[City Beat] The Urge To Merge 

Herenton points to consolidated Louisville, but it's no match for Memphis.

Consolidation proposals in Memphis are like Super Bowls. They come along every year, generate lots of publicity, and get everyone stirred up for a few weeks. Except the outcome of the Super Bowl is unknown.

In his latest pitch, Mayor Willie Herenton praised the consolidation of Louisville and Jefferson County, Kentucky, which occurred in 2003.

On the surface, Memphis and Louisville are alike. Louisville has UPS, an urban university, Rick Pitino, the Cardinals, Ali, and the Ohio River. Memphis has FedEx, an urban university, John Calipari, the Tigers, Elvis, and the Mississippi River. Louisville's mayor, Jerry Abramson, has served 14 years; Herenton has served 13 years. Louisville is the nation's 16th largest city; Memphis is the 18th largest. Louisville and Memphis competed for the Grizzlies.

Ed Glasscock, a Louisville attorney closely involved with the consolidation and NBA drives, has only nice things to say about Memphis.

"I was in the middle of the NBA war and you won," he said. "You're doing a very good job with that."

He also praised Memphis for entertaining 25,000 Louisville fans a few weeks ago at the Liberty Bowl. But details of Louisville's merger supplied by Glasscock and deputy mayor Joan Riehm show how far Herenton has to go and how unlikely he is to get there. The main reason is that Louisville and Memphis actually are not much alike at all.

The biggest difference is race, which trumps everything short of a municipal bankruptcy. Memphis has a population of about 650,000 and is 62 percent black and 34 percent white. Shelby County (including Memphis) is 49 percent black and 47 percent white. Louisville, before consolidation, had a population of about 250,000 and was 63 percent white and 33 percent black. Metro Louisville (excluding 83 suburban towns left intact) now has a population of 693,000 and is 19 percent black and 77 percent white.

The three peer cities within 600 miles of Memphis that have consolidated since 1960 -- Louisville, Indianapolis (which consolidated by legislative action, not referendum), and Nashville -- have majority-white populations. White suburbanites don't merge with black urbanites unless the numbers are in their favor.

If that's not the end of the story, there's more.

Louisville's biggest revenue source is a payroll tax; Memphis' is a property tax.

Louisville's and Jefferson County's public school systems (both majority white) merged back in 1975. "That wasn't an issue here," said Glasscock.

It is in Memphis. Neither the Memphis Board of Education nor the Shelby County Board of Education has shown any willingness to bump itself off. And Memphis superintendent Carol Johnson and Shelby County superintendent Bobby Webb have not backed Herenton.

Louisville's consolidation effort started in 1997, following two failed consolidation votes in the 1980s. Backers plotted strategy for three years and spent $1.6 million in a carefully monitored campaign of advertising, door-to-door visits, direct mail, and polling.

"We spoke with one voice," said Glasscock, whose law firm was the wheelhorse of a united front that included the business community, every living mayor and county executive (all white), and state and federal politicians. Consolidation in Memphis-Shelby County also has one voice: Herenton's.

"With all due respect, it takes the whole community," Glasscock said. "It can't be one person."

Something called Greater Louisville Inc. seized the moral high ground and successfully portrayed political opponents as "only interested in their own elected positions." Herenton has tried to do that too but is losing the PR war in forums such as the letters page of The Commercial Appeal and the all-white county school board. And by his own admission, the mayor let his critics get under his skin and dictate his agenda in 2004. That's another big mistake.

"The antis can say anything," Glasscock noted. "We had to tell the truth."

Louisville's merger team targeted the two-thirds of Jefferson County residents that polls showed were either favorably inclined or undecided. They promised no change in taxes or services. They spent $300,000 on television ads in the two weeks before the referendum.

The referendum passed by only a 54-46 margin, about the same as a Cardinals football score.

You can have some fun and kill time playing with consolidation numbers but don't make any bets. For that, take Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl.


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