Last Best Chance

In the not-too-distant future, government in Memphis and Shelby County will look nothing like it does today.

And it will happen with or without consolidation.

Voters outside Memphis who reflexively oppose the merger of Memphis and Shelby County governments haven't grasped the realities of this brave new world. If they had, they might decide they prefer consolidation to the government behemoth that Memphis will become when it's fully annexed out.

When Memphis completes the annexation agreements reached in the wake of the "tiny town" controversy of the late 1990s, 65 percent of Shelby County will be inside Memphis. That's almost 50 percent larger than today and about the same land area as the city of Los Angeles.

The fixed order will be transformed, and smaller cities will find that their future is no longer defined by their relationship with Shelby County, but with Memphis. It will overshadow and drive the futures of all the other cities in Shelby County even more directly than now. Meanwhile, Shelby County government will morph from a major force in our community to a government more like rural counties that deliver little more than schools, jails and justice, and public health.

Outside Memphis, only annexation provokes more enmity than consolidation. It was a similar anti-annexation attitude that led to Nashville's successful consolidation 46 years ago. Faced with the choice of consolidating governments or being annexed by Nashville, voters in Davidson County opted for the merger.

But there was something else. The consolidation vote in Nashville became a referendum on who voters had the most confidence in — the county executive or the city mayor. In the end, it was Davidson County Judge Beverly Briley, a staunch consolidation advocate, who won the vote of confidence and became the first mayor of the new consolidated government.

That too offers a useful lesson for consolidation proponents here.

If consolidation passed in Memphis, city government would cease to exist. However, it's likely that Memphians of today would still pay higher taxes than people living outside the city, and the risk of institutionalizing the tax disincentive now paid by Memphians could become the third rail of consolidation inside Memphis, the equivalent of the school issue outside Memphis.

But all of this presupposes that Mayor Willie W. Herenton is successful in changing the Tennessee Constitution to remove the dual majority that now makes consolidation all but impossible. The dual majority requirement sets up two hurdles that consolidation has to clear to take place — approval by a majority of voters inside Memphis and also approval by voters outside Memphis.

Herenton's amendment would allow passage of consolidation with only one vote tally for the entire county. Realistically, the only thing more unlikely than convincing county voters to vote for consolidation is convincing the Tennessee Legislature and state voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution. But it's worth a try.

In Louisville, there was no dual requirement for consolidating city-county governments, but even there, it wasn't easy. Despite media vilification of anyone opposing the merger, strong leadership by the business community and a wildly popular former mayor, and a $2 million marketing campaign, it only passed 56 percent to 44 percent. If there had been a dual majority requirement in Kentucky, officials in the Louisville mayor's office said consolidation would have gone down in defeat because of fervent suburban opposition.

One thing is certain about consolidation: regardless of where the vote takes place, it is always difficult, going down to defeat 85 percent of the time.

Here, we're a long way from knowing if things will be different this time around. If Herenton's plan is successful, the earliest that a consolidation vote can be held is 2011, and if the amendment isn't passed in the current session of the Legislature, the vote moves to 2015.

Otherwise, the only way to consolidate government is the old-fashioned way — with voters outside Memphis coming to grips with the idea that they may actually prefer a merged city-county government to the massive annexation that lies ahead.

It runs counter to everything the mayors of the municipalities now believe, but at a time not too far in the future they may look back and realize that they missed their best chance to negotiate what they want most in return for supporting consolidation — frozen school boundaries, special school districts, and freedom to control development in their annexation areas.

By then, they will have watched as Memphis ballooned and Shelby County government dwindled away. M

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