If county officials think Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield has stepped on their toes by calling for an initiative to secure a charter for county government, they need to get over it. His proposal is sorely needed and eminently fair (he is, after all, an informed, taxpaying constituent of county government). In fact, the progress and orderly growth of the entire county hinges on creation of a stronger, more capable county government with a bona fide urban charter. County officials must not close their eyes to that necessity.
Neither should they be put off by talk of consolidated services or metro government. Those are separate issues. They don't have to be included in a county government charter, and they shouldn't be allowed to confuse the primary goal of securing a county charter. Its core purpose is simply to empower county government to create a basic set of ordinances to foster orderly growth and necessary urban services as growth demands in the unincorporated areas of the county.
Without securing a charter to authorize municipal-style ordinances, county government will remain a limited and handcuffed functionary of state government. And residents in the unincorporated areas of the county will be increasingly vulnerable to its inherent impotence.
As it is now, county government cannot create the sort of municipal legal ordinances that any of the county's 10 municipalities possess. For example, it can't order the repair or demolition of hazardous buildings, the cleanup of brush-filled lots or control commercial signs. It can't install traffic lights without the state's permission, or retain court fees and revenue that now flow to the state by default. It can't create a municipal-style garbage service or abate environmental hazards and public nuisances. It can't write animal-control rules.
If residential and business growth accelerates as predicted over the next decade, growth in unincorporated areas of the county will soar above the rate of growth in the county's already dense municipalities. Without a charter, county government will be unequipped to provide the urban services that such growth will need.
County officials should have the vision to see what that will mean -- and how their lack of municipal style ordinances will impede the entire county's progress. County government already ignores its current state authority to create a full-time, 24/7 professional fire department. It cannot continue to ignore that need -- along with other municipal services -- without stunting the county's potential for residential and commercial growth. County officials must know that, because many large businesses will not locate in any area without 24/7 professional fire department services, more intensive policing, and enforcement of comprehensive ordinances .
Conversely, if county officials were willing to secure charter municipal powers and establish improved public services, county government would be positioned, if it chose, to coordinate or consolidate essential public services with other local governments. The efficiency savings through elimination of redundant overhead and inefficient jurisdictional boundaries would be significant for all taxpayers.
Consolidation of such core municipal services could proceed at whatever level and pace county and municipal officials ultimately agree. No one would have to force more efficient consolidation, nor would any local government -- municipal or county -- have to worry about losing autonomy or being forced into an unwanted metro government.
The advantages of securing a county charter are immense. That's why Memphis' Shelby County and Knox County have long enjoyed such charters. The benefits to county government over the long term are too obvious too ignore, as is the cost of neglect of this option. The key question is, why would county officials resist it.