It is inevitable.
It’s the “consolidation moment,” the time in every meeting where the future of Memphis is being discussed. It’s when someone holds up the merger of city and county governments as the answer to all that ails our city.
Frequently mentioned in these merger moments is the poster child of all things virtuous when it comes to Memphians’ perceptions of consolidation – Nashville. But these days, Louisville is more and more added to the mix.
We’ve cultivated a mythology about consolidation. It’s consolidated government that turned Nashville into a boomtown. It’s consolidated government that’s responsible for its impressive job creation trends and economic growth. It’s consolidated government that’s responsible for the ambition that is such a core part of the city’s psyche.
Voting On Pride
Of course, most of these positive trends happened no less than 25 years after the Nashville and Davidson County governments merged, but such is the power of the myth.
As for Louisville, its passage of consolidation in 2000 seemed especially prescient for Memphis, because of our similar demographics, civic culture and set of downtown, economic and educational challenges. There, the campaign to merge the governments was built on a single, unshakeable foundation – civic pride. Louisville was about to be passed by Lexington – a consolidated government – in population and become the largest city in Kentucky, and the idea was just too much for Louisville citizens to fathom.
So, the argument for consolidation in Louisville was centered on the fact that it would move up on the list of the U.S.’s largest cities – from 58th to the 23rd. Boosters said the higher ranking would immediately attract the attention of corporations looking to relocate, but that of course was specious, since it’s the regional population that matters today, not a city’s.
Power Of Popularity
But Nashville and Louisville did have one thing in common that provided pivotal to passage of consolidation – wildly popular political leaders who set consolidation as their priority and put all of their political chips on the table to get the merger passed by the voters.
In Nashville in 1962, it was the dominating influence of Davidson County Judge Beverly Briley. The Nashville Mayor, Ben West, was distrusted by voters outside of Nashville, who came to see the referendum as a vote of confidence for either Briley or West. That was critical, because consolidation in Nashville, like Memphis, had to be passed in a dual vote of Nashville voters and non-Nashville voters.
It’s why Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton’s is possibly the pivotal figure in our long-time quest for consolidated government. He’s already laying a foundation – complete with intimidating poll numbers and warchest – to run for city mayor in three years, and he would seem to have the approval ratings that would propel another conversation about consolidation (particularly if he is willing to run as the first mayor of the new metropolitan government). And since Mayor Herenton will be leaving office, there’s the potential that such a proposal would be free of the personality politics that has dominated this question in the past.
In Louisville, the political realities were just the opposite of Nashville’s. In Kentucky, consolidation is passed when a majority of all voters in the county approve it, so there’s only one vote total. There, the wildly popular former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson – with a 90+ percent approval rating – led the fight for consolidated government and became its first mayor.
Unlike many cities, there was no crisis or scandal in Louisville that served as the catalytic event for consolidation. Instead, it was all about creating a modern government structure that would make the city more competitive, more entrepreneurial and more successful.
There were no claims that consolidation would result in big savings – a claim frequently made in these pushes for merger but which are often not been born out in follow-up research – and instead, the business and political leadership made it a vote of confidence about the future of their hometown.
Keep It Vague
Interestingly, proponents refused to conduct an in-depth cost-benefit analysis, because the strategy was for the vote to be about civic pride, not about a parsing of the numbers. Considering the magnitude of the consolidation proposal, details were vague – intentionally so.
The pro-consolidation campaign spent about $2 million while anti-consolidation forces ran a shoestring campaign that was regularly derided by the news media.
Like Memphis, Louisville had been pursuing consolidation without success for decades – 23 years there. Even with the single majority referendum, voters turned it down in 1982 and 1983. In 2000, consolidation passed 56% for and 44% against.
Simplicity In Government
If Louisville had a dual majority requirement like Memphis, the mayor’s office told us that consolidation would have failed, because suburban voters were against it. Inside Louisville, African-American voters opposed the merger, fearful of diluting their political power in the existing city government.
The most striking lesson for Memphis in the Louisville vote is the reminder of how simple our governmental structure is. The most obvious contradiction to the widely held perception that we are hopelessly complicated here is this: There are 8 governments in Shelby County; there were 118 local governments in Jefferson County.
Back to Nashville, it was the first Tennessee city to put consolidation on the ballot after passage of the 1953 constitutional amendment that allowed merged governments. That same amendment set up the dual majority requirement that has been the formidable hurdle that has to be cleared here for success.
We’re Not Alone
By the way, the last consolidation votes in Memphis were in 1962 and 1971. In one of those votes, the merger failed because it was voted down outside of Memphis, but in the other, it was voted down both inside and outside of Memphis.
By way of reference, the civic frustration caused by failed consolidation votes is not limited to Memphis. It failed at the ballot box in Knoxville in 1958, 1978, 1983 and 1996. Chattanooga voted it down in 1964 and 1970. It also was voted down in Jackson in 1987, Clarksville in 1981 and Bristol in 1982 and 1988.
Besides Nashville, it’s only passed in two other counties, Lynchburg/ Moore, in 1987 and Hartsville/Trousdale in 2000, with respective populations of 4,700 and 2,400.
One Last Fact
Secret to Nashville’s success in passing consolidation was that voters outside the city limits preferred the merger to being annexed. In keeping with Tennessee law, two taxing districts – urban services and general services – were required, and voters outside Nashville saw tax advantages to the general services designation and its lower tax rate – a strategy that might prove fruitful here in recruiting supporters outside Memphis.
OK, OK, this is way more than you really wanted to know, but we find all of this interesting, because this time around, city and county leaders might find it instructive to see what lessons they can learn from campaigns in other cities.
Finally, one last factoid: If Memphis passes consolidation, it will be the largest city that has merged its city and county governments in more than a century, dating back to the 19th century, the heyday of the consolidation movement.
Let’s get to one of government’s favorite points – the proverbial bottom line.
For us, it is this. Consolidation won’t significantly reduce expenses of the public sector, but has the potential to reduce the property tax rate somewhat. Consolidation won’t eliminate the serious, difficult urban problems that grip our public budgets like a serial killer. Consolidation won’t unilaterally remove the “us versus them” approach that characterizes too many of our problems. Consolidation won’t be the panacea to the serious urban problems that grip our public budgets like a serial killer.
But, we need to consolidate city and county governments nevertheless.
That’s because today Memphis languishes in the bottom rungs of most economic indicators that matter, and as important, our national image languishes just as much as we are portrayed as divided, conflicted and in an economic freefall.
As a result, we need nothing less than a fundamental game changer for our community – something dramatic, something that serves notice that we’ve set out in a new direction and something that shows that we are committed to a bolder, more competitive future.
The passage of consolidation will do that, and that alone is enough of a reason to support it.