Sunday, April 19, 2009

Thinking: Fuzzy, Provincial And Convenient

aIt was one of those weeks that just wears on our souls.

That’s why we’re hoping that things will be better this week. It would almost have to be.

There was the expected: approval by the gun nuts in the Tennessee Legislature responding to the burning need for people to carry firearms into restaurants. There was the customary: more pandering by Tennessee Rep. Brian Kelsey, who this time proposed a bill to condemn socialism and to urge Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen to turn down economic stimulus funds.

We can only assume that he sent back the economic stimulus payment that he received last year from the Bush Administration, but it’s no surprise that he had no complaints in the days when his party’s president oversaw the largest expansion of the national debt and government employment.


All of a sudden, he’s religiously taking up the right wing talking points, summoning up the specter of socialism although average Americans are in crisis and unbridled capitalism has concentrated wealth among the top five percent of our people and pushed our national economy to the brink of disaster.

It was the same sort of closed mindedness and sloganeering that was on display with the Tea Party in Audubon Park and in the meeting of the town mayors with the editorial board of The Commercial Appeal.

Both had a vein of racial prejudice running through comments by some of the participants. At the tea party, it was on vivid display as some people clearly saw the purpose of the event as attacking Barack Obama for alleged policy differences when the real crime was that he was a black man in the White House.

Surely, no one in their right mind condones photos of President Obama morphed with photos of Adolph Hitler or signs that demonize him as the devil, a terrorist or the anti-Christ. But the fact that tea partiers weren’t offended by such hate-propelled vitriol says volumes about the real intent of the event.

Closing Their Wallets After Closing Their Minds

Clearly, the group lacked historical accuracy – not to mention context. Otherwise, a sign saying “Bring Back Reaganism” would have triggered laughter. These are the people who now react to a term like “distributing the wealth” by an improved tax code as a sin, but they have no qualms about the fact that Saint Ronald oversaw the greatest redistribution of wealth (to the wealthy and very wealthy) in the history of the nation.

We’re still waiting for the trickle down, but that era gave us the “if we don’t regulate business or tax rich people as much, they will take care of the rest of us” government policy that remained in place long after it was shown that the incomes of middle income families were not growing.

Then, last week ended with the town mayors’ Greek chorus about the evils of consolidated government. The cast has changed over the last 30 years, but the words never do. Because of it, the mayors seem unfamiliar with the fact that of all options for the future, there’s not one that says “things will stay the same.”

New Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner is the latest to drink the Kool-aid, asking: “Why would we support it?” Of course, there is no “it” at this point since there is no proposed charter for a new government, but more to the point, if the mayors could clear the rhetorical cobwebs from their minds, they’d see that the question is actually, “Why would we not support a new government?”

Massive Memphis

As we have been saying for two and a half years (and now say to clients), the mayors would do well to set aside the kneejerk reactions that serve their cities so poorly now and consider what the future will be if nothing changes. 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 city and county governments merging.

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.

When Memphis completes the annexation agreements that they towns signed with it, 65 percent of Shelby County will be inside Memphis. That's almost 50 percent larger than today and 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 is no longer defined by their relationship with Shelby County, but with Memphis. It will overshadow and drive the futures of all the other cities. 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.

The First Casualty: Facts

In that future world of massive Memphis, the town mayors will be spectators on the outside looking in. That’s what makes all the mayors’ comments so off the mark, such as the notion that if there is a new metropolitan government, the towns would have less representation and the cost of some services would be shifted to their citizens.

We hope that Lakeland City Manager Robert Wherry’s math is better when he’s drawing up his town’s budget. He said that if a new government is created, the area outside Memphis would only have one representative on the new government’s legislative body.

First off, the towns are legally assured of proportional representation, and if the structure of a new county legislative body goes the way that they have in most places where the major city and county governments unified, the legislative body here will be expanded, which would in fact allow for most of the towns to have their own individual legislators.

As for so-called city services being moved to the county tax base, that is more likely now, and it can be done now with the agreement of the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

Fuzzy Math

Here’s the math: there’s 26 elected local legislators and the area outside Memphis has three of them. A new government would probably give the towns more than twice that many, which gives them the opportunity to fashion coalitions that don’t exist today.

It is curiously ironic - not to mention revealing – that the mayors seem to base their concerns about shifting the tax burden on the understanding that Memphians are paying more than their fair share as a result of paying twice for a variety of services.

Rather than urging an honest discussion about what is a municipal service and what is a county service, so all citizens are treated fairly, they simply want to make sure that this unfair burden and unlevel playing field continue.

It’s another Chicken Little impersonation by mayors who appear to have unthinkingly inherited this anti-consolidation fever from their predecessors (one of whom was related to one of us, by the way). What they should be doing now is stepping back, getting some facts and most important of all, creating some realistic scenarios of what the future could look like.

That’s what real leadership looks like. You just wouldn’t know it by the events of last week.


Midtowner said...

Can't you find a way to make the tax structure more equitable than thru consolidation?

Even SCM has admitted that consolidation won't save money.

My position is that a consolidated gov't is even more inefficient and less responsive to the people than smaller gov't.

We shouldn't be looking for consolidation but rather for a way to deannex parts of Memphis!

Anonymous said...

when mempho can find a way to fund the legally required services to areas it has already annexed, then find more money to grab the rest of its reserve area (which includes vast swaths of vacant land already leapfrogged by development due, in part to the abysmal state of the City schools, crime, corruption, traffic flows, etc. etc.) then maybe your wishful thinking of BiG Memphis will come true. until then, count us out of bigger gummint.

Anonymous said...

In fairness to Mr. Wherry, it was pretty clear to me in his comments in the Commercial Appeal article that he was referring to his town--Lakeland--having only one representative in a merged council.

I'm a proponent of consolidation, but I think it's perfectly fair for county residents to put up a fight. What does Memphis have to offer these folks? Good government? Um, no. Good schools? You're kidding. Just in case you haven't noticed, people have abandoned Memphis in droves. (In fact, if I remember correctly, but for annexation, Memphis' current population based on 1980 boundaries would be under 500,000.) There are reasons for that. Fix those reasons, and then maybe you'll see a more positive reception to consolidation.

Smart City Consulting said...


What about the fact that we're going to have a huge government regardless? This isn't about smaller government. Left as things are now, Memphis city government will consume most of Shelby County and county government will essentially disappear.

Back to our question: Do you want a huge city government or a totally new county government to represent all of us?

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 9:11: This isn't about making Memphis better. Under a new government, City Hall doesn't exist anymore. And it's not wishful thinking about a BIG Memphis. It's already been agreed to. It's in the future. We think a new government is altogether better.

Smart City Consulting said...

Anonymous 9:11:

We understand that Mr. Wherry was not referring only to Lakeland. But even if that's the case, then his conclusion was all wrong.

And, you are asking exactly the right question. What does Memphis have to offer these folks? It's the answer to that question that justifies creating a totally new government. There won't be a Memphis government any more.

We think we've been brutally frank about Memphis' direction. But this is about changing that direction. People in Lakeland can sit in their enclave and think that a huge Memphis won't have any impact on them in the future. We just think they're wrong, and we're all better served by a new government.

Anonymous said...

SCC -- You write "There won't be a Memphis government any more."

That's simply not true.

If the City of Memphis comprises 70 percent of the entire county (both in land mass and population), and the new metro council/commission consists of proportional representation, then yes, there will still be a Memphis government. The only difference, of course, will be that the Memphis government (meaning government dominated by Memphis interests) will now be the Metro government and will have authority over the entire metro, not just Memphis proper.

If that's not 'Memphis government', quite frankly, I don't know what is.

Again, what's in it for county residents? What do they gain? City schools? Decreasing property values? Increased taxes? Crime?

No one has been able to effectively sell metro government. And there's a reason for that: Memphis is the center of the metro.

Smart City Consulting said...


With a new government, Memphis doesn't take up 70% of Shelby County. That was the point of the post, and we apologize if we didn't make it clearer.

If nothing happens to create a new government, then Memphis takes up 70%.

It appears that any proposed new government would not change schools and it requires two tax rates - one for the former city and the other for county - so on balance, we just don't see why people outside Memphis are so unilaterally opposed and won't even listen to the facts.

Anonymous said...

For all the vitriol and ad hominem attacks in this post (seriously, guys, you lose credibility when you start the name calling), the post is characteristically short on details re why consolidation is preferable. As much passion as SCM has for the topic, they never seem to give actual specific details for why consolidation must happen. It will not reduce costs. Consolidation is not "the brave new world." Look at Atlanta, with its multiple towns and counties overlapping each other. What is needed is regional cooperation, which is not the same as consolidation. But seriously SCM, without attacks or name calling, what are the specific reasons why consolidation is the way to go?

Smart City Consulting said...


We haven't even tried to be vitriolic yet, and we thought we had linked our criticisms not to ad hominem attacks but to specific actions and rhetoric.

Here's the thing: we are for consolidation for one seminal reason. If we don't do anything, this region - not just Memphis - is on a trajectory for disaster. We need to reposition our community nationally, we need to send the message that we're cleaning up government, we need to send proof to business recruiters that we're progressive and preparing for the future, etc.

We've written a lot about the facts and fiction about city-county consolidation for years, and we have come down on the side of it because of the above.

Also, in other cities, the new merged government stablized the tax rate (which we need here), it reduced the size of legislators' districts so more people could afford to run for office and so new people were attracted into the process, it increased economic activity by getting the cities on more lists for business investments, it eliminated a layer of bureaucracy that prevented voters from holding their local government elected officials accountable (they love that here), it can attack the inefficiencies inherent in local government, it allows for a new charter that injects stronger ethics requirements in it, it increases economy of scale, it stops the buck passing, and it produces a single vision and a responsive government by eliminating one bureaucracy.

Those are some of the reasons that we're for consolidation, but to repeat, it's mainly because we have to do something drastic and dramatic to shake up things here.

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

If Wherry was thinking that Lakeland would only have one person to represent it, that makes him pretty dumb. They have three now. How as he thinking that his podunk town would lose in this deal? If it has a half of a person, it's a half too many. The rest of us in this county already subsidize this pretend town.

Anonymous said...


Can you get this? We're not like Atlanta and that's why consolidation works. We're not surrounded by towns that landlocks us that way. We have a simple government structure and that's why it's so logical to do this.

If SCM has to tell you something concrete about why it works, why don't you put up or shut up on concrete research that shows it doesn't. Don't trot our your old animosity toward Memphis - trot out some facts.

Anonymous said...

I have no animosity whatsoever about Memphis, my fellow anonymous. I don't know why you jumped to that conclusion, except that it is the standard conclusion that pro-consolidation folks jump to when someone asks a fairly simple question. SCM has no concrete research that it works, and I have no concrete research that it doesn't. And I am not against it necessarily. And hell, the "its worth trying" argument made by SCM has some appeal. All I objected to was the way in which SCM chose to address the opponents of the idea, as if they wouldn't oppose it if they just opened their minds to the facts. That's not a valid argument or particularly intellectual way to go about an argument. There are plenty of cities who have done this and plenty that havent; valid arguments pro and con. And I don't think your argument for why atlanta is different makes a great deal of sense. Of course there are small towns surrounding memphis; that's who SCM is criticizing. Let's have the discussion, but is it much to ask that the discussion be somewhat respectful of those with different opinions? And again, just to make it perfectly clear, I'm not a memphis hater, a racist or anything else. Just someone who doesn't want to necessarily do something to do something in hope it works.

Smart City Consulting said...


We weren't addressing opponents as if they didn't have any sense. We were addressing the mayors. We make a smart distinction between the two groups.

We've written about this issue time and time over the years, and we've presented both sides of the argument many times. That said, we're just frustrated by people who are elected to serve the best interests of their towns but in the end just work their personal political agendas. That was the point of the post. There seemed to be a lot of that behavior last week.

We don't understand why the mayors are so ready to close their minds before they even hear the facts, see a prospective charter, and read the research (which is vast and we think leans more in the way of justifying consolidation).

We don't think it's a coincidence that our biggest economic competitors right now are Indianapolis, Nashville, and Louisville. They seem to winning more than we are, and business recruiters cite the efficiency of their governments and the ease of getting approvals without the bureaucratic confusion.

Finally, we're not suggesting that we should do it and hope it works. We're suggesting that we can't afford to keep doing what we're doing now and expect success.

Finally, we aren't questioning your motivations or your questions. We've enjoyed them. Just for the record, we were against consolidation before we were for it. :)

Zippy the giver said...

Nice post and the last comment was right on target too. STILL, till something actually happens, it's still "Memphis biggest export", = HOT AIR and EMPTY PROMISES. Till something actually happens.
We STILL do not have a common magnetizing goal that we are all motivated and mobilizing around. Without that "matrix purpose", we are flailing in the water, gasping and clutching at the air and DROWNING. I've never seen anything like it, it's unfathomably pathetic and the invisible projects of the now silent mayors are equally inexplicable. The mayors should be fired.
Now the feds have actually "planned a path, that goes right around Memphis".
I'm sorry, but, it looks like it's over and we're waiting in the time of death to be pronounced.
I have a lot to lose if that happens and I'm not very impressed with the mayors and councils misrepresentation. We need Myron and Tomeka to go ahead and run and Willy and AC to be removed.
Experiment over, it works, criminals actually can bring a city of a million people to nothing. Case closed.

What's worse than criminals taking over was the conspicuous silence of "good people" and the absence of action to right the wrong.

Anonymous said...

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