Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mayors' Old Consolidation Tapes Defy New Realities For Future

We get frustrated at times by the inescapable feeling that our city is trapped in a time warp. We are recycling old conversations, old charges and old complaints.

But whenever we need perspective, we can simply say consolidation in front of the small town mayors of Shelby County and watch them respond in ways that would have made Ivan Pavlov proud.

Decade after decade, the mayors of the towns whose life and health depend solely on the life and health of Memphis have absolutely gagged over the notion that consolidation could be a better, more efficient form of government for Memphis and Shelby County.

The Me Generation

In the “what’s in it for me” world that we now live in, they predictably deliver a kneejerk reaction against a government structure that a majority of Shelby Countians support. Most incredibly of all, they launch into these attacks even though there’s no real plan for consolidation on the table. There just was a mention of it.

Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton merely advanced it as an issue worth examining and the small town mayors came out with their guns blazing. One said: “We are unequivocally opposed and that's based on a long history of research and understanding of the implications for our communities,"

It’s a fairly typical response, given repeatedly over the years. It’s as if the talking points are the same ones parroted 40 years ago.

Give It Up

First, we think that the small town mayors should deliver up this “long history of research” that forms the basis of their opposition. At the same time, if they have an “understanding of the implications” for their towns, they should share that, too.

As far as we can tell, it’s more rhetoric than reason, more reaction than research. We are hard-pressed to recall a lot of negative research about consolidation or any negative implications for small towns like those outside Memphis.

In Davidson County, for example, we can’t remember any “understanding” in the small towns there about the negative impact of the consolidation of city and county governments there. To the contrary, the more efficient, more effective government has often been credited with keeping its tax rate down and revving the economy up.

Just The Facts And Nothing But

In the handful of years since Louisville and Jefferson County consolidated their governments, we haven’t read any revelations about negative implications for the smaller towns in the county.

Supporters of consolidation have laid out the benefits of consolidation – a shared vision, streamlined government, more business-friendly structure, economies of scale and more – but to date, the opponents have only said they are opposed to consolidation to their deaths but they come up short in offering any specifics or reasons why.

The mayors have suggested that consolidation would reduce services to their cities. That seems a strange concern, since there’s no logical justification for why they should be receiving more services from Shelby County Government than the citizens of Memphis in the first place. Of course, Shelby County has a long history of doing just that, and if Mayor Wharton can point to one accomplishment, it is that he has made great strides in eliminating the imbalance between Memphians and other Shelby Countians and the preferential treatment that these town mayors seem to think they deserve.

Majority Non-rule

Second, we think the mayors should explain why they think that their minority of voters should be able to block the will of the majority of citizens in Shelby County. In political circles in some of these towns, minority preferences for government business are downplayed, but when it comes to their minority blocking the majority’s will, that’s altogether different.

The truth is that if the citizens of the towns went to sleep tonight and woke up tomorrow with a consolidated government in place, they’d never know the difference. After all, the new metropolitan government would bear much more reflection to the present county government than to the present Memphis city government.

Third, the mayors seem to have a fatal case of political myopia. They can decry “big government,” but the future promises one whether consolidation is approved or not. And if consolidation is not in place, there most sinister nightmares will have taken place.

It’s About Choices

That’s because Shelby County government will have withered away, delivering nothing more than state-mandated services and bearing little resemblance to what it is today. Meanwhile, Memphis will continue to annex in keeping with the annexation reserve agreements signed by the small towns. At that point, there will be a city government in control of two-thirds of the land area of our county.

In other words, if there is no consolidation, there will be a big government – the City of Memphis government with 489 miles square miles. If there is consolidation, there will be a big county-oriented government that will have only 49 more square miles than the non-consolidated city government.

As a result, the real choice for the town mayors isn’t to try to stonewall consolidation yet again. It is to choose to be part of eliminating an unnecessary layer of government or to stand idly by as Memphis surrounds them and eventually dominates them. Based on their politics and turf, it seems like it would be an easy choice to make, but still, these mayors – who signed the agreements giving Memphis dominance in the future – think they can somehow avoid their aversion to a big metro government by opting instead for a massive City of Memphis government.

Discussion Is Not A Sign Of Weakness

Fourth, the town mayors’ apparent strategy of killing off any discussion about a more efficient government is more than disappointing, because any elected official who fears discussion and debate is more ideologue than public leader. At this point, we may all have our opinions, but all of us need more and more facts, and this is precisely true for the anti-consolidation people who react emotionally instead of inviting a discussion on the merits.

Perhaps, if they were willing participants of a process to do this, they might even find that they have the leverage to obtain some specific assurances and long-sought goals that have remained elusive for decades.

In that way, consolidation perhaps could do more than usher in a new structure of government, but actually, usher in the real regional partnership that is yet to be forged in Shelby County.


Anonymous said...

"we think the mayors should explain why they think that their minority of voters should be able to block the will of the majority of citizens in Shelby County."

Oh, I dunno, State Law maybe?

Believe in Memphis.
Live in Bartlett.

Anonymous said...

In Memphis, it seems to all come down to the school situation. Hundreds of thousands of people have abandoned the city over the years for various stated reasons, the most prominent of which has always been 'the schools'. Seeing how poorly MCS is run and how dismal the conditions (academic, social, and structural) are at many of the MCS schools, I can't say I blame the folks in Germantown, Bartlett, et. al., for being uneasy about the consolidation issue. Give those suburbanites a reason for wanting to be part of Memphis (not the same old 'consolidation will save us money'), and you'd probably find more willingness to talk. Of course, that would begin with stating the ugly truths about MCS and resolving to fix what's wrong. Your argument--as stated in the blog post--gives suburbanites any reason to support consolidation.

Smart City Consulting said...


We've written often about the state law. We weren't commenting on the law. We were commenting on a minority's willingness to thwart the wishes of the vast majority.

We've written a lot about consolidation in the past couple of years and you might be interested in reading them.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 11:23:

If the suburbanites were not kneejerk opponents, they might be able to negotiate a merged government that perpetuated both school districts as they are today, but we'll probably never find out, because there all or nothing attitude will eventually crap out.

Anonymous said...

This blog has long touted consolidation but has never really put forth a compelling case for it (and before you hit me with a snarky response, like you did the first commenter, I have read them). In fact, this blog routinely points out that the main benefit cited by the Mayor - cost savings - is unlikely to be realized. The conclusion this blog then reaches it seems to me is its still worth trying. Well maybe it is. But it seems to me that lobbing continued insults at the suburban mayors is not the way to advance your position. Whether you like it or not, those mayors are taking a position they deem to be legitimate and that just so happens to be favored by the majority of their voters. In other words, they are being responive to their citizens. Memphis government could learn from this approach. So the folks you need to convince are the voters in Shelby County outside Memphis, and this post hardly seems constructed to do that. You guys constantly talk about the need to have calm and reasoned discussions about topics; you ought to listen to your own advice when discussing this one

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 10:39:

We weren't intending to be snarky in our response. That's the pitfall of the digital age. You can never hear the other person's tone.

At any rate, just for the record, the person who wrote this post actually lives in one of the smaller towns and clearly is as frustrated as anyone in Memphis about the myopia of the town mayors.

Quickly, here's our rationale: we support consolidation, and we haven't always, because if the future of this region is merely an extension of the present, we are destined to become noncompetitive for jobs and business investment and we are unlikely to attract talent and middle class families to our region. It is a prescription for disaster.

We believe that consolidation repositions Memphis nationally and makes us more economically competitive by removing an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, and since we are essentially going to have one large government in the future anyway, why not make it the most efficient one?

As for economic benefits, Louisville has shown that it has economic development implications and benefits.

Most of all, we desperately need to shake up the status quo of this county, and we can't think of anything that would do it as well.

That is a nutshell why we favor consolidation.

As for the mayors, we thought we were being pretty calm. They have never presented any research although they keep referring to it, and they have not shown any solid evidence that their voters are against or for anything. Why not at least have the conversation rather than try to deep six it before it can even begin?

As the author of the blog post says here, the mayor in his town isn't representing him, and he thinks the mayor isn't representing his neighbors either.

His position is that the mayors' positions contributes to the "we versus they" attitude that drags this region down. It also is built on the false premise that somehow Germantown and Collierville et al can succeed if Memphis fails. It's in no one's interest more than the towns to do whatever is possible to make Memphis successful.

Here's the fundamental questions for the mayors:

1) Why aren't your citizens entitled to hear a thorough discussion of the pros and cons of consolidation? Why do you dismiss consolidation out of hand and prevent this conversation from taking place?

2) Why shouldn't your voters be allowed to vote at referendum?

Anonymous said...

Well, Atlanta seems to have done ok without consolidation, and I'd rather be Atlanta than Louisville anyday. I think I recall reading on this blog in the past that consolidated government is the exception, not the rule. I think it tends to have more to do with leadership than how many governments exist. And back to Atlanta, as you probably know Fulton county is not the only county in Metro Atlanta, like Shelby is here. They get along just fine with a Fulton County Government, a Dekalb County Government, etc. But their mayor of years ago - Mayor Jackson - had a vision and ability unmatched by anyone who has held the reigns in this area, including Mayor Wharton. I used to live in unincorporated Dekalb - which meant I lived in Atlanta but paid no city taxes and only low county ones. I didn't live there for the taxes; that was just where my house ended up being. But people want to live in Atlanta, extra taxes or no. People don't want to live in Memphis. Instead of hyping consolidation as an or the answer, we might consider discussing why living inside the city limits of Atlanta is so much more preferable to living inside the city limits of Memphis, for example.

Smart City Consulting said...

anonymous 1:57: We agree. The ultimate test is in creating a city where people with choices are willing to live. You are right too that Atlanta is attracting people - mainly young professionals - back inside the city, proving that you can turn around trends and the hollowing out taking place in so many cities.

Interestingly, many of the places where talent is congregating also happen to be places with high taxes, but also offers places with thick labor market, vibrancy, etc. Again, if Memphis is to succeed in this economy, it must attract these people.

What is interesting about Atlanta and most other metro areas for that matter is that it is surrounded by counties full of higher income, college-edged families who pump economic life into the regional economy.

Here, as you drive out from Shelby County, you drive into counties with lower average family income and educational attainment. That too is an economic disadvantage and puts great stress on us to get things right here. We have little margin for error.

We don't think we can get to a different economic place, reposition ourselves nationally, or shake up the lethargy of our public sector without shifting to a more efficient form of government.

We're certainly not Atlanta, and we haven't been for decades. The truth is we never will be, but we should be able to compete with Louisville, Indianapolis, and Nashville. We think mid-sized cities like ours will the most tested cities in the new economy, and like these competitors, we need to create a streamlined public sector.

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

The only people that consolidation helps are those in the city. Why should the other communities have to pay for the mess created by people who continually vote in government officials who do absolutely nothing to build the infrastructure or make the city of Memphis a better place in which to live. Also, your overwhelming majority of Shelby county voters for the merger comes mainly from the city so quit using this useless red herring as a reason for consolidation. And no I do not think that I would be in favor of reading your biased interpretation of the benefits of merger. It is the same story in every city whose citizens voted in the same incompetent people year in and year out and expect those who pay attention to pay for it. No

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