City-County consolidation is when a county and the cities within a county merge to form a single government entity and boundary lines of the jurisdictions become coterminous. It is the most visible and comprehensive change that can occur in the local government landscape. Consolidation is also known as an "exotic local government reform," yet remains an "evergreen issue." While rarely adopted, it is a frequently discussed reform. The odds are long and are considerably against adoption.
There have been over one hundred attempts since 1970, but only 19 passages (a total of 38 governments). Figure 1 shows the distribution of these attempts by county size, while Figure 2 depicts their frequency by state. Figure 3 presents another perspective plotting the number of attempts chronologically. Consolidated governments make up only slightly more than 1% of all county governments and have an 85% failure rate via referendum. Ten cases have been enacted by legislatures as opposed to direct vote (New Orleans, UniGov) and twenty-seven have occurred by referendum, most recently Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas and Louisville/Jefferson County, Kentucky.
In 2004, Kurt Thurmaier and I studied what factors affect the outcome of an effort to consolidate two local governments. We, along with several authors who contributed case studies for a book project, analyzed in-depth 12 cases of city-county consolidation and one city-city consolidation that took place during 1970-2004. The goal was to determine which factors had the most influence on the outcome of the referendum process. Using a rigorous comparative case study design, we tested several hypotheses posited in the literature regarding critical factors in city-county consolidation referenda. Figure 4 presents the C3 model of the city-county consolidation process that Kurt Thurmaier and I developed from this research.
The C3 model synthesizes the existing literature and transforms the extended stages of consolidation attempts into a set of measurable criteria that apply to each of the consolidation movements that have reached a referendum in the United States over the last fifty years. In brief, we expand and modify the basic crisis climate model developed by Rosenbaum and Kammerer in 1974. Part One focuses on elite agenda-setting activities that culminate (or not) in a consolidated government charter proposal that is presented to voters. Part Two focuses on the election campaigns for and against the proposed charter, culminating in the referendum itself.
Our analysis suggests four potential types of consolidation efforts. The probability of a successful consolidation referendum depends on the combination of campaign efforts for and against consolidation, as presented in Table 1. Our sample cases suggest that a successful referendum campaign is not about outspending opponents. In fact, in the cases we studied, pro-consolidation forces always outspent consolidation opponents in all failed referendum.
We found that successful consolidation campaigns are simply not about the traditional managerial reform values of economy and efficiency, nor about what new regionalists advocate—city-county consolidation to achieve equity between the inner city and suburbs. Arguments about efficiency gains from consolidation have fallen on deaf ears (as in Des Moines) or have been rejected or refuted by well-organized opposition campaigns (as in Sacramento). Arguments for equity also find little support.
On the other hand, a strong economic development message is a necessary but insufficient condition for successful consolidation referenda. Another necessary condition is the construction of a consolidation charter that restructures the local government(s) for economic development while avoiding crucial political "poison pills" such as including small towns or abolishing the elected position of Sheriff. Charter provisions are often at the center of the consolidation debate. Civic elites who have gotten the issue on the agenda and have pushed the process of consolidation to the point of a study commission, then need to carefully shift perspectives from development politics to constitutional politics, the politics of what the new unified government will look like and how it will work.
In sum, we find after extensive analysis of the referendum process, success lies in the ability of civic elites to define the economic development vision for the community. They then must build momentum in the community and successfully convince the average voter that the existing political structure is inadequate to support and implement that vision. Only then are conditions ripe for communities to turn to the rare solution of consolidation.
Susanne M. Leland is Associate Professor, Political Science Department, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
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