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US voters are not convinced that
big is better in local government
By Mayraj Fahim, Local government adviser*
25 April 2005: Federal and state aid to US towns and cities is dwindling in an age when costs are rising for local government. Increasingly communities are looking to the consolidation mechanism as a way of achieving efficiencies of scale in response to citizen demands for services. However, voters are more often than not reluctant to approve mergers between neighbouring communities.
Pittsburgh (PA), Albuquerque (NM), Fort Wayne (IN), Buffalo (NY), Topeka (KS), Des Moines (IA) are among several areas that have recently tried and failed to win voter approval, or are considering city-county consolidation to secure cost savings.
Consolidation is the mechanism used to achieve economies of scale by reducing numbers of local government units. On the other hand, these economies of scale tend to end on reaching an optimal level of service delivery scale. Consolidation and its relation, annexation, are tools that many countries have used to illustrate in general that benefits exists when units are small - and are then reduced when those involved constitute large urban units.
In the United States, most have been for smaller units. The recent Louisville (KY) consolidation was the first one involving a large population region since Indianapolis (late 1960s).
In the United States, consolidation is not a new tool used by cities. In fact, in the 1800s a number of today‘s larger cities were established by application of this method, including New York, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Boston, St. Louis and San Francisco.
Historically, in the United States, these changes are often led by the larger city in a particular area seeking to preempt tax revenues that would otherwise have gone to current and future rivals - as these include unincorporated areas - by drawing together a county region within its ambit. Being the largest unit in the area with the largest population by proportion, the larger unit is the one that also tends to benefit the most. However, as the author Ester Fuchs noted in her work entitled Mayors and Money which compares New York and Chicago - consolidated and federated regions fare better relative to the norm when fiscal conditions are adverse.
Yet the vast majority of consolidation efforts fail, either during the process of drafting a charter or once they reach the ballot. Fewer than10 have been passed since 1990 and fewer than 40 have been successfully implemented since the first one, when the city of New Orleans merged with Orleans Parish in 1805.
Borrowing from federated methodology
As consolidations need to win voter approval, which is stingy with voters aware of what individual units may lose in the process of restructuring, certain consolidations have used applied aspects of federated methodology to sweeten the pill.
New York City (late-1890s)
In 1898 New York City absorbed what was then one of the15 largest US cities, Brooklyn, whose leaders were understandably much opposed to this action. To sweeten the appeal of the effort, New York City leaders offered leaders representing the subordinate regions of the enlarged city a voice in its affairs. By that time, Paris - the pioneering urban federated example - had been operating for over a century; and England, for the first time, was in the process of implementing the methodology reflected in the Paris framework. So New York leaders had some precedence in taking this position.
Today, New York City reflects the centralisation process undertaken during the La Guardia era during his systemic reforms to root out Tammany Hall corruption in the 1930s. Despite the fact that community boards were introduced in the post-1950s, the system itself has been bound by the La Guardia era reforms.
Baton Rouge-East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana (late 1940s)
By 1947, Baton Rouge was the first city and county to be consolidated in more than 40 years. It was the first ‘modern’ style city-county consolidation, pioneering the two major innovations of the differential tax and service districts and the option for existing suburban cities to remain autonomous within the county. As a result, Baton Rouge was the first example that allowed for a federated framework to this degree.
However, Baton Rouge and its progeny - of which the latest is Louisville, Kentucky, which is also a region with the largest of a large populace (around 700,000) since Indianapolis - are weighted in favour of the consolidating segment to a degree that exceeds even the current status of the New York City system, where the borough presidents have some role to play in city budgetary dynamics. The reason for this is a lack of any defined representation from specific units, whose constituent interests are thereby diluted under the representational frameworks of Baton Rouge and its progeny.
In Canada, in marked contrast, stands the recent Montreal consolidation that has specific representation from the defined constituent parts within the system, the largest and most amplified integrated federated citywide framework in North America.
Miami-Dade County (mid-1950s):
Miami leaders sought federation, since rising costs arising from the first wave of immigration was overburdening the city and they knew that consolidation would be a harder sell.
A study undertaken by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute in the context of possible options for Milwaukee noted in its Miami discussion: "The claim that tax revenues could be redistributed across the county was found to be true." Miami has thus revealed features common to other federated systems implemented in the US (including the largest one, the Twin Cities, Minnesota, system that saw major reductions in inequity in the course of its existence).
Miami’s results in that sense have lived up to the hopes of its proponents, as the main reason Miami sought to be integrated with Dade County was because it was overburdened with the rising costs of its first major immigration wave. Between 1950 and 1960 its population almost doubled. Today, Miami is still a major magnet for immigrants, having the highest arrival rate of any region in the US. Hence, the demands made upon Miami’s services have not abated. But undoubtedly the system has provided Miami with the breathing space that its prior situation did not.
St. LouisSt. Louis County - too early for its time?
A very ambitious federated system was proposed for the consolidated plan for St. Louis and St. Louis County in 1962.
In this plan, which failed to obtain approval (perhaps because it was so novel a concept for the US - as even the Miami-Dade plan did not allow for the features of this proposed concept) the consolidated region was to have a metropolitan council with two representatives from 22 designated boroughs. Each was to have its own smaller councils, identified for the framework.
In effect, the St. Louis plan borrowed the lower tier representation in upper level feature from Canada’s pioneering federated system (Toronto Metro). It was thus, with Miami-Dade, the second US plan to be inspired by the Canadian innovation. But, unlike Toronto, which was a federated system established by the integration of neighbouring units, the St. Louis plan would have created a one-unit federated framework of the order implemented in the following century in Canada. In this sense, it took a leading step in a direction that later was substantively followed by others.
The irony, therefore, is that in 2002 a similar framework did in fact take shape in North America, but not in the United States. Instead, it was to be found in the new Montreal system. Moreover, in France, the post-Marcellin Act federated consolidations also applied similar modified frameworks. So though the US did not see such a framework take shape, two other nations did.
Some notable variations
Jacksonville - Duval County, Florida
The consolidation of Duval County, Jacksonville, created the largest city by area in the contiguous United States (840 sq. miles) outside Alaska, a fact well noted in Richard Martin’s The Quiet Revolution a book published to celebrate the event. Since expanding the present and potential tax base is a primary reason driving consolidations in the US (generally by a large city suffering for one reason or another), Jacksonville’s accomplishment in this regard sets it apart. In this arrangement four municipalities remained autonomous within the framework. Jacksonville is one of the partially consolidated/partially federated systems that follow in the footsteps of Baton Rouge.
Subsequent to this consolidation, the new government reduced property taxes by 29% in its first three years and continued to reduce taxes in each of its first nine years. It also undertook massive capital improvement programmes on sewers and sewage treatment works, roads, street lighting, and other public services. But where property tax revenues and spending increased, a study published in the Social Science Quarterly in 1983, comparing consolidated Jacksonville with unconsolidated Tampa, found that in the former the ratio of per capita tax to spending rose, and fell in the latter.
Anaconda-Deer Lodge County, Montana
This consolidation was implemented in1977. It is representative of complete consolidation of a kind that has taken place more commonly in the modern era in the context of small units. No suburban units were involved.
As a result of consolidation cost savings were achieved by a long-term reduction of staff, elimination of duplicate services, and the elimination of jurisdictional disputes.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, North Carolina-Functional Consolidation model
Charlotte is the largest city in North Carolina. It is often cited as the model for consolidating services without more. The population of Charlotte has grown fast - from 400,000 in 1980 to almost double by 2000. The incorporated area has almost tripled in the same period because North Carolina law is weighted in favour of annexation rather than fragmentation in a state that is one of the few with a majority of small units in the United States.
Almost all services have been merged between Charlotte and the county more than 20. While Charlotte’s example is the most amplified and involves the largest city to apply this framework, Los Angeles County first introduced this approach in a major way. This was under what was termed the Lakewood Plan (named after a Los Angeles suburb that was a prominent user of such service agreements) in the 1960s. Miami-Dade County also offers the same feature to constituent units in its federated system. The other independent units within the county remain autonomous but are able to choose which services they wish to obtain from the county.
Consolidation on its own in the modern era is an inadequate tool to apply in regions where the dynamics of suburbanisation eventually overcome this encompassing effort to contain the inequitable beneficiaries of development over others in the region. The cost saving/efficiency potential is what drives the consolidation debate in the US, which is more evident when small units consolidate. In general, however, where the local vote is part of the picture, the norm is defeat at the ballot box. Where consolidation has taken place by winning approval at the ballot box, local conditions have shaped such situations so that the hand of those proposing it is strengthened.
*Mayraj Fahim, the author of this article, is a local government adviser. Her occupational focus in local government has been in the areas of municipal finance in the United States and in municipal finance monitoring internationally. She also advises on local government reorganization in the United States and internationally. The full version of this article can be obtained free of charge by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, with 'Consolidation' in the subject line.
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