Wednesday, January 5, 2011

City County Merger? Would it Make Sense?

Lyle Larson, State Representative Elect, R-San Antonio, is proposing a consolidation of city and county government functions.  This is not a new idea, The late State Senator Frank Madla was a proponent of consolidation, but always faced huge opposition. 

So why consolidate?

According to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington
The proponents of consolidation argue that fewer and larger local governments will be more efficient and effective than many small governments.  Costs can be held down and perhaps reduced through the elimination of duplicative services, personnel, and equipment. Larger governments may also be able to take advantage of “economies of scale” or lower per-unit costs for government services. Further, a single unified government will be better able to coordinate policies and decisions for activities, such as regional planning and economic development, than several independent governments.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Policy Research Institute did a study that looked at consolidations in seven metro areas in order to determine if consolidation would work for Milwaukee.

Each consolidation is different.
  • In Nashville-Davidson County, Tennessee, the governments are completely merged, except for a few smaller municipalities within the county that remained separate.  However there are two taxing districts, one for the urban areas and one for the less populated areas and services are divided accordingly.  
  • The Jacksonville-Duval County, Florida governments are partially merged with several independent authorities and boards, such as the Electric Authority and the Public Beaches Hospital Board.  
  • Indianapolis-Marion County, Indiana, has multiple tiers and layers, with some services consolidated and some run independently by the county or the city. 
  • Lexington-Fayette County, Kentucky has a true consolidation of all city and county services, and all services are provided for all citizens across the county.  
  • In Louisville-Jefferson County, Kentucky, the Board of Aldermen and the County Fiscal Court were replaced by a Mayor-Council form of government, but 85 incorporated cities (22% of the county population) within the county remain independent.  Also some county officials still maintain their offices, such as the sheriff and the county attorney.  
  • Miami-Dade County, Florida is not a formal consolidation, but more of a federation, although the governments are independent of each other, they are closely linked.  The merger links activities such as transportation, airport facilities, and sewer and water facilities while leaving policing and fire protection up to individual municipalities.  
  • Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, which is more similar to San Antonio in that it was not in crisis, like several of the other cities that consolidated, and the idea had been batted around for several years before it was implemented.  The city and county governments still exist but they are highly linked in service functions, with like services merged, such as Public Works. 

But does Consolidation truly promote efficiency?? According to Chris Pineda of the Government Innovators Network at the Harvard Kennedy School
In theory, consolidation should produce economies of scale which allows cost savings to be achieved – average costs are reduced when spread out over a wider set of users. The reality is that this may not always occur—but why? Why do city-county consolidations not always produce cost savings and, in some case, actually lead to higher costs? To help local and state officials grappling with this issue, we have summarized recent literature on the causes of diseconomies of scale in city-county consolidations and listed useful online resources.

What Causes Diseconomies of Scale in a City-County Consolidation?

  • Labor intensive services. Consolidated city services that are labor intensive and require replication from one neighborhood to the next cannot always achieve economies of scale and may in fact result in diseconomies of scale. Labor intensive services can include: police, general fire protection, public works, and parks and recreation services. [based on studies by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington]
  • Bureaucracy growth. According to some economists, diseconomies of scale in consolidated local governments occur because bureaucrats and politicians become removed from day-to-day contact with residents. When these officials are “out-of-touch” with citizen concerns, there may be no incentive to cut costs, or to stop increased spending. [based on a study by the Cato Institute]

  • Merging personnel-related costs. In city-county consolidations, personnel-related costs may actually rise as two pre-existing personnel systems and benefits packages merge. One explanation is that the wages and benefits of employees are equalized to the highest level of comparable employees. Similarly, existing employees may have job security as part of the merge agreement. [based on a study of Athens-Clarke County by Campbell and Selden, University of Georgia]

  • Merging service quality costs. When pre-existing delivery systems are merged in a city-county consolidation, an “averaging up” effect may occur with service levels and standards for equipment and facilities. These increased service quality costs then become ongoing expenditures. [Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington]                                                                                                              
  • One-time transition costs. Consolidating city services may require one-time operating and capital expenses that can quickly add up. One-time transition costs can include: merging and upgrading computer systems and consulting fees to resolve conflicting rules and regulations. [Campbell and Selden, University of Georgia]
But it would still be nice to make our local governments more efficient, so here are some alternatives, proposed by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, study that could work for San Antonio.
  • Increased Citizen Responsibility for Themselves and Others
  • Functional Consolidation Among Governments
  • Efficiency Gains Within City and County Government
  • Regional Government
  • Regional Cooperation On Selected Services

Increased Citizen Responsibility, basically means we act in a volunteer capacity to improve our neighborhoods, for example, through neighborhood watches and/or organizations.  Functional Consolidations could include mergers of police and sheriff departments, public works and procurement (to name a few).  Efficiency gains would include internal audits of government agencies to find ways to lower costs.  A regional government, that say included all the counties that contain the Edwards Aquifer and recharge zone, could more easily implement environmental and water policies.  Regional cooperation however may be more palitable, leaving local authority for local issues, while addressing regional issues in a more coordinated manor.  We could even implement more than one of these recommendations, such as more citizen involvement, greater efficiency within government, some functional mergers and regional cooperation. 

I'm all for efficiency in government, but before we rush off into something, we need to take a closer look.

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