Peer Pressure 

A select group of Memphis city officials and employees will soon find themselves in court. And in Atlanta, no less.

"We're going to look at their court system," says city court clerk Thomas Long. "They have a wireless courtroom. I've been pushing for this technology ever since I was elected. We still do a lot with paper, and there's redundancy."

Long, who has convinced the police department to start using handheld computers to issue tickets, says the technologically advanced system would be more efficient, but first he has to persuade some of his more "mature" colleagues.

"In my office, we get 2,000 tickets a day that we have to manually key in. If 25 percent of those are wireless, all we have to do is download them," he says. "I'm hoping that the city entourage will have an opportunity to see the technology, see their counterparts [in Atlanta] using the technology, and ask questions."

Long will be accompanied by city chief financial officer Robert Lipscomb, the point person for the trip, as well as city court judges. But they're not the only ones looking to Hot 'Lanta, Nashvegas, or the Big D for big ideas.

Last week, Lipscomb presented a peer city comparative analysis to the City Council budget committee. The document showed how Memphis stacked up against 14 sister cities in population, median income, and public infrastructure, among others.

"This shows how Memphis is, relative to other cities," Lipscomb told the committee. "We can't make a decision on this, but it puts everything in context."

At the beginning of the year, Mayor Willie Herenton said that Memphis had too many fire stations and floated the idea of closures. And the city's analysis, which is heavy on figures but light on recommendations, will provide Herenton with a tangible weapon come budget time.

"The data indicates that Memphis" -- with 55 -- "has more fire stations than Baltimore (41), Charlotte (36), Indianapolis (34) and Nashville (39), although the numbers of households are relatively comparable," the report reads.

In fact, the number of fire stations in Memphis is more in line with that of Dallas and Jacksonville (both with 57). But perhaps even more telling is that both Nashville and Indianapolis have fewer fire stations, though they encompass larger areas.

Herenton has also set his sights on public services in recent months, saying the city needs to close schools and sell parkland. Perhaps he's right: Memphis has 30 high schools, more than any other city in the study except for Houston (37). Dallas has 29, Baltimore has 28, and Indianapolis has five.

Memphis also has 187 parks, while Atlanta has 348; Nashville, 101, and Baltimore, only 19.

City Council budget chair Jack Sammons wants a copy of the report on hand during upcoming budget sessions, but at a time when both the council and the mayor have pledged no new property taxes, peering over the shoulders of other cities could give us a complex.

What can we really learn from the analysis, either about our city or others? Take parks, for example. Putting aside the question of what constitutes the correct number -- 19? 348? -- acreage would have been a more enlightening figure.

And Baltimore may have 14 fewer fire stations than Memphis, but it also encompasses only about 80 square miles. Memphis is 280 square miles. That's about one fire station for every five square miles in Memphis and one fire station for every two square miles in Baltimore.

I'm all for understanding the general landscape when it's time to make a decision, but if I want to play a numbers game, I do Sudoku.

If we're going to get useful answers from other cities, we need to ask the right questions. It doesn't matter how many parks -- or even how much parkland you have -- if it's so unkempt that the public doesn't utilize it. And it's not as if our numerous high schools have added up to unbridled educational success. In fact, in the five-year plan for Memphis City Schools released last week, one of the key findings was that the district's underutilization of facilities, maintenance, and transportation is taking limited resources away from academic programming.

Seeing what other cities are doing can be helpful, especially if we learn from their mistakes or find a competitive edge. "Before we do anything else," Lipscomb told the council committee, "we have to ask how do we want to position ourselves relative to other cities. We can't be all things to all people."

We also need to remember another big idea: quantity is interesting, but quality is what counts.

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