A model for metro

| October 30, 2002

When I moved here in the 1960s, Rochester was a community of promise, with a bustling downtown and great plans for the future. It felt more vibrant, more big-city than the two Southern cities I knew best, my hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Nashville, near which my husband grew up.

            That's no longer the case. Nashville is pumped up, full of activity, with a growing population: 13.6 percent in the past 12 years. In the 10-county Nashville metro area, the population has grown by almost 30 percent. The region has attracted new business and industry and major-league sports, and has fashioned itself into a major tourist attraction.

            Monroe County, on the other hand, is stuck. Our population is basically the same as it was in 1970. All we've done is move people around --- from the city to the suburbs.

            Nashville's mayor, William Purcell, was in Rochester a couple of weeks ago, talking about what he thinks has made the difference in Nashville: metropolitan government. (The program was sponsored by the Downtown Community Forum, the Common Good Planning Center, and the League of Women Voters at the suggestion of Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson.)

            In his talk, Purcell was careful to say that he wasn't comparing Rochester to Nashville, and that he wasn't recommending metro government for us. But, that said, he was clear: consolidating city and county government in Nashville-Davidson County laid the groundwork for Nashville's boom.

            "I know from my own observation," he said, "that it is the best thing we've ever done."

Nashville isn't Rochester. But, for me, it's been interesting to compare development in the two cities, since they were so close to the same size when I moved here.

            Also interesting has been the different paths Nashville and its sister city up the highway, Knoxville, have taken. Knoxville and its surroundings have grown more than Rochester, but not as much as Nashville. While Knoxville has annexed some of its suburbs, it has not consolidated its government with the county's. And so I asked Purcell: Is the difference in Nashville's and Knoxville's growth --- and vibrancy --- metropolitan government?

            "In my opinion, yes," said Purcell. "It's not the location. It's not the humidity. It's not any of those things."

            Nashville's transition from a city within a county to a consolidated "unigov," as our county executive likes to call metro, began in the 1950s, with a study published by a citizen's group. The metro area's strength then was in the city (as it was here). But suburban residents wanted more services, and there was tension between city and county governments over who should provide them.

            In 1958 consolidation was put to a vote, and under state law, residents of the city and the suburbs had to approve it. Community leaders were united. The mayor, the county executive, both daily newspapers, the Chamber of Commerce, parents' groups, unions, the League of Women Voters: all urged consolidation.

            The plan passed in the city, but went down in the surrounding county. That didn't end the concerns that had led to the referendum, though. And it didn't stop the debate.

            In 1962, city-county consolidation was back on the ballot. There were objections common to metro debates: minority residents were afraid their representation would be diluted. Some voters were afraid they would be more poorly represented by a larger, metro government. Unions were concerned about protecting jobs, wages, and benefits.

            And there were the predictable charges that metro government is a communist plot. "Castro," read a sign in a storefront, "has Metro."

            By this point, Nashville's mayor was opposed to consolidation; he had begun annexing suburbs. While one daily newspaper continued to support consolidation, the other went headlong against it.

            But voters were changing their minds. The proposal called for a large City Council --- 40 members --- to provide smaller bases of representation. Public-employee protection was built in.

            This time, the measure passed, by 56 percent in both the city and the suburbs.

What makes the difference with metro government? Purcell gives the same answer that other metro proponents give: efficiency, accountability, focus:

            "The ability of one local government not to pass the buck, not to blame other governments... a sense of 'it's you,' a sense when business is coming, that there's one government to deal with... the ability of this larger city to speak with one voice."

            After Purcell's talk, someone in the audience raised the concern about people wanting services delivered close to home. Monroe County residents seem to like the number and layers of government provided by their nine villages, 19 towns, one town-village, the city, and the county. "You have a larger amount of government representation than we do," Purcell agreed.

            But he said he's convinced that in Nashville, government officials and government services are close to home. And, he said, the efficiency, the lack of multiple levels of government, gives Nashville money to provide higher quality.

            "I'm in a city that can afford the most sophisticated fingerprint ID system," he said, "computers in every police car, a fulltime, full-service fire department" that serves the entire county.

            "I believe we can provide overall a higher, more effective level of service," said Purcell. Tennessee, he added, is the lowest-taxed state in the nation, "and we're the lowest-taxed city in the state."

            "You have to decide how much government you can afford," said Purcell. "You can keep buying as much government as you can afford and want."

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