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Flying United

County mayor A C Wharton advocates consolidation.



When people talk about economic growth in Memphis, the most often used analogy is of an airplane. Blame it on FedEx or the aerotropolis idea, but when people talk about the driver of the local economy, planes are almost always mentioned (or baked, in the case of one luncheon dessert).

And at a Leadership Academy event last week, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton was no exception. Only, in his analogy, the area wasn't flying high.

"Our government is, as I see it, the ice on the wings on our plane to success," he said.

For years, if not decades, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton has been espousing the benefits of a consolidated government. But recently, Wharton has begun picking up where his old friend left off.

"We have too much government for too few people," Wharton said. "I see county government as being at the wholesale level, but in many instances, we're in retail."

Memphis and Shelby County share a land area of 300 square miles, as well as several joint commissions, such as the health department. Both the Memphis Police Department and the Shelby County Sheriff's Office have patrol officers and the county runs 201 Poplar, where MPD leases space. In all, less than 30 percent of Shelby Countians aren't also Memphians.

Wharton told the assembled crowd that consolidation wouldn't save "shoe boxes" of money, but that the benefit would be efficiency in a global economy.

He recently met with an attorney for a major company — he wouldn't say which one — interested in relocating in the area. The County Commission has passed revisions to the joint payments-in-lieu-of-taxes program, including dropping the residency requirement, but the changes don't go before the City Council until the first week of April.

As a result, "the deal," Wharton said, "could go either way."

The city and county mayors reportedly would like to see a consolidation initiative on the ballot next year. The measure would need a majority in the county and a majority in Memphis to pass. In Wharton's vision, the metro government would include all the cities in Shelby County.

"The idea of leaving out Germantown or Bartlett is not ideal," he said.

No matter what you think about current government, there are some situations where the dual-headed system seems almost silly. You've heard of robbing Peter to pay Paul? What about robbing Peter to pay Peter?

"We are arguing with the city on how much they need to pay us for the Pyramid and the Coliseum when, ultimately, 70 percent of what we pay [Memphis] will be collected from [Memphis residents]," Wharton said.

"We've brought in experts to see how much our share of the Pyramid is worth, so I can see how much money to take out of my left pocket and put in my right pocket and make sure I don't cheat myself."

People who advocate consolidation have long talked about the double taxation burden for Memphis residents. When the public library system was still a joint entity, for example, Memphis residents paid for the city's half, as well as 70 percent of the county's half.

But maybe using a new math would be better. Wharton thinks the county should be the sole funder of education and the health department.

"If we pooled our government, we'd be better able to fund both school systems," Wharton said. "An equitable funding system [for two separate districts] ought to be written into the charter."

Consolidation might not result in anything more than moderate savings, but it seems like it would make everything a little simpler. With one funding source, for schools, for instance, there would be no need to go to court to figure out who's on the hook for maintaining the city schools' level of funding.

I've always thought that perhaps the best thing about consolidation would be that it would take away the "us" and "them" mentality that goes along the jurisdictional lines.

Because, when it comes down to it, we're all passengers on the same flight. We might not know exactly where we're going, but we're going there together.

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