Sometimes truly historic breakthroughs pass for wonkish public contracts.

That’s certainly the case with the prospects of an intergovernmental agreement for fire protection between Shelby County and City of Memphis.

For 20 years, city and county officials have talked about functional consolidation and better ways to deliver public services, but if Shelby County Director of Administration and Finance Jim Huntzicker and Memphis Chief Financial Officer Robert Lipscomb can pull this off, it will be the first time that the rhetoric has been converted into results.

While it’s impossible to ever rule out the possibility that it may all unravel by a sudden burst of turf protecting, it’s encouraging that the Wharton and Herenton Administrations have gotten it this far. In the past, any substantive discussions about modernizing the delivery of services always fell prey to political lines in the sands and rigid attitudes by one side or the other.

Enlightened Self-interest

It seems, however, that this time, the difficult budgetary straits on both sides of Civic Center Plaza have produced a new willingness to look at options that make sense from a financial point of view, but equally important, make sense from a philosophical point of view.

Functional consolidation has been one of the favorite buzzwords of county politicians over the years. In standing four-square for it, they were able to bridge the volatile issue and defuse the more politically dangerous discussion of “real” city-county consolidation in which the two behemoth governments would be merged into a single entity.

In making the case for the Louisville’s successful city-county consolidation three years ago, the Brookings Institution said the merger would accomplish four major goals:

1) Accountability – the ultimate responsibility is clear to taxpayers

2) Efficiencies produced by economies of scale – functions by each government could be provided at less cost through shared equipment, personnel, and purchasing

3) Eliminated duplicative services

4) Economic development – a single focus is an incentive for economic growth.

The Perfect Test

Functional consolidation is a more politically palatable, equally effective way to get to the same place, and fire services is the perfect test case.

Until the mid-1970s, Shelby County Government had a volunteer fire department, but with the advent of a county mayor came the advent of a professional department that became at the time about the fifth largest in the state. Covering vast areas with aging equipment in those early years, some in county government grimly joked that its motto was, “Same Day Service.”

However, in the 1990’s, equipment was upgraded, modern stations were built and the political influence (that seems to be as much a part of fire departments as hoses) stymied attempts to downsize despite Memphis annexations. Because the county fire fee paid the operating costs of the fire department (despite what was said at the time, the fees never covered capital costs), the fire department always got a pass. In the minds of county officials, since it wasn’t funded by property taxes, it really didn’t matter.

The Day The World Changed

But that all changed with passage by the Tennessee Legislature of Chapter 1001 that called for adoption of a countywide growth plan. In truth, here, the legislation never inspired the kind of serious deliberations that it envisioned for every county in the state. Here, the process essentially was to adopt the boundaries already contained in the existing annexation agreements between Memphis and the smaller municipalities.

Along the way, Memphis did give up about 150 square miles of territory to the towns, a fact that galls Memphis City Council members to this day, but in the end, city government came away with its first clear vision of what the future would look like.

That future comes into focus more with each city annexation, and when the agreement is completed executed, Memphis will be 489 square miles; Millington will be 74 square miles; Collierville will be 51 square miles; Bartlett will be 44 square miles; Arlington will be 34 square miles; Lakeland will be 24 square miles; and Germantown will be 20 square miles (it’s already built-out).

Reading The Tea Leaves

So how much area does that leave for Shelby County? A grand total of 49 square miles, down from 326 square miles at the time the growth plan was signed.

In looking toward that future, the Wharton Administration wisely sees the hand-writing on the wall, and it only makes sense to enter into contracts in which cities like Memphis go ahead now and provide the services within these “annexation reserve areas.” After all, it makes little sense for county government to staff up and provide services that are transient at best and municipal at their core.

Such an agreement benefits both the county and the cities, because the county – whose constitutional mandate centers on justice, education and health – finds these kinds of municipally-oriented services merely distractions. As for the cities, in providing services within the areas to be annexed in the future, they conceivably establish some good will with future citizens.

New Thinking

The concept for joint operations for the fire department grew out of meetings that were initiated by Mr. Lipscomb as part of his plan to make city government more financially sound. While he has no power to convene county departments, he has called together all joint city-county agencies and agencies that have customarily acted as free agents, such as MATA and MLGW. The agenda: to consider new ways of consolidating purchasing, accounting, information technology and other administrative services that are duplicated within each of the agencies.

Meanwhile, the trust between Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton and the city’s chief financial officer resulted in fire services being considered as a way to make local government more efficient and economical. A financial analysis remains to be done, and that could be a trip wire that blows up all of the good intentions.

In the past, this analysis of service and cost as the place where the Memphis Fire Department has been able to sabotage talks. The ISO rating for the Memphis Fire Department is six, and the county department’s is much lower, because it does not attempt to maintain the same urban level of service as its city counterpart.

However, in past discussions, city fire department officials have insisted that if it operated the county department, the county would have to provide the same level of service as Memphis. The cost of service at that level is astronomical and would send county fire fees soaring. Clearly, Mr. Lipscomb brings a lot of clout to these discussions to get them this far, and hopefully, he can encourage the fire department to help make it work this time.

And once fire services are completed, perhaps city and county officials can start checking off a list of other services that make similarly good sense to be merged. It may not be city-county consolidation, but it’s a start.