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.


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 municipalities
  • Passing legislation to transfer select responsibilities from municipalities to counties
  • Amending laws and codes to encourage greater intermunicipal coordination and regional planning
  • Restructuring nonmunicipal entities such as school districts and library systems to set minimum population or enrollment numbers
  • Creating public awareness programs
  • Offering 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."