Stahl: Metro govt. would need easier transition

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   City Manager Charles Stahl believes any notion of consolidating Elizabethton and Carter County municipal governments would require a change in existing state legislation to smooth transition into a metropolitan government.
   "I don't think the city should look at it until state enabling legislation is changed to make it attractive to the taxpayers," Stahl told members of the Elizabethton Rotary Club Wednesday afternoon.
   The Carter County Commission passed a resolution in July of 1997 creating a study committee to review city and county consolidation. The committee held two meetings soon after its inception, but has since been dormant.
   "The big fallacy of consolidated government in Tennessee is that there is no adequate enabling legislation to make it a smooth process," said Stahl.
   Stahl referenced a 1997 letter sent to the then Mayor Richard Sharpin from the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) detailing the pros and cons of creating a metropolitan government.
   MTAS representative Pat Hardy wrote that metro government did provide opportunities to eliminate the duplication of services and provide a better economy of scale for cities and counties to deliver public services. He also wrote that the "perception" of efficiency with a consolidated government did not always translate into actual efficient operations.
   An agency of The University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service, MTAS provides technical assistance to the governing bodies of cities and towns across the state.
   Stahl cited the 911 Communications District, Animal Shelter, and the Carter County Health Department among his examples of cooperation between the city and county, including the Sugar Hollow Landfill, which was closed in the late 1990s.
   "I think the city and county already work together as closely as we can," said Stahl.
   Hardy's review pointed out that pertaining to constitutional officers such as sheriff, county clerk and register of deeds, the structure of metro government was highly decentralized and created a leadership vacuum especially with authority and allocation of financial resources.
   "The election of independent officials in part removes the organization's ability to allocate resources on a rational basis," Hardy wrote. His letter also discriminated between government administration, which is "best undertaken by trained professionals", and policy-making that is the responsibility of elected officials.
   He also pointed out that consolidated government creates "urban" and "general" service districts for a city and county. The general service district representing a county has generally greater representation than the city, meaning city taxpayers could lose control over where and how their dollars are spent.
   Stahl said the battleground of metropolitan government lies in how the city and county school systems could be affected by consolidation. Closing one or more county elementary schools and/or high schools could generate intense opposition where local schools are the focal point of a county's small, rural communities. He pointed out that the city charter gives Elizabethton residents the power to hold an election referendum to turn the city school system over to the county.
   Several bills addressing consolidated, or metropolitan governments have moved through the General Assembly this year. A House bill introduced by Rep. Randy Rinks, D-Savannah, calls for a constitutional convention to rewrite the state's constitution pertaining to the consolidation of local governments.
   There are three ways to consolidate a city and county government under existing state law: a majority vote to consolidate by the governing bodies of a county and city, a private act passed by the General Assembly, or a petition signed by qualified voters equal to 10 percent of votes cast in the county in the last gubernatorial election.
   Three counties in Middle Tennessee presently operate with metropolitan governments: Nashville/Davidson County, Lynchburg/Moore County, and Hartsville/Trousdale County. Trousdale residents voted to consolidate their governments in 2000. The governments in Lynchburg and Moore County -- the state's smallest county -- merged after a 1987 vote. Nashville and Davidson County residents led the way in consolidation in passing a 1962 referendum.
   Trousdale and Moore counties rank closely in population size with 7,200 and 5,900 residents, respectively. At a mere 75,000 acres, Trousdale has the smallest land area of any Tennessee county.
   Davidson County's population of almost 550,000 is served by a council made up of 40 members, 35 of whom are elected from single-member districts and five of whom are elected to large positions in countywide voting. Also elected on a countywide vote are the mayor and vice-mayor. The council replaced both the city council and county commission. The office of mayor fills the responsibilities of both the executive of the city and county executive.
   Davidson County's constitutional officers were retained, such as the assessor and clerk. Their responsibilities extend to the county as a whole and there are no similar positions, as before consolidation, with the city of Nashville government.