Launch Slideshow

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The urge to merge

The urge to merge

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    With the pending merger of their respective fleet operations, San Benito County Public Works Administrator Steve Wittry (left) and City of Hollister, Calif., Public Works Director Clay Lee will provide for the other what each has specialized in — the county, heavy equipment; the city, passenger vehicles. The transition is also made easier because of proximity: both operations are located in Hollister, the county seat. Photos: Nick Lovejoy Photography

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    Hollister, Calif., Equipment Mechanic Ernie Castillo's job will become more specialized after his city and the county merge services.

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    Source: PUBLIC WORKS

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    In California, San Benito County and the City of Hollister plan to merge fleet services because continuing statewide budgetary issues — like a deficit of around $13 billion — are trickling down to city and county agencies.

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    The rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer. Consolidation ensures equal access to public services for citizens of all economic means, says local government consultant Mayraj Fahim.

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    TWO BECOME ONE. Some say next year's merger of New Jersey's Princeton Borough and Princeton Township into “Princeton” works only because the two communities had similar populations and tax rates and that, because they'd shared 13 services, estimates of $3.2 million in annual savings are overoptimistic. But in a state with the most municipal bond downgradings, at least one financial analyst, Moody's Investors Service Inc., terms the move “credit positive.” The new Princeton will have about $112 million in combined debt, which is about 16% of the operating expenses of each. Map: Center for Governmental Research Inc.


STREAMLINING EFFORTS ON THE RISE

Many of our largest cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and St. Louis, were defined — or redefined — by consolidation. The first occurred in 1805 when the City of New Orleans merged with Orleans Parish; in 1898, New York City absorbed what was then one of the nation's 15 largest cities: Brooklyn.

Since New Orleans, less than 40 city-county consolidations have been implemented, according to the National Association of Counties. But more than one-quarter of those have occurred since 1990.

Most fail at the ballot. The most recent attempt was in November 2010, when voters were asked to decide on a proposed merger between the City of Memphis and suburban Shelby County in Tennessee. The proposal narrowly won in Memphis, but was crushed by the county.

The number of city-city mergers is more difficult to tally. It's easier for small communities that are more dependent than big cities on state aid to gain voter support and successfully integrate.

For example, before voters approved last November's proposal to merge Princeton Township and Princeton Borough into “Princeton” (see page 34), the most recent municipal merger in New Jersey was in 1997 when Hardwick Township absorbed Pahaquarry Township, which had dwindled to fewer than a dozen residents.

In Minnesota, rural jurisdictions also are giving up home rule to merge with neighboring cities and pool resources.

The most recent occurred Jan. 1 when Hennepin County's final remaining township, Hassan, was annexed by the City of Rogers. The city's outward development and growing population combined with the township's need for infrastructure (Rogers has sewer and water utilities and Hassan doesn't) was a big motivator. According to the city's website, the combined jurisdictions also will have a “louder voice” in regional and state government.

Services such as trash, leaf, and brush collection will have to be readjusted. And laws and ordinances will have to be reworked. But the annual savings created by the union is estimated to be $3.2 million.

At the state level, the unification of the Ivy League community is a milestone for the governor's office. This is the first municipal merger since Christie took office in 2010 and began urging New Jersey's 566 municipalities to combine operations to help cut government costs and hold down increases in property taxes, which are the nation's highest. As part of his initiative, Christie has cut aid to towns and capped annual increases in local taxes at 2%, forcing local decision-makers to consider consolidation in lieu of eliminating services.