Government Consolidation Rarely Lives Up to Promises

By Matt Kelly

Government consolidation is an often-touted solution to economic and social problems in American cities. Several initiatives to combine local governments  have resulted in conjoined regional governments, including Indianapolis-Marion County (IN), Athens-Clarke County (GA), and Jacksonville-Duval County (FL). Tallahassee and Leon County have seen six campaigns for consolidation over 50 years, all of which failed. Despite the sustained interest , little evidence in the economic or public policy research literature suggests local government consolidation improves economic development or governance.

Tallahassee’s history of consolidation attempts is lengthy but follows a national pattern of failure at the ballot box. Initial political pressure arose in the 1950s. A 1968 proposal was defeated by voter referendum, as were others in 1973, 1976, and 1992. A more recent campaign in 2004 never got a vote. This pattern is fairly common. Since 1815, only 39 of 166 attempted consolidations in the U.S. nationwide have succeeded. However, like Indianapolis-Marion County (IN), the City of Tallahassee and Leon county have consolidated specific services such as emergency medical services and fire protection. The city and county have also established special districts like Blueprint 2000 and the Tallahassee Community Redevelopment Agency to pursue joint projects.

Proponents of consolidation contend that combining city and county governments will increase efficiency by eliminating service duplication and capturing economies of scale. Having larger tax bases and populations could allow governments to launch ambitious infrastructure projects and attract funding from federal or state programs. Larger governments might better handle regional issues, like persistent out-migration, racial inequality, growth management, and economic development.

How has consolidation worked in practice? A 2005 literature review by DeVoe Moore Center Director Sam Staley and coauthors Dagney Faulk, Suzanne Leland, and D. Eric Schansberg for the Marion County Consolidation Study Commission concluded that “significant gains in efficiency are unlikely.” Most studies estimating economies of scale in police and fire departments found that larger regional departments aren’t more cost-efficient. Complicating matters, morale problems among public employees plague the transition to consolidated governments. Outcomes also depend on political leadership and context-specific motivations for reform.

Economic development has improved modestly in some locales after consolidation, but typically no more than in comparable unconsolidated jurisdictions or statewide averages. In a 1999 analysis of nine consolidated governments, political scientists Jered Carr and Richard Feiock found no link between consolidation and economic development. More recently, economists from the University of West Virginia analyzed several city-county consolidations using a somewhat more sophisticated statistical technique called synthetic control method to determine whether areas experienced greater growth post-consolidation, but still found no link.

Proponents may be driven most by political motivations. Richard Feiock, the Augustus B. Turnbull Professor in the Askew School of Public Administration and Policy at Florida State University, has researched government consolidation for decades. A 2006 paper coauthored with Jered Carr and Linda Johnson notes that consolidation campaign efforts are “fundamentally about political losers trying to be winners.” Economic development, racial tensions, or the operational efficiency of law enforcement are all secondary to the selective gains that politicians, government officials, local business elites, and even academics hope to win from consolidation. Whatever reason is most politically palatable at the time takes center stage. These campaigns don’t always appeal to the better angels of human nature. The authors continue: “Success of consolidation efforts during the 1960s was likely the result of proponents successfully exploiting racial tensions in the community by suggesting that consolidation would be an effective mechanism to stunt growing African American political power or to prevent African Americans from ever gaining significant power. Today, proponents are more likely to suggest that economic development will be enhanced.”

Efforts to consolidate continue. In 2016, a government task force in Illinois revived interest in consolidation as a panacea for the state’s budgetary problems. As recently as May 2017, Tallahassee city officials attending a conference in Nashville discussed the prospects of consolidation. Some ideas die hard.

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Property Tax Appeal Process Benefits Wealthy, Non-minority Homeowners

Property taxes in Florida are based on annual assessments of property values made by county officials.  Homeowners in Florida can challenge assessments that they believe overvalue their property and inflate their tax bill.  Informally, the homeowner may meet with the assessor to negotiate for a reduced assessment.  The homeowner may also petition for a formal hearing before a magistrate, who decides whether to grant a reduction after considering the evidence presented.  But is this system impartial and fair?

William Doerner, an economist with the Federal Housing Finance Agency (and former DMC fellowship recipient), and DeVoe Moore Eminent Scholar Keith Ihlanfeldt examined the efficiency and fairness of this system of appeals in Florida and report their findings in their article “An Empirical Analysis of the Property Tax Appeals Process” published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Property Tax Assessment and Administration (2014). Continue reading

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Some Regulations Hinder Storm Recovery

By Chad Thomas and Matt Kelly

One common policy response to hurricanes is to strengthen building codes. Former FEMA chairman Craig Fugate blames inadequate state and local building codes, rather than inept federal government disaster relief efforts, for the woeful response to Hurricane Katrina. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, building code enforcement was enhanced in Florida and new regulations required stronger foundations, roofs, and windows to protect buildings from hurricane force winds and floods.

But do these regulations really prevent storm damage and increase recovery times from natural disasters?

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Economic Freedom Key to Cities’ Success

By Matt Kelly

Economic freedom is the unrestricted ability of people in a country to associate and transact with one another. Measuring economic freedom has become a growing area of academic research. Probably the best known measure is the index constructed for the “Economic Freedom of the World”  annual report on 159 countries published by the Fraser Institute and authored by Florida State University’s James Gwartney, Southern Methodist University’s Robert Lawson, and West Virginia University’s Joshua C. Hall. Other indices compare US states, like Cato’s Freedom in the Fifty States ranking. More recently, Dean Stansel of Southern Methodist University created a measure of economic freedom for US metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). Stansel’s index ranks many Florida cities among the nation’s freest.

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Beyond Recidivism: Addressing Behavioral Change within American Prisons

By Stephany Bittar

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Photo courtesy of the Prison Entrepreneurship Program’s official website. http://www.pep.org/

Two-thirds of the 2.3 million Americans that are currently housed in the U.S. state and federal prison systems are expected to reoffend within three years of their release. Recidivism, or the tendency of a criminal to reoffend, is one of the most prevalent social problems facing current and former prisoners.

High recidivism rates found in the United States have a number of potential causes, but research has yet to find a specific cause, or provide definitive support for any one theory. Nevertheless, empirical evidence provides little support for incarceration as a general way to reduce recidivism. An essay written by criminologists Francis Cullen, Cheryl Johnson, and Daniel Nagin in The Prison Journal reviewed five studies and included data and statistics from over 50 others. Combined, the results showed that custodial sentencing – that is, a sentence where the offender is required to be held in custody – increased recidivism rates by seven to eleven percent. Continue reading

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Tallahassee’s Local Permitting Process Reviewed

By Benjamin Peterson, Colin Cook, and Scott Williams

One of the core issues of the DeVoe Moore Center (DMC) is regulatory streamlining and reform. Previous reports on local permitting have considered particular development types, including shopping centers and telecommunications towers. The DMC’s Data Analytics Group continues to examine the permitting process and most recently began examining retail and commercial building permits. DMC researchers obtained all publicly available permitting records for these projects from 1996 to 2014 from the Tallahassee Growth Management Department (TGMD). This information was used to determine the average wait time for permits, a key measure of regulatory performance and a cost to entrepreneurs trying to open businesses in the Capital City.

Permitting processes vary from project to project, but usually follow certain prescribed steps. (The permitting process for telecommunications towers in Tallahassee was detailed in a 2016 policy report by the DeVoe Moore Center).

  1. An applicant acquires a Land Use Compliance Certificate, which ensures that the proposed use conforms with land development standards in Tallahassee’s zoning code.
  2. An Applicant then completes a concurrency application, which specifies how the project will impact public utilities and the flow of traffic.
  3. A Natural Features Inventory is conducted at the expense of the property owner to identify all existing environmental features on the site, such as trees, wetlands, or animal habitat.
  4. An applicant must also create a site plan – an initial set of blueprints for the facility and a detailed construction plan. Land developers often need to revise and resubmit hard copies of the site plan to ensure conformance to the code.
  5. The Natural Features Inventory and the site plan must then be approved by Tallahassee’s Development Review Committee at regularly held public meetings.
  6. Once an applicant’s plans are approved, they may apply for a building permit. Construction can begin after acquiring the building permit. An applicant must also obtain electrical, plumbing, fire, roofing, and mechanical permits.
  7. Once all these permits are obtained and the structure is built, the applicant must obtain a certificate of completion or a certificate of occupancy.

Not all of these steps are followed in actual practice. Applicants can seek exemptions from certain parts of the process, and the Development Review Committee may grant deviations or “variances” from local zoning and building codes as its members see fit.

FIGURE 1:

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Study Explores Local Government Response to Recessions

Recessions can be trying times for city and county governments. They typically experience a fall in revenue from two primary sources:  1) a shrinking property tax base because of falling property values and 2) lower intergovernmental transfers—grants and other payments received from the state and federal governments—because of cutbacks made at these higher levels of government. To stabilize their budgets, local jurisdictions can increase revenue, lower spending, or do both.

To determine which strategies were most likely to be used, the DeVoe Moore Center’s Keith Ihlanfeldt and Erich Cromwell examined the budget decisions made by local officials in Florida cities and counties following the 2007 recession, and published in the National Tax Journal. Continue reading

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