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Metro worthy of study, but may not be a cure-all

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The city's garbage crisis appears to have passed, for now, but while it was making news, several commenters at the Times-Gazette web site expressed the opinion that metropolitan city-county government would be a good answer to the city's financial woes.

Don Darden of the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) told city council members in 2006 that while Tennessee voters like the idea of metro government in surveys, by the time most metro proposals come to a vote they are rejected. Between 1921 and 1996, according to a PowerPoint presentation at the MTAS web site, there were 132 attempts at consolidating governments, most of them in the southeast, but only 16 percent of them were successful. Fayettevile and Lincoln County, to our south, rejected metro proposals in 1988 and again in 2008.

Readers of the Times-Gazette web site, in a non-scientific poll, tend to favor metro government:

Would you like to see a metro government which would combine Shelbyville and Bedford County governments?

Yes, definitely: 41.2% (133 votes)

No, definitely not: 25.1% (81 votes)

It depends on the exact proposal -- how the new government would be set up: 33.7% (109 votes)

323 votes cast

Only three counties in Tennessee -- Davidson County (Nashville), Moore County (Lynchburg), and Trousdale County (Hartsville) have adopted metro government. In Moore County's case, at the time of adoption, some voters weren't particularly interested in metro government for it's own sake, but rather as a way of preventing Tullahoma from annexing across the county line.

So why aren't more counties looking at metro, especially in an age of tight budgets at every level of government?

Darden said in 2006 that metro isn't the financial windfall some people expect it to be. You would think that, under normal circumstances, combining duplicate services would reduce overhead and allow cost savings.

But there are complications that must be dealt with. Tennessee law allows metro government, but even a metro government must abide by the state consitution, which creates certain publicly-elected "constitutional offices" that operate with varying degrees of independence. Those independent constitutional offices may resist certain efforts to consolidate or streamline procedures. So the combined government will have more in common with county government than with city government, and Darden claimed in 2006 that city governments -- appointed, and responsible to a central administrator -- tend to be more efficient. No doubt there are some who would challenge that claim, of course, and others who prefer the system of voter-elected courthouse offices, whether it's efficient or not, for accountability reasons.

A 2007 paper by Patrick Hardy of MTAS says the record of consolidated governments is mixed when it comes to financial efficiency. Some case studies show a benefit, but others don't.

"In other words," wrote Hardy, "efficiency of consolidated government has not been demonstrated or verified empirically. Efficiency can only be realized in certain cases, and there is no guarantee that on the whole, service-delivery costs can be reduced. What this probably means is that in order for efficiencies to occur, the 'system' must be actively and very well managed."

MTAS has said that some efficiencies can be created by combining specific services rather than combining entire governments. Bedford County was ahead of the curve in consolidating city and county school systems, one of the largest components of local government spending.

State law does allow a metro government to recognize the difference in expectations for rural and urban neighborhoods. A metro government charter creates an "urban services district," based on the old city limits, and a "general services district," containing everything that's not in the urban district. The consolidated government can operate urban services such as curbside garbage pickup in the urban services district, and can levy a special tax on just the residents of that district to pay for them.

But there are still issues that have to be considered. Here's one example: homeowners' insurance rates are based in part on the Insurance Services Office ratings for a particular address. City residents tend to get more favorable ISO ratings than rural residents, because a city tends to have more fire trucks and personnel serving a more-compact area, meaning a shorter response time. A consolidated fire department could improve ISO ratings for some or worsen them for others depending on how the department plans to deploy its resources, and how much funding it's given by the consolidated government.

Of course, in some cases the efficiency of consolidating two governments, or two agencies, results from reductions in staff. It's human nature for anyone to want to preserve his or her job, and so it's likely that employees who think their jobs are in jeopardy would tend to oppose consolidation -- and, in a small town, to recruit their friends and neighbors to do so as well. Elected officials might also tend to think of consolidation in terms of self-interest (whether they define it that way or not) and work against it if they think they will have no role, or a reduced role, in the consolidated government.

Metro government is always worthy of study, and may well turn out to be a good idea, but those who expect it to be a cure-all may be disappointed.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.

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How much work does MTAS do in Metro areas? What role do they play in Metro Governments? Does MTAS lose funding if a city/county goes Metro?

MTAS seems pretty darn biased against Metro Governments. I find it very unusual when a city or county is considering Metro, MTAS always has a negative opinion on Metro.

In this particular instance of Shelbyville/Bedford County going Metro, the only congressional positions that would be remotely in jeopardy would be City Council and the City Mayor.

Statewide, the ten metropolitan areas account for eighty-two percent of aggregate wages in the state and more than 90% of the growth in wages statewide since 2000. Seventy-nine percent of jobs in the state were in the ten metropolitan areas. The ten metropolitan areas accounted for more than one hundred percent of net job growth in Tennessee between 2000 and 2008. Statewide, the number of jobs increased by 54,520. In the ten metropolitan areas, there was a net increase of 119,409; the rest of the state lost more than 65,000 jobs. The ten metropolitan areas account for eighty-two percent of aggregate wages in the state and more than 90% of the growth in wages statewide since 2000.

Don't forget Columbia is going for Metro too. I thought Memphis went Metro last year?

-- Posted by Evil Monkey on Sun, Mar 27, 2011, at 11:57 AM
Response by John Carney:
A "metropolitan area," about which you cite statistics, has nothing to do with "metropolitan government." The census refers to big cities and their surrounding suburbs as "metropolitan areas" regardless of what form of government they use. And the census bureau would not refer to Moore County as a "metropolitan area" even though it has metropolitan government.

Memphis has been arguing about consolidating its school systems, not complete metro government. This isn't an intentional, two-sided merger; the city would like to simply close down its school system and force the county to pick up that responsibility. And it looks like the state has delayed them from doing that because parents on one side of the merger are opposed to it.

Columbia and Maury County are, as you said, studying metro. It hasn't passed yet.


I am aware what the metropolitan area is, but when you have the benefits of living with that area for growth and job creation, I don't see why it wouldn't benefit this local area in similar ways.

Do you know if MTAS has any dealings with a metro government?

-- Posted by Evil Monkey on Mon, Mar 28, 2011, at 12:04 AM
Response by John Carney:
I am not certain whether metro governments deal with MTAS (Municipal Technical Advisory Service) or with its sister agency CTAS (County Technical Assistance Service), both of them part of the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service. It may depend on the situation. I've found personnel from both agencies to be relatively even-handed and knowledgeable over the past 25 years.

If there were a sudden rush towards consolidation among local governments, and it caused one agency to suddenly have more clients and the other one to have fewer, I'm guessing UT would probably just transfer personnel from one office to the other.

"If there were a sudden rush towards consolidation among local governments, and it caused one agency to suddenly have more clients and the other one to have fewer, I'm guessing UT would probably just transfer personnel from one office to the other."

Yeah that would be the smartest move.

-- Posted by Evil Monkey on Mon, Mar 28, 2011, at 8:04 PM

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John I. Carney
Loose Talk / Charge Complete
John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.