Last year the state of Illinois passed a package of legislation to expand government consolidation, giving permission to overlapping and adjacent units of government to consolidate should they meet specific guidelines. If done correctly, this option makes sense and the concept is gaining traction.
According to Chris Hoene, Director of Research and Innovation at the National League of Cities, “Consolidation will be a big talking point for local politicians this year; as municipal budgets shrink, it’s seen as a no-brainer by many.” And for good reason; all consolidations offer the benefits of improved technical assistance, reduction in fragmented government, improved regional, fiscal, and social balance, and enhanced economic development. In addition, each type of consolidation, vertical and horizontal, offers unique benefits to residents.
Vertical consolidation, the merging of two or more governments that share geography, such as a municipality and a special utility district, or a municipality and a county, allows better coordination of public services, reduces administrative costs, and enhances public participation. As evidence of success, “the township and the borough of Princeton, New Jersey, which formed the Municipality of Princeton in 2013, realized about $2.3 million in savings in 2015.”
Horizontal consolidation, the merging of adjacent governments, such as neighboring cities, can allow regions with a stagnant population growth to pool their resources to improve services. Furthermore, as cities physically grow into each other, it makes sense for them to be managed by a single government, enhancing and streamlining development approval. One such success story is the merging of the port authorities in Seattle and Tahoma, WA to form the Northwest Seaport Alliance. Formerly competing for business, the creation of the alliance consolidated operations decisions into one body which recently voted to support an investment of $141 million to increase port capacity, allowing for two large ships to unload at the same time.
Some argue that consolidation is a “land grab” for government to grow their geography and influence. But according to the National Association of Counties, during the entire 19th century only 42 of the 3,069 counties in the United States have merged, putting to rest any concern that consolidation is implemented as a “knee-jerk” reaction or abused. Furthermore, according to a RAND Corporation study, “in counties where consolidation had taken place, opinions about consolidation’s effects on economic development ranged from mildly positive to overwhelmingly positive.”
Given that consolidation has been used sparingly and proven to be effective, state governments should have the confidence to allow their local governments to explore these options.
We delve deeper into the other side of the debate that consolidation only produces larger governments and fewer options in our article Small Government is Better Government.