Consolidation Conundrum

When I moved to Memphis some three and a half years ago I had little knowledge of the communities that lie on the outskirts of the city proper, but within the confines of Shelby County. Arlington, Bartlett, Germantown, Lakeland…to me they were all just “Memphis”. I’ve spent a good long time thinking about these “Burbs” and have come to the conclusion that they are content to be lumped in with “Memphis” for outsiders or for the perks that living so close to a large city provides. On the flip side, they’re damn sure not going to take that label from locals, and for all of those “perks” there are problems that they don’t want anything to do with.

Several months ago I wrote a piece here called The Cycle of Flight. In it, I talk about how “flight” from the cities damages both the city and the communities that spring up from the exodus. I stand by that general indictment of the whole flight issue.

Consolidation, however, brings up a whole host of things that both revolve around flight, and choice. The way that consolidation is presented is vital to it’s success. There is a lot of distrust out there. People moved into these communities for a reason, flimsy though it may be, and any attempt to revoke that decision without their approval will be met with resistance.

In every community that I have lived in, consolidation issues have been contentious battles. When Jonesboro started consolidating large swaths of Craighead County, back in the late 80’s early 90’s, many of the county folk were less than enthused. Luckily for Jonesboro, there were few of the challenges that currently face any move to consolidate here in Shelby County. Ultimately, Jonesboro got what they wanted, even if the end result wasn’t exactly what they expected.

I agree with those who are in favor of consolidation, as a general statement. Memphis and Shelby County would certainly benefit financially by getting rid of some of the overlap that currently exists in the two governments. But consolidation is more than a practical issue. All at once it can be both practical and irrational.

Mayor Herenton brought the specter of consolidation once again in his “State of the City” speech. In that address, Herenton seemed to be threatening the citizens that live out in the county with a “Consolidate, or else” type plan to lobby the State Legislature for a Constitutional amendment that would make consolidating city and county governments easier. I simply can’t think of a sales pitch that could be any worse for consolidation advocates.

In order for consolidation to work, particularly in a place with lots of objections, like Shelby County, there has to be more carrot than stick. Aside from the potential financial benefits, what can county residents gain from consolidation? Will the Police, Fire, and Ambulance services be improved? How will the quality of the Schools be affected? What about trash and recycling? What is the plan for the actual government that would emerge? Property values and taxes of course would be high on the list. What’s the plan for that? All of these questions have to be answered through dialogue, not diatribes or demands. Unfortunately, dialogue is not one of Mayor Herenton’s strengths.

Yesterday LeftWingCracker touched on this. In it, he linked to a quote from a Memphis Flyer article. Here’s the quote he was referencing:

Businessman Calvin Anderson is also for it and says it “can happen” if Herenton can take himself out of the equation, recruit allies, and present a reasonably united Shelby County legislative delegation in Nashville. Greg Duckett, former city chief administrative officer under Dick Hackett, said consolidation needs to happen but he stopped short of saying it will.

Recruit allies, what a concept! Present a reasonably united Shelby County legislative delegation, wha????? Seems like common sense, but common sense is also not necessarily a strength of Memphis’ municipal executives.

I agree with Mr. Anderson, but I also think that there’s another way to do this that will quell some of the fears of county communities. Make a plan that benefits both sides, and present it to them. I mean a real plan, not an outline with grey areas. Then we can debate about that, instead of reacting to the unknown, or worse, pure fear.

The plan will need to address all of the questions that I listed above and more. It will need to acknowledge those who disagree in a respectful manner. It will need to show both the pluses and minuses in a no-nonsense “nuts and bolts” manner. Finally, and most importantly, it will need to include more direct representation, so that the consolidated communities can maintain some of their identity while reaping the benefits of the budget savings that would result from consolidation.

Unfortunately, even the best laid plans cannot address the emotional and irrational fears that will most certainly be present in any discussion of consolidation. As Mediaverse:Memphis notes, every article that has appeared about consolidation since Herenton’s speech has left out a key element. From the article:

It’s also worthwhile to note the rather pointed non-examination of race in this story, which is a quintessential race story for Memphis and Shelby County. Nor any mention of the deeply divisive and racially polarised election just a few months ago. Not a mention, anywhere. It’s as though there is no racial animus, which is simply not true…

The harsh reality for Memphis and Shelby County to reconcile is that the growth of Memphis’ surrounding communities, including those to the south in Mississippi, can be attributed to, at best, a closeted racism. If the prevalence of that latent racism becomes an issue in the current consolidation discussion, all bets are off.

Memphis and Shelby County cannot be expected to agree to the shotgun wedding that Herenton seems to be proposing. Further, it’s not as if Memphis can secede from Shelby County to force their hand. Ultimately, the county holds all the cards. It’s up to us, here in Memphis, to make the case. Holding a gun to their head just exacerbates the problem.

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