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Ready to Join: Predictive Markers of Successful City-County Consolidations

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

By Ian Hutcheson
October 20, 2019

One of the characteristic features of American federalism is the ability of domestic governments to serve as, “Laboratories of democracy,” or arenas of experimentation in governing. One experiment conducted throughout American history has been the consolidation of separate local governments into a single entity, notably in the form of city-county consolidations. The right of local authorities to combine with one another is granted by state governments, and consolidations are typically authorized by the legislature after a referendum has been passed by voters in the affected area. The raisons d’etre for consolidation include cost savings, enhanced efficiency, expanded revenue bases and greater accountability. Successful consolidations of this sort remain rare—their beneficial impact is debatable, and thus city-county unification remains decidedly experimental.

In several cases where cities and counties have combined, there have been common elements present in these communities at the time of consolidation that appear predictive of the merger’s success. Three of these features are:

  1. Consolidation is believed to be a solution to a community’s problems.
  2. Consolidation campaigns are designed in alignment to these problems.
  3. Alternatives to consolidation have proven to be ineffective.

The degree to which these three elements are present in a particular case of city-county consolidation can provide insight into the types of communities that are ready to take this sweeping approach to their persistent problems.

Consolidation is the Answer

In places where city-county consolidations have been implemented, the community has widely regarded unification as a solution to its problems. When the City of Jacksonville consolidated with Duvall County, Fla., there were a host of issues which the merger addressed including disparate economic development, deficient schools, inadequate public services, racial tensions and pollution, as James Crooks details in his 2001 article for The Florida Historical Quarterly, “Jacksonville’s Consolidation Mayor: Hans G. Tanzler Jr.” Although many metropolitan areas that did not experience consolidation were plagued with similar problems, the broad geographic nature of some of the issues and the advantage that enhanced organizational capacity could lend to others helped make consolidation a uniquely qualified solution for Jacksonville. Cases like Jacksonville indicate that successful consolidations are presaged by a community’s sentiment that a local government merger is a singular answer to their grievances.

Campaigning for Unity

If consolidations are initiated in response to specific problems, then it is natural that successful proposals are campaigned for in alignment with these problems. As the consolidation of Louisville and Jefferson County, Ky. was embarked upon, “Louisville’s elites prescribed economic development as its principal purpose,” according to H.V. Savitch, Ronald Vogel and Lin Ye in their 2010 article for American Review of Public Administration, “Beyond the Rhetoric: Lessons from Louisville’s Consolidation.” The campaign for consolidation was heavily financed by the city’s business community which itself merged to form Greater Louisville, Inc., as noted by Jeff Wachter in a 2013 report for the Abell Foundation. Greater Louisville promoted consolidation through an aggressive and sophisticated campaign that was key to the referendum’s success. The alignment between Louisville’s economic interest in consolidation and the role played by the city’s business elite in promoting the merger signifies that city-county consolidations are more likely when the referendum campaign is a logical reflection of the problems which consolidation is addressing.   

No Other Choice

The road to many triumphant consolidations has been paved by the failure of easier alternatives for addressing a community’s problems. By the time voters in Kansas City, Kan. and Wyandotte County voted to consolidate, the area was stuck in decline and faced a plethora of problems, “Including high tax rates, population loss, a decline in household incomes, political patronage and a need for improved service provision,” as cited by Suzanne Leland and Kurt Thurmaier in their 2000 article for Public Administration Quarterly, “Metropolitan Consolidation Success: Returning to the Roots of Local Government Reform.” Other methods of tackling these problems were not successful: aggressive annexation by Kansas City had not reversed population decline, city government reform was not mirrored on the county side, and commissioned studies detailing the reasons for decline had not created momentum for change. The massive undertaking that consolidation entails should not be underestimated, and communities that have reached a point of desperation with the intransigence of their problems are those that appear most ready to usher in this drastic solution.

City-county consolidations will continue to be considered in communities that are searching for comprehensive solutions to seemingly intractable issues. The relative scarcity of these types of governing arrangements in the United States supports the idea that consolidations are only successful in communities facing a particular set of circumstances. To succeed, consolidation needs to be regarded as a solution to an especially broad set of problems. It needs to be advanced in a manner that aligns to this set of problems, and alternatives to consolidation need to be disproven as viable options. Cities and counties that fit this mold are ready to join and become a laboratory for continuously improving America’s democracy.

Author: Ian Hutcheson, MPA is a Management & Budget Analyst for the City of Oklahoma City and a member of the ASPA Oklahoma Chapter. He is a 2018 graduate of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Kansas. Ian’s professional areas of interest include city management, finance and budget, economic development and urban design. Contact: [email protected]. Twitter: ihutch01


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