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Revisiting the Idea of Merging City-County Governments

Putting focus on issues that impact the value of land and commercial real estate.

Merging City-County GovernmentsLast week, Jennifer Dougherty, a former Mayor of the City of Frederick (2001 – 2005), offered a commentary in the Frederick News Post entitled Uni-Gov — a great option for Frederick County.

She seems to suggest that we skip the county’s effort to consider a charter home rule form of government and jump right to “dissolve county government and create a Unified Government” with the City of Frederick.

The premise of her argument is founded in similar principles that I offered up back in a May 2010 letter to the same newspaper’s editors: Time to Lower Real Estate Taxes and Consolidate City, County Governments? While I was advocating for the possible of merger governments or at least consolidation and/or sharing of services, our articles were seeking the same result: Increase efficiencies through cost savings from the elimination duplicated services.

Ms. Dougherty, myself and others have also written about the benefits of pursuing charter home rule for Frederick County.  As concerned citizens, we seek all possible options.

Of late we read about how our new board of Frederick County Commissioners appears to be making great progress in reforming existing government structure to meet looming budget deficits and increasing effectiveness.  These have been bold and difficult decisions with many more to come.  At the same time City government is facing similar challenges.

Recessionary economics often require the public to focus on the essentials of government services in a different light than when times are good.  And to that end it serves as a time to reflect on the checks and balances of government.

Clearly, the idea of possible reform of government services and structure is in the air.

So, is a Uni-Government the answer to solving the problems our city and county face?

Or … has the time come for Charter Home Rule?

In her uni-gov article, Ms. Dougherty suggested that her readers do a “Google” search on the topic.

After a bit of digging, I uncovered a number of articles and other references on the topic of government consolidation.  After reading through about ten of them, I found what would be considered mixed reviews of the concept.

One of writers is W. Patrick Hardy, a municipal management consultant with the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service.  He has written extensively on the history of city-county consolidations as well as the pros and cons of the concept.  In an article updated in 2009,  he noted that out of the “3,069 county governments in the United States … 35 of these have been consolidated (about 1%) … [and] only 24 are true consolidations.”   He traces the history back to the first recorded merger in 1805 between the city of New Orleans and Orleans Parish.

The concept when raised is often a popular one that voters support for initial examination, but once the actual consolidation proposal comes up for a vote, much more often than not, it is voted down.  Hardy uses the time frame of 1958 to 2008 in Tennessee as an example, where voters approved 18 different consolidation examinations, but only approved three at the polls.

In a 2000 Urban Policy Research Institute analysis entitled “Bigger is Not Better: The Virtues of Decentralized Local Government,” Stephen C. Forman, former executive director of the Seattle Municipal League, is quoted as stating:

“There is overwhelming evidence that citizens do not want to relinquish control of important local powers to a large consolidated government entity. Consolidated local government means, fundamentally, that fewer people will be making decisions for a larger number of people. Many more individuals will lose more power or control than they gain.”

The primary motive of cost savings has not been as successful as the mergers themselves.  In 2003 the Municipal Research and Services Center in Seattle, Washington published the results of studies conducted by the Federal Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations. It was found that in consolidations of communities up to 25,000 residents savings have been able to be achieved and maintained.  In populations of up to 250,000 (about where Frederick County is today) the costs after unification typically remained the same.  In the cases above 250,000 cost of government increased after consolidation.

In a 2009 piece entitled “City-County Consolidation and Diseconomies of Scale,” Chris Pineda an associate with the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University sited that there are 5 primary causes of rising costs:

  1. Labor intensive services
  2. Bureaucracy growth
  3. Merging personnel-related costs
  4. Merging services quality costs
  5. One-time transition costs

The bottom line of all this research is that among all the consolidations that have occurred, the ones that have been most successful have been where the elected officials remain close to their constituents and subsequent administrations retain the discipline to make the very difficult decisions of keeping costs in check long after the consolidation takes place — through all economic cycles.

In summary the Municipal Research and Services Center provides the following statement:

“… there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that smaller and more flexible governments may actually operate more efficiently and cost less than larger governments …”

With all that said, we are in challenging times, and the Board of County Commissioners are about to launch a charter writing committee, which will provide the citizens of Frederick County the opportunity to determine if a home rule structure of government is a better way to go than our current form.

Whatever structure evolves, it is the responsibility of the voters to elect disciplined leaders who can achieve the best balance between needed services and the necessary costs to deliver such.

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The author: Rocky Mackintosh, President, MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He also writes for where this article also appears.

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