A trend among states
Christie is among a small but growing list of governors taking action to restructure or consolidate local governments. The idea behind the push: Local governments can operate with fewer workers and smaller budgets if they combine services and operate regionally by folding towns into cities and cities into counties.
The states leading the reforming trend are New York and New Jersey, although there have also been efforts in Indiana and Michigan and stirrings elsewhere, says Mayraj Fahim, a Connecticut-based reorganization consultant and local government adviser for The City Mayors Foundation , an international think tank on urban affairs. The governors of all four states have, in recent years, criticized the fragmented structure of their local government system — the multitudes of cities, towns/townships, villages, and special districts operating independently of each other — and proposed that legislators enact bills to eliminate nonviable units, reduce state aid to these units, or strengthen and streamline counties.
In 2007, before Christie took office, New Jersey established the Local Unit Alignment, Reorganization, and Consolidation Commission to examine realigning the state's local governments and the services they provide.
Two years later, New York State legislators passed The New N.Y. Government Reorganization and Citizen Empowerment Act, which took effect March 2010. The law's provisions make it easier for local government entities to be abolished by their governing body or citizens. It reduces the number of petitions needed for a resident to propose dissolution on a ballot — from about 33% of a population, depending on type of jurisdiction, to a unified 10% no matter the jurisdiction.
Other states “nudging” local units to share services or merge include Illinois, Ohio, Maine, and Pennsylvania. Last year, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed bills allowing Chicago area road districts to be abolished in certain circumstances (i.e., referendum) and establishing a committee to examine the state's nearly 7,000 local governments and recommend what can be merged.
Other states' tactics include:Reducing general aid to smaller municipalitiesPassing legislation to transfer select responsibilities from municipalities to countiesAmending laws and codes to encourage greater intermunicipal coordination and regional planningRestructuring nonmunicipal entities such as school districts and library systems to set minimum population or enrollment numbersCreating public awareness programsOffering grants and aid to localities sharing services or choosing consolidation.
The fledgling trend, however, still has a way to go. In an exclusive survey administered in January, we asked if your state is pushing for consolidation of local governments and/or services. Of the 539 Public Works readers who answered the question, half said no. Barely more than a quarter of respondents said their state is either taking steps to foster consolidation or is considering that option (see chart).
If your agency is considering consolidating with another, sharing services, or signing an intergovernmental agreement, one of the best pieces of advice comes from Tad Blanton, field operations supervisor with the Medford Public Works Department in Oregon: "There has to be a willingness on the operational level to do this, and it has to make sense."