Will Metro issue make comeback?

Frank CagleFeature, Frank Talk

A possible wild card in the race for Knoxville mayor is a proposal from former Vice Mayor Joe Bailey that it’s time to take another look at Metro government. It was the top goal of community leaders for decades, then it faded away. Bailey thinks it might be time to revive the issue, and he is contemplating whether to run for mayor to bring life back to the proposal.

I don’t see combining city and county government getting much traction, but you never know.

Nashville voted in Metro government in the 1960s. Some of Knoxville’s leaders thought it was a good idea. By the 1970s, the effort began to combine city and county government and create Metro government for Knoxville. The first step down the road was building the City County Building and putting both governments under the same roof. Then it should be a simple matter to start combining departments. Yeah, right.

State Sen. Brown Ayres got legislation passed to create the Public Building Authority to build and administer the building because neither the city nor the county government wanted the other to be the landlord. (I hope you read Betty Bean’s recent excellent profile of Ayres.) The city establishment also called on a young and upcoming businessman named Jim Haslam to ramrod the effort to get the building built. Haslam “made his bones” with the project, and he influenced the makeup of the board, which supervised the PBA for decades. He became the go-to guy, and as time passed, nothing got done in Knoxville unless it was on Big Jim’s calendar.

Consolidation did not happen as hoped. But some consolidation happened as the result of the city just withdrawing. The city school system disbanded, and education was turned over to the county. Along with the library system. The health department. The jail. The city has a police department and a fire department and contracts out garbage pickup. The city has an engineering department that paves city streets and builds sidewalks. But the only metro you see is the Metropolitan Planning Commission, with members appointed by city and county mayors.

Attempts to pass a referendum on Metro government have failed. County residents didn’t want to be “annexed” by the city. Not that city residents were enthusiastic about it either. Gradually, the issue just wasted away. Proponents have gotten older and moved on to Martha’s Vineyard, Hilton Head or Jackson Hole.

The biggest issue before was taxes. Non-city residents didn’t want to pay city taxes. No matter how many times it was explained that the city would have its own taxing district and areas outside the city, which did not get city services, would have a lower rate, nobody believed it.

I think the biggest impediment now to combining the two governments is that Knoxville has become a Democratic stronghold. The current mayor and most of City Council are Democrats. After the recent election, the Democrats now have two state House members and came within a whisker of a third. As downtown continues to grow, more and more young people are living in the city, and that usually means more and more Democrats. I don’t see city Democrats voting to be absorbed by county government.

But as more and more functions of government have been turned over to the county, the argument for Metro government has gotten weaker. In many ways, the city has become less visible. Under mayors Bill Haslam and Madeline Rogero, with rubber-stamp councils, there has been little controversy. It’s gotten to the point that local media often skip covering City Council meetings.

The race for Knoxville’s next mayor might raise some issues and thus raise the city’s profile. There hasn’t been much suspense in a mayor’s race since Haslam defeated Rogero to win his first term. After Haslam, Rogero was next in line. This time around, voters will choose among Eddie Mannis, Indya Kincannon, Mike Chase and Marshall Stair. And possibly Joe Bailey.

Ought to be fun.

A little help: Something I’ve wondered this football season. When the Vols’ offensive linemen go back to dig quarterback Jarrett Guarantano out of the turf and stand him on his feet, do they at least say they are sorry?

Declare victory, go home: Over the past decade, the number of deer and turkey in the state has increased substantially. Meanwhile, the number of hunters decreases each year. Thus, license-fee revenue decreases. Most kids would rather shoot deer (and other things) on a video screen than get up before dawn and brave the cold to shoot the real thing. Down the road, no pun intended, more deer are going to be killed in the grille of a car or truck than by hunters. Do we need to continue to increase deer herds?

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