Faking the Big C 

Coming together without coming together.

Could consolidation possibly be catching on?

After this year's annual mayoral plea for the Big C, it seems like everybody is getting into the spirit. Ten city elementary schools are buddying up. The City Council is looking at getting into bed with the Shelby County trustee's office. And the city and county school systems hooked up for a communal board meeting last week where they presented a joint committee report.

It's not just the public sector coming together: I've been getting gas at my grocery store. My wireless company recently announced it had even found its cell-mate.

With so much urge to merge, could county and city governments be far behind?

For a consolidation proponent like myself, the sad answer is yes.

At their joint meeting last Thursday, the school systems were crystal clear about keeping their two households separate. Even though the subject was how the systems could save money through economies of scale, "cooperation, not consolidation" was the main theme of the day.

"What's significant is what we didn't hear today," said Shelby County board president David Pickler. "[Cost savings] couldn't be gained by joining our two organizations ... . The solutions are much more complicated."

The two systems did promise to continue seeing each other. They'll send their legislative agenda to Nashville together, and staff members have even been instructed to approach MATA and MLGW about a joint fuel-buying venture.

A few days earlier, in the City Council's O&M budget committee, Shelby County trustee Bob Patterson proposed taking over the city's tax billing and collection, revenue forecasting and reporting, and banking functions. He estimated the savings to the city would be $2 million to $3 million a year.

"The county says we don't have to make money on this contract; we just can't lose money," the trustee told committee members.

Under the agreement, the office would receive 1 percent of current fees and 2 percent of delinquent collections. Patterson's office already handles tax collection for Arlington, Millington, and Shelby County and handles delinquent collections for Collierville and Bartlett. Councilman Rickey Peete pointed out that this wasn't consolidation, but something close to it -- the aligning of similar functions.

Councilman Joe Brown fretted that the contract would make $2 million for the county. He said he could see it if a private company came to them with a similar proposal -- ostensibly someone who would be making money off the contract -- but not another governmental body. Even so, the committee asked the trustee's office for a cost/benefit analysis.

"We can't have it both ways," said Councilman Jack Sammons. "I can't say we need to consolidate and out of the other side of my mouth say this is a bad idea. If we're serious about doing things differently ... this is a wonderful first step."

But both cases remind me of a non-denial denial. We're getting non-consolidation consolidation. It's actually brilliant. These bodies are looking to get the financial benefits of consolidation without the nasty consolidation battle. In some ways, it's a solution that should make everyone happy.

In other ways, though, it shows how our heels are dug in deeper than our pocketbooks. Are we keeping our friends close but our enemies closer?

I've always seen consolidation as a way to deal with problems as one community. With non-consolidation consolidation, we're taking that option off the table. We're working together, the school systems say, but it's to build two special, separate school districts. By coming together -- and faking the big C -- we've never been further apart. We probably should thank Mayor Herenton. Maybe this is what he was going for all along.

I can understand why people who have moved out of the city don't want to be part of it again. I've parted ways with a few companies. If they tried to force me to be their customer again -- especially without special offers, enhanced services, or some plain ol' booty kissing -- I'd be furious.

If Herenton is really interested in joining the city and county governments, he needs to be a little less "King Willie" and a little more "Prince Charming." Those pretty little suburbs need to be courted into a betrothal. They need candy and flowers, maybe even a love poem or two. Or maybe invite them to the ball to discuss the situation.

Despite the recent collaborations, some of the real benefits of consolidation can't actually occur without consolidation. At the very least, there'd be one less mayor.

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