Cities, counties eye consolidation efforts
City and county governments have long been marriage-minded, but few courtships ever make it to the altar of consolidation. However, the recently merged Louisville and Jefferson County, Ky., governments — the largest city-county consolidation of a major metropolitan area in three decades — has inspired other local governments to look for partners.
“More and more governments are looking at mergers, especially where they have been working together on some services,” says Jacqueline Byers, research director for the Washington-based National Association of Counties (NACo). “It’s about economy of scale and efficiency more than anything else.”
Since Louisville Metro’s merged government launched in 2003, Deputy Mayor Joan Riehm has fielded calls from city, county and state government leaders curious about how they accomplished the merger. Riehm and other proponents of the Louisville Metro consolidation tout a multitude of savings from reduced staff and combined services, a single government voice that helps court new business, improved bargaining power on purchases, and the ability to attract a greater level of talent from across the country. “Merger has been good for Louisville and Jefferson County, but it’s not the answer for every community,” Riehm says.
Last year, business leaders in Topeka, Kan., urged voters to support government consolidation with Shawnee County, Kan., but residents disagreed about territorial jurisdictions, tax rates, and local code enforcements, and failed to pass a consolidation referendum in November. Chamber CEO and President Doug Kinsinger says his office found it hard to communicate that the city government would not get unilateral annexation over the county. “It became a trust issue,” says Kinsinger, adding that a merger may not be tried again for some time, but the idea is not off the table. “What we learned in all of our research is that no effort passes on its first attempt,” he says.
Such was the case in Albuquerque and Bernallilo County, N.M., where merger votes have been placed on the ballot four times since 1973. All attempts failed to date, as did merger votes in 1994 and 2004 between Des Moines and Polk County, Iowa.
Discussions of a consolidation between Buffalo and Erie County, N.Y., never even made it to referendum. Ken Vetter, project manager for the Greater Buffalo Commission that worked on the merger effort last summer, says the group saw consolidation as an opportunity to revitalize the region by redistributing financial resources between city and county governments. However, when Erie County experienced a sudden and substantial budget deficit, the ardor for consolidation cooled on both sides.
Hank Savitch, research professor with Urban & Public Affairs at the University of Louisville, is skeptical of the benefits of merged governments. A consultant during the Louisville/Jefferson County consolidation effort, Savitch says the merger has not delivered on a lot of promises, and that the more important consequences of mergers lie in redistributions of power and avenues for personal gain. “There are lots of ways localities can cooperate without merging, without losing accountability or abolishing small governments,” Savitch says.
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.