Consolidation Not On Mind of All Mayors

On January 7, 2008, in News 2008, by Mark Norris

BILL DRIES | Memphis Daily News
January 7, 2008

It will be up to Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton to prove that his latest bid for local government consolidation is different from
past efforts. Those efforts have been scuttled repeatedly on a political to-do list considered dense and complex even by the Byzantine standards of Capitol Hill in Nashville.

And as much as Herenton didn’t want to involve Shelby County’s six suburban mayors in his new consolidation machinations, they didn’t want to be involved either.

“This is a rehashing of an old subject with a new wrinkle in the sheets,” said Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald.

Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy said she now is making a habit of not commenting on consolidation proposals.

Herenton specifically called for a single referendum on consolidating Memphis city and Shelby County governments. State law now requires such a consolidation plan to pass each of two referenda – one in the city and one in the county. Herenton proposed last week to go to Nashville seeking a change in the part of state law that mandates the two referenda.

For analysis of the legal principle behind the requirement, see Thursday’s Law Focus in The Daily News.

Schools too?

Herenton said he prefers consolidating the city and county public school systems as part of the overall plan.

“Collierville has no school system. Germantown has no school system. There’s a Shelby County school system of which their communities enjoy public education but they have no school system,” Herenton said. “Right today, we have too many schools in the city of Memphis. But there’s been no political courage to close them.”

But Herenton also said in the same question and answer session with reporters and just moments before in his prepared remarks that school system consolidation might not ultimately be part of whatever consolidation proposal emerges in the political process of counting votes and compromising accordingly.

He didn’t say last week whether total local government consolidation would include folding the county’s six suburban municipalities into a metro government. But Herenton has said repeatedly in the past that any consolidation plan he favors would leave the towns as they are now.

Herenton insists he will be devoting all the political energy he has at his disposal and said he is prepared for a protracted and tedious campaign. And he now seems willing to do what he wouldn’t before – engage the Tennessee legislature.

Suburban concerns

As they prepare to return to session in Nashville Tuesday, Shelby County legislators have heard about Herenton’s speech last week at the Memphis Kiwanis Club. It’s left them with lots of questions and a willingness to at least hear his answers to those questions.

“We need a better understanding of precisely what it is he is advocating,” said state Sen. Mark Norris of Collierville, who is the Senate’s Republican leader.

“What most of my constituents are concerned about first and foremost is the protection of their schools and then secondly, their property values. But those two are interrelated. And then third, it becomes less important to many of them about what happens with the two-headed government as long as their schools are safeguarded.”

State Rep. Brian Kelsey of Germantown agreed.

“Part of the reason that people move to the suburbs in the first place is to ensure that their children are educated in the best schools available. I would hate to drive even more taxpayers not only out of the city but out of the state and into Mississippi,” he said.

The issue is already on Kelsey’s mind because later in the session, the legislature will be debating a bill that would create a special school district for the Shelby County school system. The special school district status effectively would block any attempt at school system consolidation. The legislation, sponsored by Norris in the Senate, was approved in that chamber in 2006 but later failed in the House.

“I do at this point support a special school district. I just don’t see any reason to add students to what’s already one of the largest school districts in the entire nation,” Kelsey said.

Plenty at stake

McDonald argued that if school consolidation ultimately is not part of any consolidation proposal and the suburban cities remain intact, Herenton should instead go for annexation of what is in the Memphis reserve area. Each of the seven municipalities in Shelby County has such reserve areas.

“If he’s looking to have that say, then go ahead and begin the process of annexation. In these other areas we have a binding agreement. … Those areas will be in our communities as we are able to provide them service, just as is the case with him,” McDonald said. “We have an equal amount at stake. It’s really asinine for him to say that we don’t have any stake. That’s crazy. Germantown doesn’t have any more room to grow. Lakeland’s annexed most everything it can. But Bartlett and Millington and Collierville and Arlington have a very large area left, just as he does.”

State Rep. Mike Kernell of Memphis said the issue might not be consolidation as a means of combining all of the physical territory under one government but instead consolidation as a means of combining two governments after the turf has been combined through annexation.

“My impression is that the mayor is using this as something to define himself and/or to keep it in the public mind,” said the veteran Democratic legislator who has been a state representative for 33 years. “There will be a time when except for the smaller towns, Memphis will have the entire county. The question then is how will we run the government. What do you do if the entire county is seven cities?”

Kernell said the political timing is bad for a concept already unpopular in other suburban areas of the state.

“I’m not saying that the mayor shouldn’t make an effort,” Kernell said. “I fight for difficult causes myself. But you know how they say all politics is local. I say all politics is geopolitical. When you have so many legislators up there representing suburban areas that either don’t want to be annexed or don’t want to be consolidated or don’t want their powers to vote to be taken away, it’s going to be extremely difficult to get something passed.”

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