A Consolidation Answer Book


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What if there was a book that answered the question "Does consolidation work?"

Well, there is. Unfortunately, the answer is "maybe," "sometimes," and "it depends what you mean."

The book is called "City-County Consolidation: Promises Made, Promises Kept?" edited by Suzanne Leland and Kurt Thurmaier, who are college professors. They engaged some more academics to research and write about consolidation in places as far flung as Nashville, Jacksonville, Lexington, Kansas City, and Butte, Montana.

If you're a sociologist or a professional researcher, you'll like this and understand the null hypothesis and C3 model and other methodology. If you're a hardcore proponent or opponent of consolidation, it will give you plenty of ammo and sound bites. If you're a reporter, like me, it will give you fits. And if you're a voter, you probably ain't gonna read this post much less this book. So if you've gotten this far you'll have to go get it from Amazon or trust me on the rest of this.

If they vote at all — and about two-thirds of registered voters don't and won't come November — people vote with their gut feelings as well as their heads. Do a little research, maybe read some or all of the proposed new charter, talk to friends, listen to opponents and experts, ask "what's in it for me?" and then vote.

The problem, as I see it, is that making comparisons and drawing conclusions about Memphis and Shelby County in 2010 based on what happened in Nashville and Davidson County in 1962 is a fatuous exercise. Sort of like looking at Johnny Vaught's Ole Miss Rebels offense in 1962 and hoping to find clues that will guide Larry Porter's University of Memphis offense in 2010. Different game, different personnel.

Nashville, because it is 200 miles away in the same state and currently kicking our ass, is the city most likely to be a measurement for the benefits, if any, of consolidation. Second place goes to Jacksonville, which got an NFL expansion team that Memphis wanted 15 years ago. Nashville consolidated in 1962, Jacksonville in 1967.

Unfortunately, the authors of the Nashville section of the book chose unconsolidated 1960s Knoxville instead of unconsolidated 1960s Memphis as their comparison city (maybe because they work at UT-Knoxville and David Lipscomb in Nashville). The Jacksonville section says not one word about the NFL. And Louisville, a city with some similarities to Memphis which consolidated in 2001, is not included. Neither is Indianapolis, former home of Rebuild Government consultant and ex-mayor Stephen Goldsmith.

For what it's worth then, here are some of the book's conclusions.

There have been approximately 120 consolidation attempts and 40 successful referenda in the USA.

Taking all nine of their test cases together, the editors conclude that "economic gains are more likely than efficiency gains."

Economic development is the primary catalyst for consolidation. It helps to have some specific project on the table, such as a NASCAR track.

"Cities that are facing financial problems are interested in consolidation as a way to stem population loss and as a solution to budget woes and economic frailty." Raise your hand, Memphis!

"The essential elements of a successful consolidation attempt are civic elites who are able to define the economic development vision for the community, determine that the existing political structure is inadequate . . . and then successfully convince the average voter that consolidation is the solution . . ."

Two-part referenda, with separate city and county vote counts, are not unusual.

Nobody except a few people in Memphis tries to say that consolidation is anything other than consolidation.

Race is always there, usually big time if there is any sizable minority population at all. Blacks worry about vote dilution, whites worry about all the things we in Memphis read and hear about ad infinitum. There are no examples of majority-black major cities consolidating with majority-white counties.

"Ultimately, economic development can succeed when elected and appointed government officials think regionally and act locally to create a regional approach."

And the way to be better is to do better, and the way to do better is to be better, so get better. Enough of such platitudes. If you want more, go get the book.

Here's some more on Nashville, which is the place I think Memphis ought to be most concerned about.

Consolidation took effect in 1963 and was the "culmination of a decades-long effort to address the problems that had come to plague metropolitan Nashville."

A referendum on a new charter lost in 1958 and passed in 1962. It consolidated the schools as well as the city and county governments. It had to pass in both jurisdictions. Estimates of the black population in Nashville in the late 1950s ranged from 38 percent to 45 percent. "The initial reaction of African-Americans and their leadership to the idea of a consolidated government was negative."

In his 1998 book "The Children" about desegregation in Nashville, David Halberstam describes Nashville as "a singularly divided city."

"There was a distinctive physical quality to that separation. To the black community in the neighborhoods around Fisk and Tennessee A&M, the white world, literally on the other side of the railroad tracks, was known as Crosstown."

Other than bus routes to get maids to posh Belle Meade, the parts were not meant to connect.

Nashville, Halberstam (who worked there then) wrote, "was a city living largely as it always had, right before the storm which was to come. It was an extremely livable city, albeit somewhat sleepy economically. It was culturally conservative and more than a little smug, and it liked to think of itself in social terms as representing a genteel part of the older South . . . When in the early fifties word leaked out that the Ford Motor Company was considering locating a glass plant in Nashville, a powerful cadre of existing Nashville business leaders bitterly opposed it, fearing that it would change forever the economic base of the city and force all competing employers to start paying real wages to their blue-collar workers, wages that might go far above a dollar an hour."

The successful consolidation vote was in 1962 and implementation came less than a year later. (In Memphis, should the referendum pass, it won't be implemented for four years and will not include schools).

Metro Nashville Davidson County today has a racially integrated (48-percent black, 33 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic) public school system with about 70,000 students, roughly half as many students and Memphis and Shelby County combined. It is part of the new Southern car manufacturing center. It has an NFL team. It has airs. It has 10,694 general government employees and 12,078 school system employees.

Those numbers are somewhat in dispute and often either misunderstood or misstated by Memphis consolidation opponents and proponents. I got them from the office of Mayor Karl Dean this week. They were given to me with an assurance by assistant Janel Lacy that she took the time to get them right.


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