Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Herenton on State of the City

Posted By on Wed, Jan 2, 2008 at 4:00 AM

As promised, Mayor Willie Herenton reopened his civic hymnal on Wednesday to the verse marked "consolidation" and suggested that this time others might join him.

"I favor metropolitan consolidation inclusive of schools," said Herenton, making his annual "state of the city" address to the Kiwanis Club meeting at The Peabody.

The venue was fairly small and so was the crowd, probably under 200 people. They gave the fifth-term mayor a couple of warm standing ovations. Whether that indicated the spirit of the season or support for consolidation remains to be seen.

Herenton said he sees promise in the new membership of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission along with Gov. Phil Bredesen and county mayor A C Wharton.

"Thank God for the new county commission," he said. "We've got some people over there with some new energy and some courage." He did not name names.

He said he will ask state legislators to, in effect, change the rules on consolidation so that approval from both city and county voters in separate elections is not a prerequisite. Several years before Herenton became mayor in 1991, consolidation votes passed in the city but failed in the county, where signs that say "county schools" and "no city taxes" are still a staple of new subdivisions just outside the borders of Memphis.

As he has on many occasions, Herenton said consolidated government would be more efficient and cost taxpayers less money.

"It pains me to see the waste in schools," said the former superintendent.

It apparently pains Bredesen too. The governor has shown impatience with Memphis "reform" programs and indicated that a state takeover is possible if Memphis doesn't do better. Herenton mentioned changing the governing structure of the school system but did not specifically call for abolishing the school board or appointing a new one, as he has on other occasions.

Meeting with reporters after his speech, Herenton said consolidation can only happen with support from key business leaders and other politicians. He said the "economics of government will become so tight" that such supporters will eventually come around.

The sticking points are that Memphis has a higher tax rate than suburbs and unincorporated areas in Shelby County and the Shelby County schools, with more affluent students and fewer poor students, outperform city schools on standardized tests. But Memphis accounts for about 70 percent of the population of Shelby County. By Herenton's lights, a suburban minority is dictating the rules of the game to the urban majority.

On other subjects, Herenton said Memphis is "financially strong" with a reserve fund of more than $60 million. Memphis, he said, is "on the national radar screen" because of FedEx Forum, AutoZone Park, and other attractions. And he said crime "trend lines" are going "in the right direction" but 500 more police officers are still needed. He will announce new anti-blight measures next week.

Responding to a question from the audience about the lack of a "wow" factor on the riverfront, Herenton said he is open to the possibility of razing The Pyramid if a deal with Bass Pro falls through.

"We could get the wow," he said. "I still want the wow."

Herenton seemed to be in a good mood, and there were no real zingers for the press or anyone else with the exception of, "For those of you who want to sit on the sidelines and be critical, we're not going to be mad at you, we’re just going to pray for you."

Reaction to the consolidation proposal among Kiwanis members was guarded. Businessman Sam Cantor said he is unconditionally for it but does not expect it to happen in the next four years.

Businessman Calvin Anderson is also for it and says it "can happen" if Herenton can take himself out of the equation, recruit allies, and present a reasonably united Shelby County legislative delegation in Nashville. Greg Duckett, former city chief administrative officer under Dick Hackett, said consolidation needs to happen but he stopped short of saying it will.

"Significant strides to making it happen can occur in the next four years," he said.

Jim Strickland, sworn in Tuesday as a new member of the City Council, said he supports full consolidation but is willing to compromise on schools if necessary.

He said he is "not sure" if Herenton can muster enough support among suburban mayors and state lawmakers to make any headway.

Consolidation by charter surrender does not appear to be an option, which doesn't mean it won't keep coming up for discussion. In 2002, the state attorney general's office issued an opinion that said "the General Assembly may not revoke the charter, the Memphis City Council is not authorized to surrender the city charter, and no statute authorizes the Memphis city charter to be revoked by a referendum election of the voters."

Herenton, who was reelected with just 42 percent of the vote, made his speech against a backdrop of glum economic news, locally and nationally. Oil hit the $100-a-barrel mark, the stock of local economic bastions FedEx and First Horizon and others plunged with the Dow Jones Average, the Memphis Grizzlies and Memphis Redbirds are struggling at the gate, and foreclosures are expected to soar this year.

"In order to do all these things our economy must remain strong," the mayor said.

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