Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Nashville Took Different Road With Merged Governments

In the coming months, there were doubtlessly be lots of numbers batted back and forth as our community decides what it’s going to do about merging city and county governments.

Memphis regularly competes against Jacksonville, Nashville, Indianapolis and Louisville for business investments and new jobs, and they all are outperforming our city. They also just happen to have consolidated governments, which are hailed by their business leaders and their mayors as a seminal reason for their success.

Most bruising to our civic ego, however, are comparisons with Nashville. And to make matters worse, former mayors of Nashville – from Bill Purcell at Harvard University to Governor Phil Bredesen - said they counted themselves as lucky that Memphis never consolidated governments so it provided stronger competition.

The former mayors said that the reduced red tape, the simplifying the government structure and added responsiveness that came from a single vision and a single mayor were major competitive advantages for Nashville.

At the exact point that Nashville was passing consolidation and setting a different course for the future, Memphis was rejecting it. It's often pointed out here that there was a point where Memphis and Atlanta were comparable, and that while the Georgia capital made so many right decisions - from race to economic development - while our city decided to play it safe. The results are graphic and dramatic.

The same can be said about Memphis and Nashville except that our city was always "Big Shelby," the dominant force, the major economy and the big brother to the smaller, countrified city that was Nashville. And yet, it too made wise decisions that would shape the course of its history, and listening to historians there, a key one was the combining of Nashville and Davidson County governments.

Accepting this assessment, it’s instructive to compare a few key indicators for where our two cities are today:

High-performing city index
#144 – Memphis
#22 – Nashville

Most economically segregated
#38 – Nashville
#1 – Memphis

Jobs Growth, 2002-2007
#46 – Nashville
#117 – Memphis

Wages Growth, 2002-2007
#39 – Nashville
#110 – Memphis

Net new income, 1998-2007
#15 – Nashville
#134 – Memphis

We’ve written a lot about consolidation in the past four years, and without question, we’ll write even more in the coming year, but as this important discussion begins, it’s these numbers that we’re keeping in mind.


The Urbanophile said...

I'm generally supportive of mergers, but this article seems to be engaging in "but for" cause. There are many prosperous cities that don't have city-county merger, including Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio.

Much more important than the idea of "merger" are the details thereof. Nashville, Louisville, and Indy all adopted models with many weaknesses. I address some of them here, using a merger-critical paper from Savitch and Vogel at the University of Louisville (linked within) as backbone:

An Examination of City-County Consolidation

Also, in none of these cities has merger fundamentally structurally changed the region. They only enlarged the core city, thus postponing the day of reckoning for 20-30 years. That day is either here or soon arriving. Indy and Nashville now see the locus of growth moving outside of their core county. In effect, the entire merged city-county is now the "inner city".

Merger can be good, but is no panacea and you have to get the details right.

Anonymous said...

Out of about 3,100 counties in the country, only about 10 percent are consolidated. If consolidation is so great why isn't there more consolidations?

Anonymous said...

Consolidation is not a perfect solution for everything, and is certainly not the "be all, end all" for what is ailing many cities right now. It may not be the best solution to fix Memphis, but whatever options are available to us, we simply cannot ignore doing nothing any longer.

Anonymous said...

Its ironic that the author brings up Atlanta. What the author did not mention is that one of the choices Atlanta made that led to its great success was not consolidation. Urbanophile is right. Nashville is successful. Nashville has a consolidated government. That the 2 have anything to do with each other is not made clear by this post or any of the preceeding posts on this site over the last year. There is no proof that consolidation leads to cost savings or greater efficiency, which SCM seems to acknowledge, or at least they have in the past. The rationale time and time again on this site, including the author of the post directly before mine, is that we have to do something. It will show we are serious, ready to try something different, they say. Is this really a reason to waste political time and capital on consolidation? Jobs is what this city needs. We don't need consolidation for that. We need a government (city and county) that puts in place actual plans designed to attract jobs. Its an odd way of thinking that consolidating government is going to help bring jobs to this region.

Smart City Consulting said...

We do need jobs, and our business leadership says that the form of government that we have is a barrier to creating them and attracting new business. In fact, they say the current structure is hostile to the creation of economic growth. That's why business leaders are so passionate about eliminating one of the governments along with the duplication, red tape, bureaucracy, etc., that goes with it.

Urbanophile is right, and as we've mentioned many times before, there are cities succeeding without a change in their government. But there are few cities and counties in this country where the two governments overlap in their services and their taxing like they do here. That doesn't happen in Missouri for example.

And Savitch of Louisville is well-known for traveling around the country as the paid opponent to merger, so we rely more on impartial research which contradicts much of what he says, including the part quoted in your comment. In fact, some of his own colleagues at University of Louisville don't agree with him.

And it's worth mentioning that more cities are now considering consolidation than ever before, because it is clear that government structure is not keeping pace with the times.

There will undoubtedly be more consolidations in the coming years and already, there is unprecedented interest in it. One reason that more governments have not merged are archaic laws about getting the changes made and because many jurisdictions do not have the kind of overlapping services that exist here between city and county. They also do not have the level of functional consolidation that exists here and which makes full consolidation make more sense.

While there will be cost savings - at the very least in the elimination of a bureaucratic layer of management that costs tens of millions of dollars, but in the end, the savings are good, but that's not the driving purpose. It is to create a government that makes Memphis/Shelby County more competitive.

We aren't now, so the notion that we should just leave things the same is self-destructive in our view.

Finally, the point of the post is that when we are compared with the cities that we battle most with for new jobs and investment, all are consolidated, more responsive and more efficient. We are losing to them regularly and correcting the cause of that is central to attracting more jobs.

Anonymous said...

The forms of consolidation are as different as the places where they're found. It's not about plopping a forumula down in Memphs. It's not about having all the answers now. It's about beginning a process to get the answers and to think about what works best for Memphis. I don't give a flying flip about KC and Columbus. Their laws are different and there are no lessons that are pertinent. The only relevant thing is what's happened in Nashville becuase it has the same laws that we do. If it can do it why are we so pathetic that we won't even try. Let's get it on.

Midtowner said...

It's all about leadership. If Willie had been the mayor of consolidated Memphis-Shelby County gov't, we'd still be where we are today.

Consolidation was fad whose time has passed.

Smart City Consulting said...


It's hard to imagine how Mayor Herenton could ever have been elected, but more to the point, you need to do some googling. Consolidation is the hot topic among cities looking for ways to be more streamlined and competitive. And if it is a fad, it's lasted since the early 1800s.

And we think that overall consolidated cities do have better leaders as the result of a higher vision and more targeted approach to government.

Chuck said...

Dear Smart:

*Consolidation is no panacea.
*Only 10% of city/county governments have consolidated.
*No proof of cost savings and increased efficiency.
*Other areas of country are different, Memphis & Shelby don't fit other circumstances.

Yes, Yes, Yes & Yes

However, for the majority of citizens of Shelby County, government decision-making by our two large governments is confusing,and sometimes contradictory where one side of Main St. plays off the other side. We are never sure whether to go to Memphis or Shelby County government for guidance.

The Mayors of Memphis and Shelby are always at odds (sometimes friendly) over who is going to lead a particular initiative and both have to be consulted. Even joint agencies are confused about who sets operating policy. So much time is wasted dealing with the two governments.

There is no evidence that consolidation must cost more. There is no evidence that the six municipalities outside Memphis would lose power or "county" services. In fact these municipalities could be given extra-territorial power in their annexation reserve areas like Memphis now enjoys.

A "Shelby County School System" could be limited to the six municipalities and their reserve areas. The rest is either in or will be in Memphis anyway. This move might also limit sprawl if growth out side Memphis is attracted to the six municipalities because of the school system.

Memphis and Shelby consolidation has made good sense for almost 50 years. It is a sound organizational decision that will simplify how our public interest is promoted and protected.

It is really sad that people outside of Memphis in the past did not support consolidation because of fear about black power and at one time Memphis didn't support it to increase black power.

I hope we will not continue to be victims of our racial divide.


Smart City Consulting said...

Thanks, Chuck. Good points all.

Anonymous said...

There's always reasons not to do something. But the time is now to act different and to do something to change things. I'm in.

Anonymous said...

"In fact these municipalities could be given extra-territorial power in their annexation reserve areas like Memphis now enjoys."

float that idea amongst the County commission, which gets most of it's reelection $ from the development community-which by and large have (well when they WERE building something)ignored the City of Memphis proper. Lose the voting power over development=lose the next election.

next idea, anyone?


Anything that removes the buffoonery that is city council and county commission is OK by me.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, the gene pool is at perpetual low tide on that one.



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