Why It Is So Hard To Rebuild Government



Where to begin? How about with two cities often mentioned as role models for consolidation — Louisville and Indianapolis?

The following comments on taxes, strategy, and details are from key people in those cities that I interviewed in 2000 (the year of the Louisville vote), 2005 (two years after consolidation went into effect in Louisville), and two weeks ago in Memphis (when former Indianapolis mayor Stephen Goldsmith spoke to the Metro Charter Commission).

TAXES: “Then why would anyone vote for it?” said Goldsmith when I explained the discrepancy between property taxes paid by city and county residents and the likely increase in the taxes of county residents. “Clarity on the tax issue is really important,” Goldsmith told the Metro Charter Commission.

TRUTH IN ADVERTISING: “The antis can say anything. We had to tell the truth,” said Ed Glasscock, a Louisville attorney who was one of the leaders of the consolidation drive there.

SCHOOLS: No one believes a merger of city and county school systems is possible. It is off the table in the Memphis Rebuild Government movement. And it was not an issue in Louisville or Indianapolis either. Voters in Louisville and Jefferson County approved the merger in 2000 by a 54-46 margin after two failed votes in the 1980s. The public school systems, both majority-white, merged in 1975. “That was not an issue here,” said Glasscock.

Indianapolis and Marion County merged in 1970 by legislative action, not by referendum. The school systems, Goldsmith said, did not merge then and have not merged since. It took 20 years to merge public safety departments.

CARVE OUTS: What, then, is left besides good intentions after you carve out schools and public safety, which account for most public employees and budget expenses, from rebuilt government?

RACE: Louisville, before consolidation, had a population of about 250,000 that was 63 percent white and 33 percent black. After consolidation, Metro Louisville’s population was 693,000 and 77 percent white and 19 percent black. White suburbanites don’t merge with black urbanites unless the numbers are in their favor, which accounts for the misleading "success rate" of consolidation movements.

CLOUT: “We spoke with one voice,” said Glasscock of the Louisville consolidation group that included the business community, every living mayor and county executive, and state and federal politicians. Backers plotted strategy for three years and spent $1.6 million. “With all due respect, it can’t be one person,” Glasscock said. Rebuild Government is a fledgling organization that has not disclosed its financial backers and whose public face is a pair of political novices, Brian Stephens and Darrell Cobbins.

PRIVATIZATION: Turning public services over to private operators and attrition accounted for most of the employee reductions in Indianapolis, Goldsmith said. Public employees, he said, were persuaded that privatization would give them more control over their jobs and eliminate managers, not rank and file workers. In Memphis, no one has even started the conversation about privatization.

ANNEXATION ISSUES: “I support the merger initiative here mainly because I don’t see how the city of Louisville is going to survive unless it can find a way to grow,” said Dan Crutcher, the editor of Louisville Magazine, when I interviewed him in 2000. “With all those small cities surrounding us and a state legislature that has made annexation very difficult for Louisville it’s hard to see how else it can grow.”

Memphis has grown in land size and population through annexations starting in the 1950s and continuing through the proposed Southwind/Windyke annexations scheduled for 2013. In fact, Memphis has grown so big that there is talk of deannexing parts of it.

Memphis and its suburbs reached an agreement on annexation territories during Willie Herenton’s administration. If there were city-county consolidation, suburbs like Collierville and Germantown could become safe harbors with their own tax rates and governments. Suburban developer Jackie Welch told me recently that he doesn’t see why someone like himself, a new resident of Collierville due to annexation, should even have a vote in the November referendum on metro government.

BETTER SERVICES: Goldsmith said county residents outside Indianapolis benefited from better services after consolidation. But Memphis is a low-density city of more than 300 square miles — bigger than Atlanta, St. Louis, and Birmingham combined — and suburbs are as well or better served than Memphis. There is not so much as a whisper of demand from suburbs wanting to be annexed by Memphis.

TAXING AUTHORITY: In his appearances in Memphis, Goldsmith noted that Indianapolis had dozens of remaining tax jurisdictions and a 29-member council after consolidation. Leaving aside the difficulties of reaching consensus on a theoretical 29-member body of Metro Memphians as opposed to two 13-member bodies representing the city and county, there is also the issue of tax abatements. Under the current regimes, quasi-government bodies like the Industrial Development Board and Center City Commission can grant tax freezes worth millions of dollars in the name of economic development, jobs, or downtown growth. The ability to cut taxes is as powerful as the ability to levy them.

"ONE VOICE": On most big issues for the past 25 years — the expansion of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, FedEx Forum, the Pyramid, the NFL drive, tax incentives for business — the city and county mayors have spoken with one voice. With the exception of Herenton’s last term, when his popularity had plunged and he made scattershot proposals on stadiums and convention centers, the mayoral differences have been on politics, personalities, and relatively minor issues. The suburban mayors are another matter.

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