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VOL. 125 | NO. 16 | Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Consolidation Task Forces Begin Work

By Bill Dries

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The Metro Charter Commission will begin a series of task force meetings this week on the various issues a proposed consolidation charter should address.

The task forces, which are smaller groups of commissioners working with citizens not on the commission, will submit ideas to the full body for its consideration.

Each task force will take up a different area of operations that a consolidated government would undertake.

Their reports are due starting at the end of March.

The charter commission has until August to complete its draft of a charter proposal. The proposal then goes to voters on the Nov. 2 ballot. The proposal must win in a pair of referenda – one inside the city and the other in the parts of the county outside of Memphis – to take effect.

What about education?

In a poll of the 15 charter commission members earlier this month, most members indicated they hope the new charter will improve local economic development and public safety.

But two charter commissioners questioned why improving local education didn’t make the list.

“Education is a critical part of economic growth,” said charter commissioner Rev. Randolph Meade Walker. “Economic growth is not going to be just spontaneous.”

The charter commission voted last month it would make no move to consolidate the Memphis and Shelby County public school systems.

Millington Mayor Richard Hodges said the continuing talk about education remains a concern for him as well as other suburban leaders, despite the earlier vote.

“I guess I keep riding the same horse,” charter commissioner Ralph White said as he questioned why there can’t be an examination of a consolidated school system. “If we’re going to have a oneness in government, we need to look at these charters also. We need to be inclusive. … One of the main concerns to me in the community is the educational system.

“I just have a question as to why is this an issue that’s being so guarded.”

Commission Chairwoman Julie Ellis said the charter proposal will have to deal with how to fund the two school systems through a metro government.

But she also cited the group’s earlier vote, its first major decision.

“Is there concern over education? Absolutely,” she said. “That is not why we voted not to include the school consolidation. Quite frankly, the government consolidation … is a large enough elephant for this body to tackle.”

Other charter commissioners said an education merger would stir opposition to the charter process to such a degree that it would make the commission’s work a moot point.

There is already a lot of concern in the county about the process in general.

Shared responsibilities

Hodges, the only one of the six suburban mayors on the commission, ticked off a list of 10 concerns he has, starting with the much talked about proposed merger of the Memphis and Shelby County fire departments.

“To this day, I have received zero information on that merger. We’re a big player in that,” Hodges said referring to some firefighting responsibilities the Millington Fire Department takes on in unincorporated parts of Shelby County that aren’t in Millington’s reserve area. “We, in the municipalities, feel like we aren’t in on a lot of this.”

Hodges gave Interim Shelby County Mayor Joe Ford credit for moving to include the suburban mayors recently. Ford has also come out against a consolidation of the two fire departments. The fire consolidation is favored by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

Hodges also expressed concerns about funding and the operation of the Regional Medical Center at Memphis and the Shelby County Jail.

“We want to know if our tax rate is going to be any different, are we going to have to sponsor this and to what degree?” Hodges asked. “Will we lose our (annexation) reserve areas? We’re very concerned about the ambulance service.”

Also, Hodges complained about suburban municipalities being “held hostage” by Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division – the city-owned utility that also serves the entire county.

“They’re an agency you have to deal with,” Hodges said.

But he didn’t hold back his reserve about MLGW’s role in any consolidation.

“Will we be considered second place now or third place with Light, Gas and Water?” Hodges asked, pointing to the lack of any suburban representation on the utility board.

Although he praised MLGW for it responsiveness and service, he said suburbs are not given the priority Memphis is when new subdivisions in those areas come online.

Ellis said the group will make more of an effort to reach out to the six suburban mayors for their input.

Meanwhile, attorney John Ryder, who is acting as a consultant to the group, is drafting the framework of a consolidation charter that includes all of the sections a consolidation charter must have under state law.

It will be up to the charter commission to decide what should be in those essential parts of the charter, such as the composition of a legislative body, whether there should be term limits and who plays what role in a metro law enforcement entity.

The framework should be ready sometime in February.

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