In his admirably explicit "State of the County" address this week, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton may have surprised some longtime observers with his forthright declaration that he, like Mayor Willie Herenton, his Memphis counterpart, intends to put the issue of city/county consolidation on the front burner.
In certain circles, of course, this circumstance will lead to renewals of the long-extant conspiracy theory that the two mayors secretly agreed during last year's city mayor's race on a mid-term handover of power from Herenton to Wharton — one that would require some form of consolidation to accomplish. We're more inclined to take at face value Mayor Wharton's assertion that the state of county government is such that he has no other choice.
Wharton carefully spelled out all the ways in which the county is obligated, often through unavoidable judicial or federal mandate, as in the cases of education and criminal justice, to operate at certain revenue levels. He spelled out further the lack of current revenue sources as well as the county's inability to come up with new sources. This failure was despite considerable efforts on the mayor's part. For the last few years, he has been a familiar and — for all his well-known charm — nagging figure during sessions of the Tennessee General Assembly. He was unable to get the legislature to agree on a real estate transfer tax, though some version of that was made available to official designated "growth counties" (which, unfortunately, do not include Shelby County).
That was just one possibility he has explored. His latest concept, announced on Monday, is to seek a "privilege tax" that, among other things, would work as a back-door commuter or payroll tax by virtue of including out-of-state residents who happen to work in Shelby County (and thereby use its infrastructure). But this and other remedies suggested by the county mayor this week would be little more than Band-Aids on the larger structural problem. Likening even a stripped-down county government to a gas-guzzling Hummer, Wharton told members of the County Commission that "either we find a way to provide more fuel or we must look seriously at changing vehicles to accomplish the goals and mandates laid out before us." He then proposed "that we give proper consideration to the hybrid of metro government or some form of consolidated government as a way of addressing our present and ongoing fiscal challenges."
So, there, it got said, and even if this move toward consolidation should turn out to have personal or political ramifications of the sort being alleged, we call that fact insignificant. Anyone who has followed Shelby County government in recent years knows the impossible fiscal constraints that have burdened all of its departments, including those charged with the maintenance of simple health, order, and public safety.
In a year-end editorial, we at the Flyer predicted that consolidation would be a front-burner issue in 2008 — and would need to be. Both mayors have since proposed concrete steps toward accomplishing that goal, and we commend them. The Hummer needs tending to, and consolidation is the inevitable overhaul.