Don't look now — on second thought, it's time for year-end reflections and speculation, so go ahead and look — but the specter of city/county consolidation is back with us. We say "specter" not in any pejorative sense. If anything, the idea of combining some of our
wastefully duplicated governmental functions is more like Casper the Friendly Ghost than it is the Amityville Horror. It's just that the concept keeps coming and going and getting buried or vaporized, only to rematerialize unexpectedly — a fact that makes us wonder if its latest incarnation is the same old phantasm or something more solid.
Maybe this time the idea will take on real substance. It's not only that a freshly reelected Mayor Willie Herenton has once again promoted metro government to the head of his agenda. Another reality is that an intergovernmental task force, co-chaired by county commissioner Mike Carpenter and outgoing city councilman Jack Sammons, recently climaxed several months of hearings and investigations by approving, via an eight to five vote, the goal of merging the functions of the Memphis Police Department and the Shelby County Sheriff's Department.
This limited or (in the argot of the day) "functional" form of consolidation won't happen overnight, if at all. Sheriff Mark Luttrell, among other interested parties, is opposed. That's more than understandable, given that the sheriff has, thanks to a legal ruling by a state court last year, seen the presumed constitutional nature of his position unexpectedly put up for grabs. And the suburban mayors, long jealous of their independence (and yet dependent for both financial and administrative reasons on some larger umbrella authority) are also reluctant. Contrariwise, Memphis police director Larry Godwin, like his boss the mayor, is avid for the idea. For that matter, the issue of reconfiguring a metro drug unit got some traction during last year's city election campaign. So there is momentum.
Then there is the constant example of Nashville, regarded by residents of the Memphis area either as a sister city or as an archrival or as both. Whichever way it is seen, the city of Nashville has been formally yoked to the rest of Davidson County for decades now in a metropolitan form of government, and it may not be accidental that, during that same period, it has progressed from a backwater state capital roughly half the size of Memphis to a condition of parity and beyond. In terms of economic growth, new business, per capita income, commercial construction, and the like, Nashville is soaring ahead. That hasn't happened solely as a consequence of consolidation, but it owes something to the simplicity of central planning, the cohesiveness of governmental structures, and the property-tax reductions.
When former Nashville mayor Bill Purcell addressed the Memphis Rotary Club earlier this year, he teasingly affected the persona of an urban rival and said, in effect, keep on doing what you're doing in Memphis and Shelby County. Stay separate and spare Nashville the competition. Was he joking? Yes. Was he serious? Also yes.
The issue of consolidation will confront us again in 2008. And it will haunt us thereafter until we deal with it.