Friday, August 27, 2010

Bad Month for Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Aug 27, 2010 at 12:28 PM

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There is never a good time for a tax increase in Memphis, but getting it out there at the start of the consolidation campaign is a bad break for Rebuild Government.

Memphis property owners are on the hook for $57 million for Memphis City Schools. The last bit of wiggle room was removed this week when the state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal. The only issue now is whether the money will be paid in a lump sum or installments.

Shelby County residents outside of Memphis, whose votes will be counted separately in the November 2nd election, aren't liable for the $57 million payment. The city and county school systems are separate, and would remain separate under the proposed new charter. But the sight of the Memphis City Council and the Memphis City Schools Board of Education fighting over funding — and city taxpayers getting a tax increase — will only harden the opposition and raise the threat level among county residents.

A few other recent developments will hurt the Rebuild Government cause:

City Councilwoman Janis Fullilove's apology for pole dancing at a party on a riverboat. Another Memphis embarrassment. There is some high-minded language about ethics and public officials in the proposed new charter but nothing can keep people from making dumb decisions.

Mark Luttrell, who will be sworn in as Shelby County mayor next week, left no doubt that he is opposed to consolidation in a television interview.

Millington Mayor Richard Hodges, the lone member of the 15-member Metro Charter Commission to vote against it, elaborated on his oppostion in a letter on Friday to committee chair Julie Ellis. Some excerpts: "No idea what our tax rate will be. What services will we pay for? Memphis can't run the animal shelter, order police cars, or even control a tire-repair service. It is an outright lie that we can't recruit business or industry. This can be accomplished without consolidation."

If Plan B is a legal challenge after November 2nd, based on the principle of "one man one vote," as Memphis attorneys Steve Mulroy and D'Army Bailey suggested in April, don't bet on it. Mulroy told me this week that the issue would be moot unless consolidation wins a majority of the votes in the combined city and county referendums.

Consolidation proponents have been touting the benefits to Louisville, which consolidated in 2003 by a vote of 54-46 in a referendum in which all the votes were counted together. I asked Dan Crutcher, publisher of Louisville magazine, how it looks seven years later.

One impetus, he thinks, was a warning that consolidated Lexington was going to overtake Louisville as Kentucky's largest city by population. "I really think that had an effect," he said. If a referendum were taken today on whether Louisville consolidation was a good thing, "I think most people don't even care." He said there were "no real negatives to it" and some opponents outside the city have come around to saying "this is pretty good," but on the whole "it really has been a non-issue. I personally think it is still a good thing psychologically to say we are all in the same boat."

Rebuild Government is funded by a coalition of the city's biggest businesses and nonprofits. But the campaign has, so far, been led by hired guns. When and whether the big hitters of Memphis get involved remains to be seen. Will they make an all-out effort in the few weeks leading up to the election — in which Republicans are itching to give Democrats a mid-term beat down — or will they decide it's a lost cause and sit it out, or give it token support?

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