Unity Through Secession

"Let our errant sisters go." That was the advice of the celebrated New York editor Horace Greeley at the time of the Southern states' secession from the Union in 1861. The newly elected president of the United States, one Abraham Lincoln, was not of that persuasion, however, and a conflict between regions ensued that remains unrivaled in the amount of American blood spilled.

Obviously, nothing this drastic is involved in the current set-to involving the secession of Germantown from the existing city/county system -- the Memphis/Shelby County Public Library & Information Center -- even if Collierville follows suit, as seems all too likely. But the crisis is still quite real. Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy, speaking on behalf of herself and her city's Board of Aldermen, has vowed to "step up" and fill the gap left as a result of substantially reduced library funding from the Shelby County Commission, which was determined to hold the tax line this year. During its recent budget hearings, the commission made it clear that community libraries would have to make do with less money or compensate for reduced county funding through their own devices. Nobody should have been surprised that the issue of local control would enter so directly into the equation.

Just as Lincoln declined to turn over Fort Sumter to the state of South Carolina, so have the powers that be on the City Council and in the library system so far refused to continue systemwide privileges for the seceding Germantown library. Bizarre as it seems, Germantown cardholders have already been refused the right to check out books in the larger city/county system. Though Goldsworthy professed optimism on that score this week, it was even doubtful whether books borrowed from the former Germantown branch will be returned there if they are left at "drops" elsewhere in the system.

In the long run, Germantown, which has hired the private firm of Library Systems and Services, LLC to run its system, will undoubtedly be able to make a go of things. So will Collierville. But it will cost them. At some point, Bartlett (which drew back from secession this time and determined to stay in the system, though at the cost of a likely tax increase) may follow suit, as might other suburban communities. Will they take the next logical step and depart the existing county school system, financing their own schools through municipal taxes? Something like that would seem inevitable, given that county schools, too, were denied additional funding this year and forced to make severe cuts in their operating and capital-improvement budgets.

Shelby County's newly "independent" outlying communities could soon find themselves realigned in a governmental confederation that resembles nothing so much as the dreaded consolidation that suburbanites have sworn holy oaths to resist. The fact is that, where general services are concerned, none of the suburbs, not even wealthy Germantown, can do without some sort of city/county umbrella. Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and Shelby County mayor A C Wharton have both proposed models for "functional" consolidation of schools. The current breakaway movement in the library system may end up, ironically enough, providing the impetus to a far more general consolidation -- and much more quickly than anyone would have dreamed.


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