And they're off.
Rebuild Government has started running regular commercials touting the benefits of a new metropolitan government. The vote is on November 2nd.
If it passes, the changes won't begin until 2014 or later, by which time Memphis could be sliding toward a population of 500,000 if the dire predictions and trend lines of the rebuilders are right.
"If we are to turn around our economy, we need government to be as streamlined, entrepreneurial, and innovative as the economy in which we are trying to compete," says one Rebuild Government press release.
Try telling that to the current governments, where it's business as usual this week.
Interim Shelby County mayor Joe Ford and commissioners held their last meeting before the new mayor and commission take office in September. The main piece of business was maxing out paid time-off and vacation benefits for more than 6,000 county employees.
If you're a city or county employee, the beauty of two governments is lateral mobility, not innovation. Ford and Memphis mayor A C Wharton are among the hundreds of employees who have worked both sides of the street.
Even on the long chance that consolidation passes, city and county employees and elected officials have four more years to max out their pensions, salaries, job security, and benefits. Suburban governments have four more years to annex territory, build walls, and cherry pick wealthy residents and jobs with the lure of better schools, safer neighborhoods, better grocery stores, better sports facilities, and a location closer to the commercial heart of Greater Memphis along Poplar Avenue between Interstate 240 and Germantown.
And, of course, lower taxes. Wharton calls property taxes "the mother's milk of municipal finance." Taxes in Memphis are 75 percent higher than they are in some parts of Shelby County. The new charter doesn't change that, not in November and not in 2014. It simply makes Memphis "the urban services district" as opposed to the lower-taxed suburban "general services district." Rates are capped until 2017.
Some give more milk than others. To take one example, Southwind, the gated residential golf course community, was annexed by Memphis in 2006, but the culmination was postponed until 2013. Residents pay a rate of $4.06 compared to the $7.21 rate paid by Memphians. When I called the Memphis/Shelby County Division of Planning and Development — a consolidated agency — to ask if passage of the charter referendum would nullify the annexation or subject it to voter approval, no one knew.
Over at the Memphis City Council, the big debate was over historic preservation and the merits of a proposed new drugstore in Midtown. The Commercial Appeal editorialized in favor of the Midtown District Overlay: "That means brick, with parking in the back or side, plenty of glass on the front, and a close connection with the street."
That sounds like the giant abandoned Sears Crosstown building in Midtown, with the glass in the form of hundreds of broken windows and the blight so close you can touch it. I'd take a CVS Pharmacy there any day.
The Center City Commission, which operates independently of the city and county, is trying to attract Pinnacle Airlines to downtown with a package of incentives that includes a property tax freeze (call it mother's milk lite) and free parking. In a state like Tennessee with no tax on earned income, a property tax freeze is a big deal.
The problem is that one company's tax abatement is someone else's tax obligation. And what future downtown newcomer is going to take less than Pinnacle or Bass Pro was offered?
Rebuild Government is urging people to read the charter. If they do, suburban residents may well realize that they are being offered a good deal: a separate school system, a separate tax rate, and annexation rights within their boundaries, among other things.
Memphis residents, on the other hand, will see that they are stuck with the city school system and its debt load, an unfavorable urban services tax rate, and a shrinking tax base. They are also likely to be on the hook for a special tax assessment to cover $57 million owed to the schools in back payments.
One government instead of two won't eliminate the inequities in taxes, schools, and amenities in the urban and general services district, or in Memphis and the county, whichever you call it.
Did consolidation work in Louisville?
That Kentucky river city consolidated with Jefferson County in 2003, after a referendum passed in 2000. It's one of the "peer cities" consolidation supporters are using in their campaign to rebuild Memphis and Shelby County government.
Louisville is worth a glance because it has some similarities to Memphis — river town, basketball crazy, UPS hub — and it did the deed more recently than Indianapolis, Jacksonville, and Nashville, three other cities in the peer group.
Metro Louisville's population went from 260,000 to 700,000 by virtue of consolidation. But in the last decade, U.S. Census reports show the area had a population loss of 8,555, due to residents moving to other cities in the United States. Greater Memphis and Nashville/Davidson County also lost population in the decade because of this "domestic movement."
"The statistics are interesting to consider, but, bottom line, there are no data to show that the forms of government have anything to do with the population gains and losses in either Memphis-Shelby County or the example areas," said Jimmie Covington, a former demographics reporter for The Commercial Appeal, in a recent column for a suburban publication.
One big consolidation proponent in Louisville was Jerry Abramson, the first and only mayor of Metro Louisville. He previously served three terms as mayor of Louisville before consolidation.
In a speech in 2009, he said it reduced the size of government 20 percent and enabled the community to speak with one voice.
"We had some projects that were pending. And sometimes one government was for them and sometimes one government was against them. And generally speaking, whoever was proposing the project would throw their hands up in the air and say, 'Enough! This community simply doesn't have its act together.' And they would walk away from us."
One more time: Detail it. Sweat the small stuff. Pay attention to the blight and maybe you'll get more support for the big stuff. That goes for the mayor's office, Shelby County Code Enforcement, and the Center City Commission.
The junk downtown piles up while big plans are hatched for the Pyramid, Bass Pro, Beale Street Landing, and luring Pinnacle Airlines to One Commerce Square.
Last week, former CCC executive director Jeff Sanford told me about his failed code-enforcement test project near the Spaghetti Warehouse, a popular downtown restaurant for locals and tourists. Sure enough, there's an abandoned recreational vehicle and a giant dumpster in the alley within plain sight of the entrance. It's hard to imagine that being tolerated behind, say, Houston's in East Memphis.
From Jake Schorr, longtime downtown restaurateur, comes this lament for the sorry state of the north end of downtown.
"My understanding is the city has $40 million in federal grants earmarked for improvements to the Pinch District. I spend the great majority of my time in my restaurant in the Pinch District and have yet to see a dime spent on the streets, sidewalks, lights, or even the interstate overpass. Why not start making these much-needed improvements to help the currently struggling businesses in this ghost town we call the Pinch District? The money is there, regardless of whether Bass Pro moves in or not."
Ten more years for the Riverfront Development Corporation? A consulting group called the Consilience Group has been engaged by the RDC to gather opinions from downtown stakeholders about how the public-private partnership has been doing and what, if anything, it should do in the future. The RDC's signature project, Beale Street Landing, is scheduled to be finished next year. Not yet under construction is the $6.8 million renovation of the Cobblestones Landing. The RDC was born 10 years ago during the Herenton administration.
School board shocker: At Monday's board meeting, Superintendent Kriner Cash announced that enrollment for the first week of Memphis City Schools was 92,378 students. That's well short of the 104,000 reported in the Tennessee Report Card and the 107,000 reported to the Memphis City Council.
Some students, for whatever reasons, don't come to school until after the first or second week of class, but 15,000 of them? At $10,394 per student, that's $156 million in state and local funds.
The job of consolidation backers got harder when the start date was pushed back to 2014 at the last minute. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that the challenge went from impossible to impossibler.
How do you sell something as being a really big deal that is vital to good government and the growth of greater Memphis if it doesn't happen for four more years? Which is really more like seven more years, because one provision of the proposed charter caps tax rates for three years and other provisions keep current policies and practices in place.
In four years, Sarah Palin could be president. In seven years, Bristol Palin could be president. And Memphis could be broke.
Consolidation proponents have 80 days between now and November 2nd, when there will be separate referendums in Memphis and Shelby County.
If Cohen vs. Herenton for Congress was, as the former mayor said, a referendum on Willie Herenton, consolidation will be a referendum on Memphis, with suburban votes counted separately. Could the margin in the county be a Cohenesque 79-21?
It could be, unless proponents give consolidation some urgency. Otherwise, it's an issue without a constituency, a faceless, complicated topic for newspaper editorial writers to fill space on a slow week. Proponents will need more than "good government" to mobilize a big turnout. Opponents need to be given a compelling reason not to vote against it. Other than FedEx threatening to pull jobs out of Memphis, I can't think what it would be. If you want to get something done, make it urgent.
In last week's election, people who were fed up with Willie Herenton finally got a chance to send him a message, and they did.
Look at the old fairgrounds. If you haven't been by, it's amazing how much it has changed in six months. For years after they closed, the remnants of Libertyland, the Mid-South Fair, and Tim McCarver Stadium cluttered the site. Now all of that has been cleared away. There will be a new entrance, Tiger Lane, in a few weeks. Somebody — Henry Turley, Fred Smith, Robert Lipscomb? — gave the fairgrounds some urgency, and the Memphis City Council got busy on it.
The downtown office-vacancy problem has become urgent as workers move by the dozens, scores, and hundreds to East Memphis, Germantown, and Mississippi. There are too many empty buildings on the skyline. The tipping point was the Glankler Brown law firm moving out, along with some more employees of Morgan Keegan. That's why there's a push to get Pinnacle Airlines or some other corporation to move into One Commerce Square. That's why it's so important to get Bass Pro in the Pyramid.
It looked like bike trails and bike lanes would be talked to death when city engineers in June proposed that federal funds be used elsewhere. Instead, that became a catalyst for advocates, council chairman Harold Collins, and Mayor A C Wharton.
"Walk Bike Memphis became the vocal organization urging Mayor Wharton's administration to stay true to its promise of creating 55 miles of bicycle facilities in Memphis," said bike activist Anthony Siracusa. Stimulus funds gave Memphis a chance to do the project with federal money.
"While the community had been asking for bike facilities for many years, the stimulus funding oversight was egregious enough to really attract attention," said Sarah Newstok of Livable Memphis.
In somewhat the same way, council opposition to a skate park at Glenview Park made it easier to get a commitment this week to build the park at another location, Tobey Park, near the fairgrounds.
No urgency usually means no action. Blighted downtown property has been accepted for so long that there's a feeling that nothing can be done about it. Last week, Cynthia Ham, the head of public relations for Archer-Malmo, wrote a column targeting the blighted vacant lot at the corner of Beale Street and Riverside Drive. Ham is married to Jeff Sanford, the former head of the Center City Commission. I asked him why the CCC couldn't make the property owner, Gene Carlisle, clean up the lot.
"The CCC doesn't have any powers of enforcement of city code or ordinance," Sanford said. "Code enforcement is grossly understaffed and has the whole county to look after."
Carlisle hopes to resurrect the project. Meanwhile, there is no urgency to fill the hole in the ground.
Most jobs aren't big enough for people.
Author and journalist Studs Terkel said that in his book about work called, aptly, Working. Happy is the person who finds a job big enough for them.
Steve Cohen is such a person. Being a congressman suits his political skills, ambitions, energies, and ego.
Like a lot of Midtowners, I knew Cohen back when he was a white guy. We're the same age, and our views were shaped by growing up in the Fifties and Sixties, Vietnam, Selma, LBJ, Goldwater, civil rights, baseball cards and football games, Watergate, and Nixon.
Willie Herenton used to have a job that was big enough for him, but he got tired of being mayor of Memphis and stayed a term and a half too long. He may not get to find out whether or not being a congressman suits him, because, under the right circumstances, a white guy can beat a black guy (or black woman) in an election in Memphis and vice versa.
It has happened before, to the benefit of both Cohen and Herenton.
In 1978, Herenton was a deputy school superintendent who had been in the Memphis system since 1963. He was ripe for the job of superintendent, but the white-dominated school board chose a white man from Michigan, William Coats, instead. There was a big uproar, Coats declined the offer, and Herenton got the job.
His key ally on the board was NAACP executive secretary Maxine Smith. He was her protégé. Large chunks of his doctoral dissertation quote from a paper she wrote about school desegregation. She is now a Cohen supporter. It would be interesting to hear why she is not supporting Herenton, but she ducked the question when I asked her a couple years ago, and I have not heard her answer it since.
In 1991, ex-superintendent Herenton decided that the mayor's job was big enough for him, and he went for it, and he beat a white guy, Dick Hackett, by 142 votes. Hackett said it all came down to numbers and colors. In other words, there were a few more black voters than white voters that year.
In mayoral elections in 1995, 1999, and 2003, Herenton beat some low-firepower white guys and a black guy, Joe Ford, and got thousands of white votes and millions in campaign contributions. It helped that he was not a Ford, just as it helps Mayor A C Wharton that he is not Herenton. In politics, it is not only who you are but who you aren't. Herenton's falling out with Harold Ford and Harold Ford Jr. is described in the younger Ford's new book, More Davids Than Goliaths.
After 2003, being mayor wasn't big enough for Herenton's ego. He only got 42 percent of the vote in 2007 against Carol Chumney and Herman Morris. But that was a lot better than Morris, whose over-rating in the polls is one of the main reasons for Herenton's distrust of that inexact science.
Cohen, a state senator at the time, ran for Congress in 1996 and lost to Harold Ford Jr. in the Democratic primary. Ford's ample margin of victory suggested that he got some white votes in the majority-black district. Cohen complained that a white guy didn't have a chance against an established black candidate.
That Cohen is no more. In 2006, Cohen was older and wiser and luckier. He was the white guy in a crowded field of black candidates in a no-runoff primary. He won with less than a third of the vote. In 2008, he beat a black woman, Nikki Tinker, in the primary and got 79 percent of the vote.
This week, he has the advantages of incumbency, endorsements, and lots of money. And he runs like a well-tuned Ford. When I voted last month at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, no fewer than three Cohen vans pulled up, delivering elderly black and white voters to the polls.
The next step for Cohen would be leadership of the local Democratic Party — a remarkable thing for a white guy.
The next step for Herenton would be to become the "Just One" black member of the Tennessee congressional delegation — a remarkable omission in his view. He's right about polls being untrustworthy. He's right about Cohen having more friends in the media. He's right about the glaring oddity of there not being "Just One." But I don't think he will be it.