes No

3 – If Memphis and Shelby County Governments are consolidated, would every one’s tax rate be the same?

Yes No

4 – What percentage of U.S. counties are consolidated?

a) 35% b) 1% c) 20% d) 45%

5 - When’s the last time a county with the population of Shelby County was consolidated?

a) 110 years ago b) 6 years ago c) 42 years ago d) 60 years ago

6 – What city in Tennessee has had more failed consolidation votes?

a) Chattanooga b) Memphis c) Knoxville d) Clarksville

7- Research shows that city-county consolidation saves money?

Yes No

8 – How many of the largest 100 cities in the U.S. have consolidated since 1900?

a) 35 b) 23 c) 9 d) 45

9 – What percentage of all consolidated governments are comparable in size to Memphis and Shelby County?

a) 75% b) 28% c) 42% d) 6%

10 – Pick the consolidated governments:

a) None b) Atlanta c) Dallas d) St. Louis e) Indianapolis f) New Orleans g) All

11 – What was the first city to consolidate?

a) New York b) Honolulu c) Chicago d) New Orleans

12 – Pick the cities where consolidation failed:

a) None b) Charlotte c) Portland d) Albuquerque e) Miami f) Pittsburgh g) All

13 – How many Tennessee counties are consolidated?

a) 1 b) 3 c) 5 d) 9

14 – How many consolidated counties in Tennessee have a population of more than 50,000?

a) 1 b) 3 c) 5 d) 9

15 - What percentage of consolidation votes in Tennessee have been approved since Nashville/Davidson County merged?

a) 10% b) 16% c) 30%

16 – How many times has Memphis voted on consolidation?

a) 2 b) 4 c) 6

17 – What percentage of voters in the last gubernatorial election can sign a petition and require the creation of a consolidation charter commission?

a) 10 b) 15 c) 20 d) 25

18 – How many members are on Nashville’s City Council?

a) 15 b) 25 c) 33 d) 40

19 – Of all the consolidated governments in the U.S., how many minor municipalities have remained within the merged government?

a) 0 b) 5 c) 15 d) 22

20 – How much was spent in Louisville by pro-consolidation forces?

a) $500,000 b) $1.25 million c) $2 million d) $3 million

21 – When was Tennessee constitution amended to allow consolidated government?

a) 1925 b) 1947 c) 1953 c) 1959

22 – In Tennessee’s four major cities, how many times has consolidation failed?

a) 4 b) 6 c) 8 d) 10

23 – What is not one of the most frequently used arguments in favor of consolidation?

a) Eliminate duplication b) Improve economy c) Lower taxes d) Efficiency

24 – What percentage of the total land area of Shelby County would be totally under the control of a new consolidated government?

a) 45% b) 55% c) 71% d) 80%

25 – What percentage of the total land area of Shelby County will Memphis control when annexation agreements are fully executed?

a) 45% b) 55% c) 65% d) 75%


1. c.
2. No
3. No
4. b
5. a
6. c
7. No
8. c
9. b
10. e and f
11. d
12. g
13. b
14. a
15. b
16. a
17. a
18. d
19. a
20. c
21. c
22. c
23. c
24. c
25. c

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Consolidation May Be The Exception And Exceptional

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 consolidated, 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.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Turning The Consolidation Moment Into A Movement

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.

It's why Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton’s is possibly the pivotal figure in our long-time quest for consolidated government. He's already laying a foundation - complete with intimidating poll numbers and warchest - to run for city mayor in three years, and he would seem to have the approval ratings that would propel another conversation about consolidation (particularly if he is willing to run as the first mayor of the new metropolitan government). And since Mayor Herenton will be leaving office, there's the potential that such a proposal would be free of the personality politics that has dominated this question in the past.

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 are often 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; 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 has been the formidable hurdle that has to be cleared here for success.

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.

The Kicker

Let's get to one of government's favorite points - the proverbial bottom line.

For us, it is this. Consolidation won't significantly reduce expenses of the public sector, but has the potential to reduce the property tax rate somewhat. Consolidation won't eliminate the serious, difficult urban problems that grip our public budgets like a serial killer. Consolidation won't unilaterally remove the "us versus them" approach that characterizes too many of our problems. Consolidation won't be the panacea to the serious urban problems that grip our public budgets like a serial killer.

But, we need to consolidate city and county governments nevertheless.

Game Changer

That's because today Memphis languishes in the bottom rungs of most economic indicators that matter, and as important, our national image languishes just as much as we are portrayed as divided, conflicted and in an economic freefall.

As a result, we need nothing less than a fundamental game changer for our community - something dramatic, something that serves notice that we've set out in a new direction and something that shows that we are committed to a bolder, more competitive future.

The passage of consolidation will do that, and that alone is enough of a reason to support it.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Consolidation Redux

In light of Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton's latest call for consolidated city-county governments, we'll focus on the facts and fiction of consolidation in the next few days, beginning with the reprise of a March post on the subject:

In the not too distant future, government in Memphis and Shelby County will look nothing like it does today.

And it will happen with or without consolidation.

Voters outside Memphis who reflexively oppose the merger of Memphis and Shelby County Governments haven’t grasped the realities of this brave new world. If they had, they might decide they prefer consolidation to the government behemoth that Memphis will become when it’s fully annexed out.

Tiny Towns

When Memphis completely executes the annexation agreements reached in the wake of the “tiny town” controversy of the late 1990’s, 65 percent of Shelby County will be inside Memphis, which is almost 50 percent larger than today (about the same land area as the city of Los Angeles).

The fixed order will be transformed, and smaller cities will find that their future will no longer be defined by their relationship with Shelby County. Rather, it will be with Memphis.

Memphis will overshadow and drive the futures of all the other cities in Shelby County even more directly than now. Meanwhile, Shelby County Government will morph from a major force in our community to a government more like rural counties that deliver little more than schools, jails and justice, and public health.


Outside Memphis, only annexation provokes more enmity than consolidation. It was a similar anti-annexation attitude that led to Nashville’s successful consolidation 46 years ago. Faced with the choice of consolidating governments or being annexed by Nashville, voters in Davidson County opted for the merger.

But there was something else. The consolidation vote in Nashville became a referendum on who voters had the most confidence in – the county executive or the city mayor. In the end, it was Davidson County Judge Beverly Briley, a staunch consolidation advocate, who won the vote of confidence and became the first mayor of the new consolidated government.

That too offers a useful lesson for consolidation proponents here.

A Change Is Gonna Come

If consolidation passed here, city government would cease to exist. However, it’s likely that state law would require Memphians to pay higher taxes than people living outside the city, and the risk of institutionalizing the tax disincentive now paid by Memphians could become the third rail of consolidation inside Memphis, the equivalent of the school issue outside Memphis.

The best chance for consolidation presupposed that Mayor Willie W. Herenton was serious about changing the Tennessee Constitution to remove the dual majority that now makes consolidation all but impossible. The dual majority requirement sets up two hurdles that consolidation has to clear to take place – approval by a majority of voters inside Memphis and also approval by voters outside Memphis.

Mayor Herenton’s amendment was supposed to allow passage of consolidation with only one vote tally for the entire county. Realistically, the only thing more unlikely than convincing county voters to vote for consolidation is convincing the Tennessee Legislature and state voters to approve an amendment to the state Constitution. Perhaps that's why Mayor Herenton abruptly dropped yet another consolidation plan after promising another all-out battle for government merger.

It's Never Easy

In Louisville, there was no dual requirement for consolidating city-county governments, but even there, it wasn’t easy. Despite media vilification of anyone opposing the merger, strong leadership by the business community and a wildly popular former mayor, and a $2 million marketing campaign, it only passed 56 percent to 44 percent.

If there had been a dual majority requirement in Kentucky, officials in the Louisville mayor’s office said consolidation would have gone down in defeat because of suburban opposition.

There’s only one thing certain about consolidation: regardless of where in the U.S. a consolidation vote takes place, it is always difficult, going down to defeat 85 percent of the time.

New Lens

Even if Mayor Herenton's plan had been successful, the earliest that a consolidation vote would have been held was 2011, and if the amendment hadn't been passed in the current session of the Legislature, it moves to 2015.

Without a change in state law, the only way to consolidate government is the old-fashioned way – with voters outside Memphis coming to grips with the idea that they may actually prefer a merged city-county government to the massive annexation that lies ahead.

It runs counter to everything the mayors of the municipalities now believe, but there may be a time not too far in the future when they look back and realize they missed their best chance to negotiate what they want most in return for supporting consolidation – frozen school boundaries, special school district, and freedom to control development in their annexation areas.

By then, they will have watched as Memphis ballooned and Shelby County Government dwindled away.

This post was previously published as the City Journal column in Memphis magazine.

Friday, October 03, 2008

This Week On Smart City: Conversations In Innovation

This week on Smart City, we're talking innovation with two inspired thinkers. First we'll speak with Chris Anderson. He's the editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine and is author of the book, The Long Tail, which describes the new marketplace where niche markets - not mainstream products and services - are at the head of the demand curve. His next book, Free, shows how the future of business has a price tag of $0.00.

We'll also have a conversation with Karen Gagnon. She heads Michigan's Cool Cities initiative. Karen hopes to ignite the passions of urban leaders with her Creative Cities 2.0 conference. The Detroit conference will explore how cities are integrating innovation, social entrepreneurship, sustainability, arts and culture and business to create vibrant, creative economies.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast so you can listen to it anytime you like. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Praying For Peace As A People

We need more churches like Idlewild Presbyterian Church.

If you are Christian, you may be like us. We tire from our faith being high jacked by a minority who uses it as a whip to lash anyone who disagrees politically, who has a different lifestyle or who professes a different worldview based on their understanding of sacred texts.

It’s awfully hard to see something so central to our personal lives reduced to glib bumper stickers and political slogans. It’s equally hard to see Christ’s words about love, charity and inclusion used to justify behaviors that seem more accurately to reflect hate, greed and exclusion.

That’s why churches like Idlewild Presbyterian – and other churches with similar approaches to their faith - give us hope. We admit that we’re prejudiced, but Idlewild reminds us that we have reasons to be extraordinarily proud of our faith if we are Christians and proud of our city if we are Memphians.

In a ministry from the pulpit and from the streets, the church has, in an age when congregations are redefining themselves in the name of membership and budgets, did something more elegant: it remained true to its traditions and used them as the foundation for a contemporary ministry that speaks distinctly to the city that it serves.

Pride, hope and service are messages and attitudes that we need now more than any time since the fabled Yellow Fever epidemics as we confront intractable urban problems that demand the best efforts and concerted attention of all of us.

We give credit to Rev. Dr. Steve Montgomery who waves it away to credit a congregation of families that have long included the well-known names of Memphis’ historic families and who have opened their arms to their city and all of its people as the church creates a 21st century ministry.

That is especially true this Sunday when the church invites all Memphians to be part of World Communion and Peacemaking Sunday when the grand architecture of Idlewild Presbyterian Church is complemented by art hangings designed by Woon Sik (Timothy) Chon and based on children’s visions of peace. The hangings were made by church members and hang in the 144 “portals of peace” in the church.

At 3 p.m., an Interfaith Worship Service will be held, and guest minister is Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock, author and advocate for the interconnecting virtues of faith and justice. Central High Schools choirs will provide the music. So far, more than 125 religious partners of various faiths are joining together to offer up much-needed prayers for peace.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Taxing Authority Taxes Imagination

There could be merit to the proposal for the school boards to have taxing authority, but it’s up to school officials to carry the burden of proof.

They’re not even close yet.

If Dr. Jeff Warren’s prescription for taxing authority represents the best argument for it, it’s probably going nowhere, because his opening hypothesis will find little acceptance by the vast majority of our citizens.

A Pickle Of A Proposal

The naivete in the proposal was demonstrated most clearly when it was embraced by Shelby County School Board Chair David Pickler, who regularly seduces some city school official in thinking their interests are aligned. Back when the interim superintendent was at Memphis City Schools, he was convinced at one point that the creation of a special school district for county schools was sound policy.

We’ve written before about the significant downside of this idea to the city district – bad tax policy, bad accountability, confusing No Child Left Behind provisions and more. It seems that the report of the special team that was commissioned by city and county school districts to evaluate this issue has been permanently deep-sixed.

This independent, third party assessment by academic experts concluded decisively that the Shelby County Special Schools District was damaging to Memphis City Schools on a variety of levels. As far as we know, members of the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners have never even seen a copy of the report.

Coming Up Lacking

But, back to the issue of taxing authority, Commissioner Warren wrote in his proposal, according to trusted Commercial Appeal reporter Jane Roberts, that city and county schools would unite in one taxing authority and divide the money between the districts between enrollment.

That isn’t good enough. It is not enough to simply divide the money, because of the special needs that exist in the student population of Memphis City Schools. Any funding equation has to include weighted funding for city students. Period.

School officials said they are held accountable for higher standards but have no control over their funding. This seemed to imply that taxing authority would allow the school boards to receive more money and in return, there would be greater accountability. It’s an idea that is likely to find little public support.

Proof Needed

Here’s the thing: in the past decade, funding for schools has roughly doubled, the student enrollment has essentially been flat and yet, student performance has declined. If the board members want to suggest that they can raise the tax rate to a level where it can produce better results, it would be good to point how this has happened in the past.

Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash said that “an alternate way” to fund schools is needed as a result of events in the past eight to 12 months. Of course, both Memphis City Council and Shelby County Board of Commissioners have done nothing except to perform their legal duties, and when Supt. Cash took the job, surely he knew the rules of the game on funding.

If the school districts now want to change the rules, they need to make a compelling case for how taxpayers will be protected from the district’s single issue focus, and the higher tax rates that could result. After all, since three-fourths of Memphians don’t have children in school, there are many who wish that The Med had taxing authority – or MATA – or early childhood intervention.

Doing Their Duty

When it reduced school funding, City Council members acted in keeping with their responsibility for setting the tax rate and setting the budgets for city services. The cut in school funding was the first – and a courageous – step toward a more equitable tax structure for Memphis taxpayers, who now pay twice for public education and several other public services. It is in the interest of every parent in Memphis for the fiscal playing field to be leveled to close the tax burden disparity that exists between Memphians and non-Memphians.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Board of Commissioners did the same - acting in keeping with its responsibility for setting the tax rate and setting the budgets for county services. It adopted a new approach that treats all county services equally and fairly, including schools.

For too long, both city and county school districts have behaved as if they should be given carte blanche, and greater oversight and accountability by City Council and the Board of Commissioners was not only welcome but overdue. Although taxing authority for school districts is the rule, not the exception, across the U.S., there’s the argument that the present structure puts in place checks and balances that are lost when complete power rests with districts.

Betting On Results

Because taxing authority would require state legislation, the Tennessee Legislature figures prominently in any grand plans; however, the Catch-22 is that Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools need the support of Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in Nashville.

In that vein, perhaps, the school districts can get support from their city and county legislators if they would couple their push for taxing authority with performance-based standards and measurements of progress. There are precious few of us who would not be willing to pay more in taxes if there was proof that the academic performance of students was improving and that the districts are willing to bet their tax raises on it.

On the surface, it’s too early to be considering any legislation giving taxing authority to the school systems, but at this point, the ball is in the districts’ court. Now their main task is to prove to taxpayers how city students will receive the weighted funding they need and to prove that taxpayers will get a deal sweetener like tying tax increases to performance.