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VOL. 119 | NO. 19 | Friday, January 28, 2005

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By Andy Meek

Local, State Leaders Consider Consolidation Issue

ANDY MEEK

The Daily News

In the complicated math of consolidation, adding one and one is about as easy as mixing oil and water.

Financial troubles plaguing Memphis and Shelby County schools and governments are behind Memphis Mayor Willie Herentons latest push for city-county consolidation. Several state legislators are doubtful the effort will succeed, but it has already drawn new action from both the city and county school boards. And talk of consolidation has inspired one state legislators pledge to introduce legislation opposing it.

State priorities. Whether it will be addressed in the upcoming legislative session of the Tennessee General Assembly is unclear at the moment. Among issues expected to get immediate attention in the 104th General Assembly are TennCare, expanded lottery scholarships and workers compensation. But a consolidation push already has begun. State Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, plans to file a bill that would freeze the county school systems borders, sidestepping any consolidation effort.

Thats a measure Rep. Paul Stanley, R-Memphis, agrees with. He also wants to see changes to the state-mandated formula that requires $3 spent in the city school system for every dollar spent on capital improvements in the county. The formula has been blamed in part for the countys $1.7 billion debt.

My No. 1 concern is the debt capacity of Shelby County, and because of the (school) funding formula, thats why were in a heap of trouble right now, Stanley said. Moving forward, we need to solve that problem, and I dont think consolidation is the answer.

Seeking support. Memphis leaders welcomed a consolidation supporter to the city earlier this week. Former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut, who governed the city from 1976 to 1991, spoke at a city planning session held Tuesday. Hudnut led a public-private effort to revitalize the city during his tenure, and he said consolidation has been a blessing there.

Indianapolis did not undergo complete consolidation; police, fire and schools werent consolidated with the city, Hudnut said. But the move did enlarge the citys tax base.

It helped the old city by engrafting into its borders the more suburban areas and the wider tax base that provided, Hudnut said. And that helped to assure the city of a stable financial picture that enabled us over the years to retain a Triple A bond rating.

As for Memphis, there is more to come next month. The city and county mayors, the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission plan to sit down for a joint meeting Feb. 9 to discuss school funding.

Schools issue. So far, both school boards are resisting a merger. In a meeting last week, the two groups formed a committee to study the possibility of creating special school districts for the city and county. And Stanley said few people believe combining the school systems would produce enough cost savings to improve education.

Our problem statewide, and specifically in the city of Memphis, is that we spend a whole lot of money before the bell rings at 8 oclock, and we need to spend more money between 8 and 3 in other words, on the things that occur between 8 and 3, he said.

Rep. Mike Kernell, D-Memphis, agrees that the funding formula needs to be changed.

But heres my ultimate question, Kernell said. As Memphis grows more and more and takes up more of the unincorporated area of the county, at what point is state law going to say 5,000 people outside the incorporated cities can determine we dont consolidate? Memphis is going to eventually take the unincorporated parts of the county, and someday those small cities are going to be 95 percent of the county.

Success elsewhere. Consolidated government exists elsewhere in Tennessee, including the Nashville-Davidson County metro area. Consolidation supporters including Herenton and Memphis City Council member Carol Chumney point to these areas, along with cities such as Louisville, Ky., as successful cases of consolidation.

But Chumney doesnt see it happening anytime soon in Memphis. Chumney, a former Tennessee legislator who ran for Shelby County mayor and lost to A C Wharton Jr., believes more support for consolidation would have to come from Shelby County for the measure to succeed.

If I were the county mayor, believe me, the first thing I would have done is sat down and worked on that and we would be two years further along, Chumney said. People did not vote for the candidate that had that platform in 2002, and I dont think they were ready for it yet. And if we were going to move in that direction, weve lost a lot of time.

County support. She said special school districts within the city might not be a bad idea.

I understand why theres reluctance on the part of most people in the county to merge the systems inside Memphis, Chumney said. Is it going to make the city schools any better? No. All it is, its purely a funding issue.

Until they can find a way to make it attractive for the county, I think theyre going to have a hard time getting it accomplished. But theres nothing more important in the city of Memphis than making sure we get as best a trained work force as we can, because thats where so many of our problems come from later.

 

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