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.