Combining certain city and Hamilton County services over the next four years could be a goal if it brings relief to taxpayers and makes more sense, local officials said Monday.
"That could happen," said County Commissioner Curtis Adams. "That would just be good business."
Mayor Ron Littlefield was inaugurated Monday for his second four-year term, along with the City Council's nine-member body. Shortly after being sworn in, Mr. Littlefield gave an inaugural address that described his far-reaching aspirations of combining several city and county services, creating a regional water and sewer authority much like EPB and annexing all areas within the city's urban growth boundaries.
"People will say, 'Oh, my goodness, he's talking about metro government,'" Mr. Littlefield said at the Tivoli Theatre. "Not necessarily, but I am talking about refinements in our local government to be more efficient, effective and economical."
Voters defeated measures to install a metropolitan government for Hamilton County in 1964, 1970 and 1984, according to Times Free Press archives.
"'Metro' has become a word that you should probably not even bring up," Mr. Littlefield said after the speech.
Councilman Peter Murphy said afterward he wanted to hear more about the mayor's agenda.
"He's talking a lot about what sounded an awful lot like metro government to me," Mr. Murphy said.
County Commissioner Greg Beck, who attended the inauguration, said he heard something different.
"Some people say they heard metro government," he said. "I didn't hear that."
What he said he heard was talk of unification of some entities that could save money and in some instances even gain money. That's already happened in certain areas such as 911 service, he said.
Local officials should not be afraid to unify services and infrastructure, Mr. Littlefield said, bringing up the idea of buying Tennessee-American Water.
"I'm not sure all of that can be achieved," he said. "But we'll try to do it."
Immediately after the address, Councilman Jack Benson said he wanted to get to work finding duplication of services within the county and the city. He also said he was impressed with Mr. Littlefield's speech.
"There was a lot of substance," he said.
Councilwoman Sally Robinson said unification of a lot of services could and should be considered.
"You don't want to throw up red flags, and there's a lot of people still resistant to metropolitan government," she said. "We can come up with another name."
One advantage of combining forces would be getting all city and county employees under one health care plan, Mr. Adams said. With more employees under the plan, premiums would be lower, he said.
"The bigger you are, the more power you have to buy," he said. "He's (Mr. Littlefield) making a lot of sense."
Some officials were hesitant to latch onto everything in Mr. Littlefield's speech. John Watson, president of Tennessee-American Water, said the company opposed any dealings such as a takeover or a purchase.
"Our company is not and never has been for sale," he said.
Phil Smartt, chairman of the Hamilton County Water and Wastewater Authority, said he did not know the "ramifications" behind a regional water and sewer authority. The mayor suggested bringing in state representatives to help implement the authority.
All the mayor's suggestions need to be researched further, Mr. Smartt said.
"I asked our attorney to look into it, and we're looking into it," he said.
Jim Coppinger, chairman of the County Commission, said he could see consolidating city and county services. But the mayor's proposal for annexing a huge swath of area that lies in the district he represents is a different story.
Communities such as Hidden Harbor and Middle Valley do not want to be annexed into the city and pay higher property taxes, he said. There's also a question of whether city services such as fire and police would be adequate in those areas, he said.
"They are not interested," he said.
Mr. Murphy said he found the speech "visionary," but he wondered if taking over a water company and annexing more land fell in line with the city's goals.
"I don't know if that's our most pressing priority," he said.