Marriage of Necessity?

Willie Herenton makes another pitch for city and county consolidation.

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Motivational speaker Cavett Roberts once told me that one of the secrets of his trade was "Don't change the speech, change the audience."

Mayor Willie Herenton made his latest pitch for consolidation this week to a Memphis City Council that includes nine freshman members and a Shelby County Commission whose five most senior members were forced out in 2006 by term limits.

"I am not on an ego trip," he said. "Consolidation of the governments is more important than any of our political aspirations."

Herenton said he isn't basing his pitch strictly on savings but believes "in the long term it is a more efficient government and will cost the taxpayers less."

The fifth-term mayor has made the pitch several times, and he has the newspaper clippings to prove it. In 1993, two years after he was elected, he gave an interview to New York Times reporter Ronald Smothers in which he proposed that Memphis merge with Shelby County by surrendering its charter. He presented a different path to consolidation in 2002, suggesting that a vote could be held in 2004. Six years and two city elections later, Herenton again plugged consolidation in his speech to the Memphis Rotary Club in January. This time, consolidation was one of several New Year's proposals, including a new convention center.

Most recently, in a Flyer interview in September, the mayor said he and business leaders will work for consolidation in 2009 with an eye toward creating a referendum in 2010 and a metro mayoral election — thereby bumping his own retirement ahead by one year, since he would not seek the job.

In this scenario, the presumptive metro mayor would be the current county mayor, A C Wharton. He is restricted by term limits from running again for that office. He could, however, run for city or metro mayor, and he recently formed a fund-raising committee.

Wharton is as popular as Herenton is unpopular. He was in Nashville Tuesday when Herenton spoke to the council and commission, but he has spoken in favor of consolidation at other public meetings. Popular he may be, but if he can't persuade the County Commission to give up the Pyramid for $5 million, then how will anyone get them to give up their jobs?

Candidate Wharton would have opponents such as Carol Chumney, who got 35 percent of the vote in the city mayor's race in 2007, and probably others running as anti-consolidation candidates. A referendum on consolidation would bring them out in droves.

Herenton has always predicted that consolidation would occur when there was a financial crisis in local government. Now we have a crisis on the horizon, and at least one longtime Herenton critic agrees with him.

"He can't sell it, but it will get done," said suburban developer Jackie Welch. "We'd be better off if we had one mayor and one council. If they freeze the school system boundaries, then I think everything else would work out."

Walter Bailey, who was a county commissioner for three decades, disagrees.

"The anti-consolidation forces are locked in their position," he said. "Their justification doesn't hinge so much on the economy as wanting to keep themselves separate from the city."

A case can be made that a crisis would divide voters rather than unite them — witness the tenor of the presidential campaign and the rough passage of the bailout bill.

A consolidation plan might well look sort of like a bailout bill in reverse. The bailout bill was loaded up with pork-barrel inclusions to satisfy reluctant congressmen. A consolidation proposal would be loaded up with exclusions for schools, unions, and law enforcement. Savings and efficiencies, if any, would be years in the future, while the crisis festered.

Government and real estate are right up there with FedEx as engines of the local economy. Real estate is broken, and the tax base is threatened. Welch says builders can't even get people to come to open houses, much less buy a new house. Government jobs are patronage plums and safe harbors in this economy. In 17 years as mayor, Herenton has not proposed cutting a significant number of them.

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