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Regional Governance Challenges and Opportunities: Part One

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

By James Bourey
July 21, 2023

We have cities, counties, states and federal governments. To many that might seem like plenty of layers of government. Yet, how do you handle issues in a metropolitan area that involves many cities, and in some cases, many counties as well? What about metropolitan areas that also cross two or more state boundaries? For instance, the “Tristate” area of the New York Metropolitan area includes parts of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. In addition, I agree with those who claim that regions are generally more important than states as economic entities. There is indeed an important role that regional organizations can and, in some cases, must play in metropolitan areas. This column is the first of three that will explore regional organizations, aided by my experience as a city manager, county administrator and regional council executive director and background of working in eleven different states. This experience has revealed many challenges and opportunities for regional organizations as well as the effectiveness of various governance models. This column will examine many of the challenges for regional organizations, the second will explore the most appropriate roles for these bodies and the final column will review desirable governance models.

In general, one of the biggest challenges that regional organizations have is to overcome local cities’ and counties’ desire for autonomy for services and controls that are typically provided at a local level. While it can be rationally demonstrated that certain services, as well as some regulatory authority, may be more effectively and efficiently administered at a regional level, cities and counties would still prefer not to have a regional body dictating or even guiding services or controls that so directly affect their citizens. Regional organizations can also struggle to obtain sufficient funding for their administrative and operational responsibilities.

While the governance structure will be discussed in the third column, it is best to mention here that those regional organizations, which are creations of the local governments in the region and are largely dependent on those governments to grant it authority, are less likely to have very broad powers. The local governments generally want self-control even if the arrangement will cost them more money. One can see this often where cities would rather run their own emergency dispatch operations than turn it over to a larger entity even if they would no longer have to pay for the service. I experienced this when I was the Hennepin County, Minnesota County Administrator. The county offered to provide the service to the cities but many chose to operate the service and pay for it themselves.

I also saw this when I served as the Newport News, Virginia City Manager. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) provides regional wastewater treatment for the metropolitan area. When I assumed my role as the city manager, HRSD had just completed a plan to upgrade the wastewater collection and treatment facilities for the region. At the time, HRSD operated the treatment facilities and major trunk lines and the cities and counties operated the local collector lines. The HRSD plan was in response to both state and federal mandates to clean up the discharge into the Chesapeake Bay. HRSD proposed improvements on a regional basis and included the provision that they would take over all parts of the system. The plan demonstrated a large savings by making the improvements on a regional level.

The cities resisted this plan because they did not want to give up their local system autonomy. They were concerned that it would cause delays in permitting for projects if they gave up the authority to approve connections to the system for developments. They were also concerned that their employees would lose their jobs and may not be hired by HRSD. There were indeed significant employee concerns such as changing retirement systems and losing their vested status. Recognizing the employee concerns as well as the ultimate resistance of the cities, I recommended that HRSD take over providing for and paying for the improvements on a regional level but the cities would retain operational authority. The customers in each city would pay the regional authority for the cost of the improvements. The regional cumulative savings was estimated to be around one billion dollars. Even with this savings, the compromise took considerable convincing. 

Undoubtably one of the biggest challenges for regional authorities is to assume some responsibility for growth planning. Cities are most reluctant to give up any control over land use planning and development controls to regional agencies despite the pretty clear benefits than can be achieved. It is generally only when there is a mandate from a higher authority that the regional body can play a significant role in development patterns for an area. The exception to this is when some measure of direction for growth is exerted through regional decision making on the public facilities necessary for development to take place such as roads, water and sewer. 

The next column will discuss the important roles that regional organizations can play and recommendations for the most appropriate roles.

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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