The Cure for What Ails Us?

Changing demographics improve the chance for city-county consolidation.

Memphis may not be a national leader in recycling. After all, city government can't seem to figure out business and restaurant recycling.

However, Memphis is a leader in one area: the recycling of policy issues that seem to have a longer half-life than Styrofoam — consolidation and single-source funding for schools.

Consolidation has been called the answer to all that ails Memphis for 37 years — since the last time it lost at the polls — and single-source funding was first proposed about 25 years ago.

And yet, despite the fact that both issues have for decades largely been sound and fury signifying nothing, they may actually now have their best chances ever for passage. The fact that they have moved from futile to feasible — neither yet approaching probable — is testament to changing demographics outside Memphis and softening of long-held attitudes.

It was an attitude that propelled a standing-room-only crowd to assemble in a Bartlett school auditorium only hours after then-Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris floated the idea of consolidation more than two decades ago. To defuse the volatile political environment that included a campaign to secede from Shelby County, the former mayor named a special committee to consider other options for school operations and funding.

Two new ideas debuted about a year later: 1) county government as the sole source for school funding, and 2) an umbrella school district that handled administration and operations for four separate, smaller school systems with their own superintendents. However, no one was willing to lead an explosive fight for change and the recommendations were shelved.

It was just the most dramatic of numerous eruptions by so-called "county voters," a sobriquet that stems from the divisive local custom of referring to "city residents" (Memphians) and "county residents" (people outside Memphis), although both are of course residents of Shelby County.

Today, prospects for consolidation are improved. More than 40,000 African Americans and a burgeoning Latino population have moved outside of Memphis, and the population in the unincorporated part of Shelby County (which could prefer consolidation to annexation) is roughly the same as the population of all of Shelby County outside Memphis in 1971.

But one thing has not changed: a major hurdle in the form of Shelby County Schools. It's always been the deal breaker for voters outside Memphis, and without their support, there is no consolidation. That's because the Tennessee Constitution requires two passing votes: one inside Memphis and another outside Memphis. In other words, although every other major county in Tennessee already has consolidated schools, it can't happen here because it dooms overall government consolidation at the polls.

Louisville is the only city comparable to Memphis that has consolidated in the past 40 years. There, they didn't promise tax cuts or smaller government budgets. Instead, consolidation was all about economic growth, and it was a vote of confidence in former Louisville mayor — and now consolidated mayor — Jerry Abramson.

With Memphis' economic indicators ranking at the bottom of the top 50 metros, serious economic competitiveness — one built on quality rather than doling out tax freezes — and with Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton as the prohibitive favorite to be the next mayor of Memphis or a consolidated government, Louisville is the relevant model for Memphis.

In Louisville, consolidation was a strategy to move up the list of America's largest cities in hopes of attracting more investments and jobs. With consolidation, Memphis would be within 19,000 people of breaking into the top 10. While consolidation is not the magic bullet to solve all of Memphis' challenges, as it did in Louisville, it would send the unmistakable message that a new era has begun.

Meanwhile, Memphis City Council's dramatic $72 million cut in funding for Memphis City Schools forced a new discussion about local funding of education. It was a gutsy decision to attack the double taxation paid by Memphians for schools.

In the wake of that decision, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners took the lead and organized the obligatory summit. The ultimate challenge, however, is to move beyond more discussion and into definitive negotiations to produce a bill for a vote by the Tennessee Legislature. It's unlikely to include the DOA idea of the two school superintendents for taxing authority for their boards of education.

At this point, prediction markets would still be heavily weighted against success on either front, but the fact that there's bullishness at all says volumes about how times have changed in Shelby County.


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