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Local Government Consolidation and the COVID-19 Crisis: Prospects for Change

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Stephen R. Rolandi
December 19, 2020

The lead story of 2020, and thus far for the 21st Century, is the COVID-19 virus and the profound changes the pandemic has brought about in politics, society, the economy, public health, the media, education and sports, just to name a few areas.

As we are a few weeks away from the end of 2020 and the start of a new (and hopefully, a far better) year in 2021, my article today will focus on local government and the prospects for consolidation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In teaching American public administration to my undergraduate and graduate classes, I introduce my students to the concepts of Federalism, intergovernmental relations and local government structures in the United States—specifically, those jurisdictions below the level of the states. For the most part, these entities are the creation of the states, which impose limitations on these local governments’ power.

 There are several types of jurisdictions, or units of local government—mostly counties, municipalities and special purpose districts—as noted in the 2012 Census of Local Governments (published by the United States Census Bureau):  

  • Counties             3,034
  • Municipalities*       19,429
  • Townships           16,504
  • School districts       13,506
  • Special Purpose**     35,052

__________________________

TOTAL              87,525

* Includes cities, towns, villages, boroughs, etc.
** Includes utility, fire, police, library and special use districts

The leading states with the most number of local governmental entities include: Illinois, California, Texas, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and New York.

In my home state of New York, specifically Westchester County (just north of New York City, with an estimated population of 968,000), there are 6 cities, 19 towns, 23 villages, 40 public school districts and seemingly countless special use districts. In many instances, there are overlapping jurisdictions which can drive up local expenditures and taxes for residents, and cause duplication of municipal services. There are many historical, political and fiscal reasons for this occurrence, some of which were local response to the consolidation of Greater New York in 1898, when the cities of Brooklyn, New York (Manhattan) as well as Staten Island and the towns of what are now Queens and Bronx counties voted to form the City of New York (for a while, a portion of Westchester County was included in New York City).

Local government consolidations tend to be rare; some notable consolidations were: “Unigov,” which was a local government amalgamation of Indianapolis and Marion County (Indiana) in 1970; in 2013, the new Municipality of Princeton, New Jersey was formed by a merger of Princeton Boro and Princeton Township.

There are many arguments raised in support of consolidation, as advanced by the National League of Cities (NLC):

  • Generate significant long-term cost savings for local government operations.
  • Increase efficiency: government efficiencies associated with overlapping or duplicated city and county services can be eliminated.
  • Improve resource bases: if approved by state government(s), a consolidated local government may become more powerful with increased legal powers, tax revenue sources, and jurisdiction.
  • Enhance local planning capacity: consolidation may enhance land development planning issues and controlling sprawl and reduce service fragmentation. It can also streamline land use approval processes and generate more cooperation with the private business sector.
  • Improve accountability: with consolidated entities, responsibility for services could no longer be disputed as it may have been with separate local governments.

In the past, one way to achieve consolidation of local government services has been to adopt and implement shared service agreements among local governments, as has been seen in states such as Michigan, Oregon, New Jersey and New York.

Local governments (as well as state governments) are significant players in the United States economy, who have to balance their operating budgets every year. As in other economic downturns, the pandemic has reduced local government revenues, but this time is different, as there are projected to be large sales tax declines (due to drop-offs in consumption) as well as income tax declines (caused by unemployment).

Additional relief by the federal government (expected later this month or early January) will be helpful, but local governments have to begin planning for the longer-term, especially when one considers the massive total public debt of the federal government (currently, $27.5 trillion). In addition to introducing technological innovations and automation, local government needs to include consolidation in its management toolkit.

There are multiple political, administrative and financial issues associated with consolidation that first need to be addressed. It is my hope that elected and appointed officials will take the lead in advancing consolidation in the post COVID-19 era. Time will likely tell in the years ahead.

Happy New Year!


Author: Stephen R. Rolandi “retired” in 2015 after serving with the State and City of New York. He holds BA and MPA degrees from New York University, and studied law at Brooklyn Law School. He teaches public finance and management as an Adjunct Professor of Public Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY) and Pace University. Professor Rolandi is a Trustee of NECoPA; President-emeritus of ASPA’s New York Metropolitan Chapter and was Senior National Council Representative. He has also served on many other association boards in New York City, Westchester County and Washington, DC. You can reach him at: [email protected] or [email protected] or at 914.536.5942.

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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