Thursday, January 3, 2008

In Shelby County Isolation Trumps Consolidation

Posted By on Thu, Jan 3, 2008 at 4:00 AM

To call consolidation a tough sale is an understatement.

Crime and fear of crime, bad schools, higher taxes, lost jobs and fear of lost jobs, old grudges, apathy, suburban (or urban) opposition, political cowardice, the "King Willie" factor, questionable "efficiencies" -- any one of those could sink it.

There's another problem that is not so obvious. In his state of the city speech, Mayor Willie Herenton urged residents of Memphis and Shelby County -- black and white, rich and poor, urban and suburban -- to pull together for their common good. But the prevailing spirit for at least the last 25 years in Memphis has been anything but "all for one and one for all."

It has been just the opposite. It is the spirit of isolation, not consolidation. Consider:

Me and mine first, as evidenced by all the elected and appointed officials who, legally and illegally, gamed the system and padded their paychecks.

Self-segregation in schools, churches, and even sporting events and entertainment has replaced legal segregation.

Gated communities from South Memphis to South Bluffs to Southwind.

"Special" taxing districts or TIFs that get dedicated tax streams that would otherwise go into the general fund.

"Special" tourism development zones or TDZs around FedExForum, Graceland, the convention center, and Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium that, when implemented, further erode the general tax fund unless they attract new money.

"Special" incentives in the form of tax freezes given to businesses that promise investment and new jobs, whether they actually deliver them or not. These also erode the tax base. No other city in Tennessee grants nearly as many of these as Memphis does.

"Special" boards and commissions like the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) and Center City Commission (CCC) that are narrowly focused to develop and oversee choice pieces of downtown Memphis.

"Special" building authorities for big projects like FedExForum.

Selective annexation of Cordova, Countrywood, and Hickory Hill which didn't mobilize opposition quickly or effectively enough, while savvier, wealthier, and more politically powerful areas like Southwind and Southeast Shelby County got a reprieve.

As a reporter covering government, this is the biggest change I have seen in Memphis since I moved here in 1982. Not only are city and county government often not in synch, the elected officials in both governments have willingly given away much of their authority in the name of expedience and efficiency.

The pay has gone up 300 to 500 percent but the job description has shrunk. The City Council and County Commission, which theoretically represent all city and county residents, are often not where the action is any more, or at least not to the extent they once were. To attempt to effectively cover "government" nowadays means to go to meetings or keep tabs on the Sports Authority, RDC, PBA, CCC, CVB, MLGW, Industrial Development Board, Agricenter, Airport Authority, and various nonprofits.

They're all in their own, often isolated worlds, sometimes for better and sometimes worse. They come to the mayors or council members and commissioners when they need a fix, and if they can do it quietly and out of the public eye, so much the better.

Obviously, in a city of 675,000 people and a county of more than 850,000 people, there's something to be said for specialization, and maybe a lot. If you want to run an airport, build a FedExForum on a schedule, or attract the big convention of square-dancers, you need focus and partners from the private sector.

But there's a price for all of this specialization, and it's not just the bruised egos and additional bureaucracies and lost taxes. It's the loss of community and the idea that we’re all in this together. As citizens and elected officials in Memphis and Shelby County, we reap what we sow. And what we have sown are the seeds of separation and isolation, not consolidation.

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