(WBIR - Downtown Knoxville) Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett says he is ready for new discussions about the old controversial topic of consolidating city and county governments.
The City of Knoxville and Knox County attempted to unite and consolidate their redundant governments on four different occasions. In 1959, 1978, 1983, and 1996 the final result was always a redundant failure.
"We are wanting to reduce the footprint of government," said Burchett. "You have to have agreement out of both mayors or it will not work. I plan to talk to Mayor Rogero about some different ideas, but this is all very early in the process."
Burchett said two of his early ideas are to combine certain city and county services such as parks and recreation departments as well as property tax collection.
"You get off the elevator up here [in the City County Building], go 150 feet to the right to pay your county property taxes. You go 150 feet to the left to pay your city property taxes. That's ridiculous. They are right beside each other, they are on the same floor, and they don't even use the same envelope," said Burchett.
Burchett said there would not have to be any layoffs or firings for the consolidations he wants to pursue. Attrition and retirement would eventually bring staff down to appropriate levels.
The County Mayor advocating consolidation is slight change from the past. In previous attempts to create a metropolitan government, city leaders advocated for unification while those in the county were the main opponents of consolidation.
Burchett made it clear he is not talking about creating one large metropolitan government. Those types of major reform attempts always failed as political forces engaged in power struggles. In particular, battles between separate law enforcement agencies proved insurmountable during previous attempts to unify the governments. A major sticking point was whether the appointed Knoxville Police Chief or the elected Knox County Sheriff would be considered the "top cop." The state constitution requires each county to have an elected sheriff. In other metropolitan governments such as Nashville, the police chief is "top cop" while the elected sheriff serves as the jailor.
"I'd prefer to have one law enforcement, which would be a sheriff's department, if you're going towards a truly consolidated government. But we're not anywhere near that. We're mainly talking about things that we have direct control over that Mayor Rogero and I could do with a vote through council and commission," said Burchett.
Consolidating the entire government would require both the city's residents and those living in the county to cast a majority vote in favor of unification. In 1996, groups in favor and against the consolidation engaged in a fierce campaign that ended with the measure being rejected. It also ultimately ended with the administrator of elections, Irene Lovely, leaving her position after an embarrassing failure to place city and county early voting ballots in separate piles.
WBIR Video Archive: Nov 1996 - Ballot mistakes in government unification vote
"Again, I'm not getting into all of that kind of major reform," said Burchett. "I'm talking about identifying services where it is beneficial to consolidate. We've done it before with the city and county school system. We've done it with the libraries. There are other areas we can do it like with the roads where we have a city and county engineering department that both salt the roads. Another place that makes a lot of sense is parks and recreation. Right now both the city and county are buying separate equipment. They'll both buy a tractor and pass each other on the road. It makes no sense."
"It's kind of an obvious one because you do deliver the same services, And most folks honestly don't know the difference between a city park and a county park," said Doug Bataille, senior director of Knox County Parks and Recreation. "It could also give an organization more buying power to consolidate into a larger group."
If anyone knows the history of Knoxville and Knox County governments, it is the city's chief of policy Bill Lyons. Lyons began teaching political science at the University of Tennessee in the 1970s and has published scholarly research on the rejection of consolidated governments.
Lyons said there are a variety of consolidation methods for services such as parks and recreation.
"You can have the city providing outside services on a contract basis. You can have the two departments combined. There are lots of ways you can go about that sort of structure," said Lyons. "It never hurts to explore options, but until something very specific is developed it's hard to be for something without any details."
Lyons said the devil has always been in the details regarding previous efforts to consolidate services. As Burchett goes into his second term unopposed, he says developing details that will succeed is his top priority.
"I've got four years to concentrate on this. And I plan on concentrating on making Knox County one of the most efficient counties in the country," said Burchett.