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An Education in Consolidation

As the new metro charter commission excludes education from consolidation discussions, the city tries to find funding for MCS.



Attorney Brian Stephens says the Metropolitan Government Charter Commission is local residents' opportunity to be their own founding fathers: "I think this is one of these historic opportunities for people to have a say in what their government looks like."

Stephens is the organizer of Rebuild Government, a group launched last week to support the work of the metro charter commission. With the Cordova Leadership Council, Stephens hosted then-Shelby County mayor A C Wharton's first listening tour on consolidation. Rebuild Government now hopes to hold small meetings in people's homes to solicit citizen input on a consolidation plan and present it to the charter commission.

"I think a metro government could be the right thing for the community to get a fresh start, to get rid of some of the inefficiencies," Stephens said. "I don't know if I am going to be for or against the end document, but, instead of sitting back, I would like to help the charter commission draft a document that's win-win."

And if people have a say in the construction of a new government, they'll be more likely to vote for it next November.

"One of the biggest problems is we have duplicate services in some areas," Stephens said. "Our money isn't being spent as efficiently because we have to fund two mayors, two CAOs, two governments."

In fact, efficiency and eliminating duplicated services seemed to be last week's theme.

At the Greater Memphis Chamber's annual chairman's luncheon, new Shelby County mayor Joe Ford mentioned merging certain city and county services.

"This has never happened before," he said, "where you have a city mayor who came from the county or a county mayor who worked for the city."

The metro charter commission also met last week, voting to exclude the area's school systems from consolidation discussions. School funding, however, is still on the table and with good reason.

Education is one of the largest areas of double taxation for Memphians, a problem the City Council tried to solve unilaterally in 2008, only to find itself being sued by the Memphis City Schools (MCS).

This week, the council too talked about duplication of services as it tried to find a way to afford a lump-sum payment to MCS.

Memphis mayor Wharton proposed a 31-cent tax increase, but council members were wary of a tax hike in the current economic climate.

City Council member Jim Strickland proposed taking $30 million from the city's reserves, cutting $10 million from the current year budget, and forgiving $10 million in money the city says it is owed by the school system.

"I think 30/10/10 is fair, because it requires us to cut the same amount as the school board," Strickland said. "We'll have to cut $10 million, and they'll have to cut $10 million."

The city's finance division was initially reluctant to suggest dipping into the city's $100 million reserve fund by more than $16 million, citing both the possibility of a natural disaster and a drop in the city's bond rating.

Finance director Roland McElrath told council members that lowering the city's bond rating by one level would cost $500,000 over 20 years on a $100 million bond issue ... or an extra $25,000 each year.

But that's really pocket change for a municipality with a more than $600 million operating budget.

"We just discussed yesterday how the prior mayor gave away 50 parking spots [near the new downtown U of M law school], which cost us $25,000 a year," Strickland said.

There was also talk that $100 million in reserves essentially meant that the taxpayers had been overcharged.

"We thought it was atrocious [the school board] had $150 million in reserves," said councilman Shea Flinn. "There's a line between responsible governance and hoarding."

The council is set to vote on Strickland's proposal on January 12th. Wharton will also bring proposed budget cuts, and it seems some of them will come from consolidating divisions within city government and services with the county.

"Having looked at both sides of the street," Wharton said, "there are any number of areas where we can recognize some efficiencies by working with established operations."

With all the talk, it seems people are coming around to the idea of a more efficient government, if not the idea that we're all in this together.

"With a metro government, the biggest issue is fear of the unknown," Stephens said. "People are concerned about everything from taxes to what day garbage is going to be picked up."

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