Is recession propelling more city-county mergers?

The National Association of Counties says the nation’s slumping economy may create more interest in city-county mergers. Here’s the article:

As state and local governments face a slumping economy that shows no immediate signs of improvement, the issue of efficiently providing services becomes even more critical. The usual options of service cuts or tax increases rarely produce a long-term solution and are unpopular with constituents.

A third option to address the fiscal challenges of local governance is an approach often discussed but rarely adopted: city-county consolidation.

 Currently, fewer than 40 consolidated city-county governments exist nationwide even though hardly a year has gone by since 1902 without local governments considering consolidation, taking proposals to the ballot more than 150 times.

 Over the past two decades, consolidation plans have been proposed in more than 40 regions. Approximately 30 percent of those proposals were successful.

 Is it possible that current economic conditions will drive more consolidation efforts? Some recent information suggests that they will.

 Pennsylvania

 In 2006, faced with considerable economic decline in the region, Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh found themselves discussing the possibility of consolidation. An advisory committee, jointly announced by the mayor and the county chief executive, was formed to explore the option. Studies conducted before the committee’s formation already encouraged small steps to be taken by both sides, like encouraging the establishment of a joint purchasing agreement to strengthen bidding power.

The advisory committee’s findings, released in 2008, suggest that a more unified approach to address the fiscal and administrative challenges facing the two entities and the region is needed. Since then, no official steps toward consolidation have been taken.

 New York

 In 2005, Erie County and the city of Buffalo viewed consolidation as a means to combine resources and revive the region. While talks between the two have since cooled, local government consolidation was recently brought to the forefront at the state level. In June 2009, Gov. David Paterson signed a local government consolidation bill into law. The law firmly puts the consolidation process into the voters’ hands and cleared the path for counties to consolidate or dissolve local governments as long as they have majority support from residents. New York has more than 10,000 local governments in the form of counties, cities, towns, villages and special districts. Supporters argued that the new law would help address taxpayers’ frustration with the myriad of levels that often result in redundant, inefficient and wasteful provision of services.

 Mississippi

 In December, Adams County officials reportedly began considering consolidation with the city of Natchez. County and city resolutions supporting the move would be integral to starting the process since new state legislation would be needed before any steps to consolidate can be made. Although no official study has begun, county supervisors supporting consolidation argue it would save taxpayer money and allow for the efficient delivery of services.

 Georgia

 Georgia, by far, is the leader among the states in terms of the number of city-county consolidations. In the last five years alone, at least three city-county consolidation proposals have passed in Georgia. The movement of a fourth proposal, between Bibb County and the city of Macon, is slowly gaining momentum. Struggling with the state of the local economy, officials from both sides acknowledge significant measures are necessary. Some departments have already taken early steps, known as functional consolidation, as members from the City Council and County Board combined specific operations as part of a revamped service delivery strategy. Both Bibb Commission Chairman Sam Hart and Macon Mayor Robert Reichert are now urging that they move forward for a consolidated city-county government. The current plan would have the two governments merge in stages over a 10-year span.

North Carolina

Although not a city-county consolidation, the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County provide an excellent model of functional consolidation. This occurs when two entities agree on the functional consolidation of services; in this case, either Charlotte or Mecklenburg County delivers a particular service countywide. Although political divisions continue to prevent the completion of a city-county consolidation, the CharMeck model has become a well known success in terms of governance and regional economic leadership.

Illinois

 In the most recent example of consolidation proposals, the city of Peoria and Peoria County have jumped into the fray in late January. Reduced budgets and rising costs have spurred Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis to point to the need to operate more efficiently with fewer tax dollars. Peoria County Board President Tom O’Neill agreed with the general notion, adding that acting as a unified body is in the best interests of central Illinois residents. Other County Board members also reacted positively to the suggestion; some even acknowledged that there are areas of duplication of services that provide opportunities for consolidation. A joint committee of city and county officials will begin the process by first exploring how the services in those areas can be combined. While the concept of consolidation is nothing new, there is not enough empirical data to definitively answer whether consolidation increases efficiency and saves money. Opponents suggest that consolidation is not worth the effort, citing the threat of losing local control and data from prior consolidations that show costs actually increased. Supporters counter with the argument that costs will inevitably increase in the short term since providing local government services is labor intensive, and that cost savings would eventually be experienced through streamlining functions and departments. But more appealing to supporters, beyond potential cost savings and increased efficiency, is having a single regional vision. They feel eliminating the pursuit of diverging interests, a result of having two or more local governments serving the same constituents, is increasingly alluring if regions are to survive the current fiscal storm and thrive once it is over.

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