Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield wants to marry the city's government to that of Hamilton County.
Hamilton County Mayor Claude Ramsey said he's OK snuggling up to Chattanooga in some cases. But Mr. Ramsey unequivocally stated that he was not in favor of instituting a full-scale metro government, which would combine the city and county.
"There's lots of examples (of consolidation) that have happened and there's lots that we can do," Mr. Ramsey said at a news conference at the Hamilton County Courthouse. "We're going to work with the city of Chattanooga and with any other municipality that wants to combine services."
The county mayor was responding to Mr. Littlefield's proposal Tuesday night to pause further residential annexation for Chattanooga if county officials would discuss a fully unified city and county government.
Mr. Ramsey, who has repeatedly expressed opposition to the annexation, thanked Mr. Littlefield for putting the brakes on those efforts. Still, while he said he's willing to combine some services, unifying all city and county services would be very difficult.
"You start and we go as far as we can," Mr. Ramsey said. "It's going to take time to put all this together. It'll take a lot of time."
Mr. Littlefield said Wednesday he thinks the issue of establishing a study commission for metropolitan government could come up early next year. He stressed that more action is needed than just talk about consolidating some services.
"To not proceed with annexation, we need to go further than our talks," Mr. Littlefield said.
He said there are only three options right now for Chattanooga: Let the city go stagnant, annex more land or merge the governments.
"What's the alternative?" he asked. "We're a growing community."
No meeting between city and county officials has yet been scheduled, Mr. Ramsey said. He hopes Mr. Littlefield will "operate in good faith" during the negotiation process and not push through any more annexations, he said.
Dalton Roberts, Mr. Ramsey's predecessor as county executive and one of the major proponents of metro government in the 1980s, said the process will be lengthy. It's doubtful that the city will completely pull away from annexation efforts, given the amount of time unification would take, he said.
Dr. Valerie Rutledge, department head of the Teacher Preparation Academy at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, was a member of the original commission that studied a metro government in 1982-1983. She said it took two years for the commission to draft a proposal that ultimately failed in a voter referendum.
Time and time again, concerns were raised over three issues, she said - consolidation of schools, law enforcement and health services. But schools have been consolidated, so that is no longer a factor, she said.
Other concerns in the 1980s were the size of the governing body and whether some areas would be represented adequately, Dr. Rutledge said.
Still, even though more than 20 years have passed since the last consolidation efforts, she doesn't know if a metro government will go over today, she said.
"I don't know if the sentiment has changed drastically," she said.
State Rep. Tommie Brown, D-Chattanooga, was a member of the study commission and also a plaintiff in the 1990 court case that ultimately established the mayor and City Council form of government in Chattanooga. She said Wednesday that she's worried that a metro government might hinder some of the gains - including minority representation on the City Council - made from the 1990 lawsuit.
"We want to make sure we hold in place the opportunities for African-Americans and those considered minorities," she said.
She said she wants to hold a meeting with the lawyer who initially filed the 1990 lawsuit and the plaintiffs in the case.
Hamilton County Commission Chairman Curtis Adams said city and county officials "could start talking in the morning about some small stuff," but, like Mr. Ramsey, he said metro government is out of the question.
Other county commissioners, however, said they'd be in favor of consolidation, but only if it saves taxpayer dollars.
"If there's an opportunity that presents itself where we can save money for the taxpayers of the county or the municipalities, we could do that," said Commissioner Jim Coppinger.
Commissioner Warren Mackey agreed, saying combined services would help "if it makes sense."
Commissioner Fred Skillern said the city and county must be on an equal footing for any consolidation effort to work.
"We're not willing for the city to take over," he said.
Some commissioners, such as Commissioner Bill Hullander, said they viewed Mr. Littlefield's proposal as politically motivated.
"I think he was beginning to realize annexation isn't as easy as he thought," Mr. Hullander said.
Several City Council members said Wednesday that they supported consolidation.
Councilman Peter Murphy said he would support consolidation if it meant that city residents would stop paying property taxes to both the city and county.
Councilwoman Deborah Scott said she did not see costs being reduced drastically, but there could be more efficiency.
Councilman Russell Gilbert said he was neither for nor against consolidation, but wants to see the effect it has had on other cities.
Councilwoman Pam Ladd said she has always been for consolidation of services and government and said that, in 1983, she voted for unification. She said she would personally try and contact county commissioners to talk to them about the issue.
"The door's been opened," she said.
Sheriff Jim Hammond, who was a chief deputy the last time metro government was considered, said Wednesday he did not think the "will of the people is to go through county metro government and bigger government."
ASK THE MAYOR
Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield will take questions on consolidating city and county governments during a live online chat Friday at 1:15 p.m. at timesfreepress.com.
* Voters defeated measures to install a metropolitan government for Hamilton County in 1964, 1970 and 1984.
Source: Times Free Press archives
The majority of Hamilton County residents live within municipal areas, U.S. Census figures show.
* 332,848: Total estimated population of Hamilton County
* 96,946: Population of those living in unincorporated Hamilton County
* 235,902: Estimated population of all municipal cities within Hamilton County
* 170,880: Estimated population of Chattanooga
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
WHAT IS METROPOLITAN GOVERNMENT?
Metropolitan government combines two or more governments and services within a county. By state law, metropolitan government can be formed by approving resolutions between two governmental bodies and establishing a charter study commission. After the study, a referendum is then required to establish a metropolitan government.