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By William Hatcher and Matthew Howell
Last month, the column discussed the importance of social bonds in communities, and how communities that fail to work together also fail to develop. This month, we would like to talk about how governmental units in our federal system need to cooperate in order to achieve development success.
Today, there are over 87,000 local governmental units in the United States. These units include municipalities, counties, townships, special districts, and school districts. All of these units play a role in local development. No community in the nation exists as an island. The economies of our communities are dependent on the decisions made by their neighboring counties and cities, their states, and the feds. Their development assets, from education to finance to health, are also dependent on other units and levels of government.
Within all of this complexity, it is vital that communities form regional solutions. However, the system puts in place barriers to regional cooperation. In the area of company recruitment, for instance, communities often compete with one another for jobs. This competition often may be more costly than beneficial. The communities, and the overall economy, would most likely benefit more from cooperation among governments, instead of competition. To foster this type of cooperation, we first need to look at the models of regionalism that have developed in the United States.
Local governments in the United States are famously insular, looking predominantly at local issues, so it is difficult to get them to look beyond their borders. As in any large and diversified organization, special governments tend to focus on their own work rather than how they fit into the greater region. One solution to insularity is to consolidate all functions into a single government, but in practice this rarely succeeds. When many residents want different services, forcing all residents into a single government simply relocates the dispute from the intergovernmental context to city hall. The easiest way to appease the residents is to give each neighborhood specialized services, which negates the efficiency of consolidation and does nothing to encourage cross-governmental communication.
According to the economist Ron Oakerson, the secret to cooperation is recognizing that cities are part of a local public economy, and need not produce internally everything they do. Within regions, cities can specialize in different public services, gain the efficiencies of scale, and then trade with their neighbors. While different cities want different service levels, trade allows them to decide on a service-by-service basis whether perfect service is more important than cost. In large regions, councils of government become a market for cities to make agreements. Meetings of local officials are actually meetings of the department heads and supply chain of the regional public economy as they work out how to provide the best public services for their residents. Higher levels of government can provide the same networking and negotiating opportunities, and local officials can always create small-scale, bilateral agreements.
Within these frameworks, cities can take advantage of the various assets in each individual community. By combining their assets, cities can form cooperative networks to achieve shared goals and to abate challenges. In theory, this idea sounds great. However, it does have its challenges. In particular, the intrastate, and intra-jurisdiction competition for scarce number of jobs in a slowly growing economy tends to reinforce conflict not cooperation. Additionally, the structure of the nation’s tax system, at all levels, reinforces competition. Communities may be less likely to work with other localities, which have needed skills, if they think that their tax base will vote with their feet and move to this other locality with perhaps more assets.
Cooperative agreements among local governments and their communities are only possible when development actors look beyond short-term incentives toward long-term goals. The challenges that we face are not limited to within city limits. The challenges are regional and national, and the assets that our communities hold exist because of regional forces. Community visions should take into account the need for regional cooperation to work out long-term strategies to expand assets. This can be accomplished by having professionally trained officials that think long-term, having elected officials that see the value of cooperation, and having citizens that are engaged in the process. These are no small requirements, but are needed to get our cities, counties, and states cooperating rather than competing.
William Hatcher, Ph.D. is an associate professor ([email protected]) and Matthew Howell, Ph.D. is an assistant professor ([email protected]). Both teach in the department of government at Eastern Kentucky University. (Their opinions are their own and do not necessarily represent those of their employer.)