— If you ask elected officials and business leaders here, they tell you a consolidated city-county government has been the stabilizing force at the heart of their community's rise to prominence on the national map.

There are widely known attractions both old, such as the iconic Grand Ole Opry, and new, such as the Tennessee Titans' LP field. There are the same farms and wooded areas around the county's outer edges that existed a century ago.

There is Downtown Nashville, where buildings soar upward from a hill above the Cumberland River. Fifteen miles away, there is Downtown Goodlettsville, a quaint area with a modest town square.

The only commonality in all of the county's 503 square miles is the Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County — commonly known simply as "Metro."

The merger of the city of Nashville and Davidson County was the first modern example of city-county consolidation, and the local government structure there still is cited by political scientists and imitators as a model of efficiency.

"In having a consolidated government, we're more of a novelty than we are the norm. But it really has been an incredible part of the success of Nashville," Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said.

"You hear about the duplication of services, you hear about the mayor having to deal with multiple school boards ... multiple law enforcement jurisdictions, tax rates. We don't have those issues."

At the center of the consolidated government is a single administration and legislative body that presides over two tax districts.

The mayor is the county's executive, and the city's legislature is the Metro Council, made up of 40 members plus a leader who is elected countywide and called the vice mayor.

The first set of local taxes are collected to cover services that apply to everyone in the county — including the city of Nashville and six smaller municipalities along the lines of Vanderburgh County's Darmstadt.

Services provided to all Davidson County residents range from a single school district that operates under an elected board of education, to police and fire protection, to libraries, parks and trash collection.

The second set of taxes apply only to what's called the urban services district. Those who live the closest to Nashville get benefits such as beefed-up police protection and street lighting and cleaning — but they pay slightly more for it.

The urban services district originally lined up with the old city limits of Nashville, but has expanded over the decades, typically at the behest of council members who wish to see extra services expanded to the areas they represent.

In the world of city-county consolidation, Nashville was the pioneer, providing the idea that within a decade sparked similar action in major cities such as Indianapolis and Jacksonville, Fla., and smaller cities such as Carson City, Nev., Columbus, Ga. and Juneau, Alaska.

Overall, proponents of Nashville's system say the 1962 move to merge provided the city with a stabilized tax base and a simplified local government bureaucracy that helped Nashville facilitate the rapid growth in the years that followed.

And, after the Chamber of Commerce of Southwest Indiana's 2005 Inter-City Leadership Visit to Nashville, it's a model that some local officials and consolidation advocates believe offers an indication of the economic development opportunities that Evansville and Vanderburgh County could realize.

Steve Schaefer, vice president of public policy for the Chamber, visited Nashville as well as Lexington, Ky., and Louisville, Ky., with that group.

"I think that the Nashville trip resonated more than any of the other ones because they've had so much success in terms of economic development," he said.

"We were blown away. Economic development was the story down there. They kept pointing at unified government as the key."

Push begins

Before consolidation, the city of Nashville and Davidson County had separate governments.

Nashville's chief executive was the mayor. During the move toward consolidation, that was a Republican named Ben West.

The legislative body was the city council, which had 21 members and ultimately expanded to 30 members just years before the merger took place.

The chief executive in the rest of Davidson County was a single county judge. As merger talks grew increasingly serious, that county judge was a Democratic man named Beverly Briley.

The county's legislative body was called the Quarterly County Court. It consisted of 55 elected magistrates who met about four times per year in sessions presided over by the county judge.

With a Nashville-Davidson County consolidation in mind, the Tennessee General Assembly in 1953 enacted legislation that paved the way for local government mergers, with one hitch: Any such merger would have to be approved by voters in both affected areas.

Therefore, when consolidation was finally on the ballot, a majority of voters in the city and a majority of voters outside the city limits would have to vote "yes." Otherwise, even if consolidation won the votes of an overall majority of Davidson County's residents, the initiative would fail.

After World War II, the Nashville area was fueled by a new natural gas pipeline connection extending to the city from Louisiana and Texas, which made power readily available throughout the region.

The area was home to rapid population growth within the city limits, and even quicker growth in surrounding suburban areas.

The antiquated government structure that existed at the time could not keep up.

"The Nashville area was caught in the same population explosion as the rest of the country, with the same resulting difficulties, including the disproportionate burden of the obligation and costs of government falling on the city, and the inability of a rural-type county government to serve the urban needs of suburbia," deputy metropolitan attorney Seymour Samuels Jr. explained to the St. Petersburg Times in 1966.

Perhaps the best tour guide through the process of consolidating Nashville and Davidson County is George Cate, an attorney who was an advocate for the merger and, later in his career, headed the Metro Council as vice mayor, who explained the steps the city and county took during an interview with the Courier & Press last month.

A 10-member panel, half appointed by Briley and half by West, was tasked with drafting a charter that would outline a consolidated form of government that became known to residents as Metro. Meanwhile, a group called Citizens for Better Government — of which Cate was a member — gave speeches around Davidson County in support of the effort.

The group managed to navigate the tricky political situations that slow many mergers, such as police and fire protection and school districts, with relative ease.

For example, the county's school district superintendents offered little resistance to the idea of a single consolidated school district. The sheriff acquiesced to having his duties limited to running the jail, while a police department would handle law enforcement.

The panel agreed to provide general county services to six towns outside Nashville, while giving those towns' legislative bodies the autonomy to decide whether to draw extra taxes and provide their residents with extra services such as police protection.

That charter won the support of Briley and West. It got the backing of the Democratic county sheriff, who Cate said was pressured by The Tennessean, a Nashville paper that tended to support Democrats in the days when a newspaper editorial page's endorsement gave campaigns huge boosts.

But the first time consolidation appeared on a ballot, in 1958, it failed.

Overall, 53 percent of Davidson County residents voted yes. But the necessity of winning passage both inside and outside city limits was the merger's downfall. A majority of voters in Nashville voted yes, but a majority in the outlying portion of the county voted no.

"It took one good, long, hard false start," Cate said.

Tide changes

Tennessee state law allowed cities to annex nearby areas without ever going through the step of placing the question on a public ballot.

So annex West did. He added 42 miles and the 82,000 people who lived there in 1960, and immediately afterward, he broadened the city's tax base by annexing 70 more miles of industrial land.

Nashville ultimately pulled in enough suburban areas for the city's population to more than double, from less than 200,000 to more than 400,000 — two-thirds of the city's current population — by 1970. The services that city residents enjoyed at the time, though, came slowly to those new portions of Nashville — a fact not lost on consolidation proponents who included in the charter a mandate that would make that process speedier.

All the while, proponents of consolidation were not slowed by the first loss, and by 1962, they had pushed the topic onto the ballot again. The same caveat existed: consolidation required a majority both inside and outside the city.

The Tennessean remained behind the effort, as did Briley and the group Citizens for Better Government, which this time was headed by Cate. But West and his media ally, the Nashville Banner, decided to oppose. After all, West had realized he could broaden his tax base through his unchecked power to annex.

West's opposition, perhaps, was the deal-clincher.

Consolidation already had strong backing inside city limits, especially after concessions such as a 40-member council, with seven districts drawn so that blacks constituted a majority of the population and thus were represented, were made in the updated 1962 version of the charter.

Meanwhile, in the four years between votes, West had managed to turn those on the edges of Davidson County into bitter enemies.

Part of the original opposition to consolidation came from those in suburban areas that had since been annexed and incorporated into Nashville.

The "no" votes from those people now counted as part of the city's vote, rather than the county's. The potential for quicker access to services, and the fact that they were part of the city anyway, lessened opposition among those populations.

Meanwhile, those outside the city saw West's moves to annex major chunks of land and feared that they were next. The guarantee of services if they voted for consolidation, versus the fear that they would simply be annexed without a vote and without any guarantee, helped reverse public opinion.

Cate said the turnaround was particularly evident in suburban areas such as Donaldson, which were likely the next targets of West's annexation efforts.

"The people in that area had voted about 2-to-1 against it the first time. On the second vote, they voted 2-to-1 for it," Cate said. "They thought, 'We're next on the list to be annexed, and we believe this consolidation is more favorable to us than being annexed.'"

He said the charter's guarantee that the services provided to the urban services district would reach those areas within a year was key.

Cate said the thought of those outside city limits were typically: "At least we have this assurance in the charter we'll get some services. There's no way they can take 42 square miles at one time and then wait a long time before providing services."

If that wasn't enough, what gave consolidation the final shot in the arm was the desire of those inside the newly annexed areas and those who lived just outside city limits to stick it to West.

In June 1962, when Nashville and Davidson County voted for the second time, the city-county merger passed. Briley was elected that November as the first mayor, and Metro was fully implemented on April 1, 1963.

Today, it's hard to find many Davidson County residents who believe consolidation was the wrong move, in part because political shifts have placed both parties on the same side of the issue. Originally, it was Democrats who pushed the merger forward. Now, Republicans tend to champion city-county consolidation as a method of streamlining government and avoiding duplication.

Cate said there have been no efforts since the 1962 vote to reverse course and split up the city and county legislative bodies. He said generations of Nashville politicians have grown up knowing no other system.

Dean said Nashville officials view consolidation as a good move largely because the city compares itself to Memphis, Tenn., where consolidation has not yet occurred despite several attempts. Dean said Nashville's growth since consolidating, contrasted with the stagnation of Memphis, indicate the move was a wise one.

Rapid growth

Local business officials — particularly the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce — have cited consolidated government as a prime reason the region has added population and jobs since the merger.

"The business community here feels that orderly growth has really been facilitated by consolidated Metro government," Cate said. "You no longer had competition between different cities and the county for locations of businesses, for example, or manufacturing plants. You had just one group of officials to look to."

Dean said the Metro government is part of the pitch he makes to businesses that are interested in locating in the central Tennessee area.

"It's a drawing card, but there are probably very few companies that come here with that being high on the list of things they're looking for. They're looking for low taxes, they're looking for good services, and we're able to provide those, and one of the reasons we're able to provide those is consolidated government," Dean said.

In recent years, the magazine Site Selection has ranked the Nashville area among the top choices, both for corporate locations and investment.

Often cited are the decisions of a host of corporations, such as tiremaker Firestone, to move its headquarters to the Nashville area.

"They had a common theme. They were constantly talking about landing headquarters, and economic development," Schaefer said of the officials and business leaders he talked to during the 2005 visit.

"Site selectors are in the business of elimination, and they rule out communities for all kinds of different reasons. And when they talk to site consultants, Nashville makes the cut because of their consolidated government."

Efficient government

Nashville's growth is particularly clear when compared to Memphis, which some would call Nashville's sister city and others, its chief competitor.

In 1960, before Nashville's consolidation, the population of Memphis was 498,000, which made it comparable to Cincinnati and Atlanta. The population of Nashville was 171,000 — about the same as the Indiana cities of Gary and Fort Wayne.

Today, Memphis has a population of 677,000, while Nashville's population is up to 605,000. Nashville has grown from Tennessee's relatively small capital city to one of its marquee destinations since Metro was implemented.

"It allows us to develop more naturally a regional perspective on issues," Dean said.

"I'm mayor of an area that's basically 503 square miles. It's an urban area — Downtown Nashville — but it's also a huge suburban area, and there are rural parts of the county still. It's a diverse area, but it gives us a larger tax base than if we were only 13 miles, as a lot of major cities are, or 20 miles. We have the urban area plus the suburbs."

Determining how taxes and government spending are different now in Nashville and Davidson County than they would be, had consolidation never taken place, is impossible because of the vast transition the area has experienced since the merger.

But the broadened tax base has spared the government the pain of the loss of tax revenue that would otherwise have been prompted if wealthier residents moved to suburban areas outside the city limits. Along the way, the services provided in the urban services district have been pushed outward.

"The line between where you are in the urban part of the city and where you are in the suburban part of the city is harder and harder to find because the city has grown so much," Dean said. "I think over time, you'll see more and more of the urban service district become part of the general service district. ... That would clearly be a trend."

The lack of multiple layers of government within the county has been a particular asset as the recession has pushed tax revenues downward, the mayor said.

"The efficiency is already built in," Dean said. "We've been cutting back, but I'm comforted by the fact that the system of government we have is rational and at least gives us a chance to be more productive about having duplicate efforts."

The mayor said he believes consolidation would be a wise move nearly everywhere.

"I totally get why it's a hard thing to get done. You're asking politicians and political entities to give up power for a greater good, for a greater organization," Dean said. "It's a hard thing to do, but it's certainly worth it."

Satellite communities

As Evansville and Vanderburgh County inch toward a decision on merger, one holdup could be the town of Darmstadt, which has its own council and might not want to be gobbled up entirely.

Nashville and Davidson County solved that problem on a larger scale. The commission that drafted the charter decided to provide general, base level services to the entire county. But it allowed six communities — Goodlettsville, Belle Meade, Lakewood, Berry Hill, Forest Hills and Oak Hill — to keep the local authority to decide whether they wanted to tax their residents extra and provide additional services.

Of those, Goodlettsville likely maintains the strongest individual identity, while Lakewood has moved in recent years toward doing away with its status as a separate entity entirely.

Minority vote

Because Nashville's Metro Council includes 40 members, 35 elected by districts and five elected to at-large seats, the city's black residents have always been represented.

But in Nashville, as in Indianapolis, the black population is stronger in numbers near the heart of the city and weaker around the suburban edges. Therefore, questions about whether black voters' influence has been diminished by consolidation have persisted for decades.

Those who argue that consolidation has harmed the city's black residents say the services Metro provides are not enough. Those who say it has helped say Metro's early inception prevented Nashville's government from being harmed by "white flight."

Until his death in May 2009, Mansfield Douglas III had been the last living charter member of the Metro Council. He served for 36 years after becoming one of the first black council members.

In 1996, Douglas told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in Florida that the black community lost political muscle as a result of consolidation. "It has not been to the advantage of minorities," he said, complaining of the inadequacy of road maintenance and health care for the indigent.

Still, Douglas said, the consolidated government is a better option than dual city-county governments.

An improvement?

It's difficult to get much of a feel for public opinion about the consolidation of Nashville and Davidson County now because two or three generations of the area's residents have grown up knowing no other system of local government.

But one study, published in 1974, attempted to measure the satisfaction of residents with Metro government, compared to those living in a nearby city with a similar demographic makeup.

Garbage collection and fire protection were the services that received the highest ratings under the Metro government, and both outperformed the other city.

However, as Metro attempted to cover a broad geographic area, some residents reported feeling disconnected. Asked if their "local government was concerned about their neighborhood," 85 percent of the nearby city's residents said yes, versus only 55 percent in Nashville.

Overall, though, studies indicate residents gave Metro a passing grade, even as they adapted in the early stages. A study by Daniel Grant, who is often cited as a leading authority on the Nashville-Davidson County merger, in 1965 found that when surveyed, most residents at the time said they felt Metro was performing well.

Because the makeup of Davidson County and the services provided by local government have changed so drastically in the five decades since consolidation there, it is also difficult to gauge whether savings have been realized as a result of the streamlining of two units of government into one.

Researchers Richard Wagner and Warren Weber analyzed 164 counties in 16 states and found that consolidation typically leads to higher expenditures than do separate government units. That was particularly true in Miami and Dade County, Fla.

Overall, empirical data on whether city-county consolidation leads to the more efficient use of tax dollars is mixed.

"That is because it's difficult to isolate 'consolidation' as the independent variable which could cause a certain outcome," wrote Pat Hardy, a researcher at the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service.

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