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:
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.