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.
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.