But there are other, subtler costs to the proliferation of little governments. They are often simply too fractured to develop a unified vision for economic development, and mobilize regional stakeholders to realize it. Such divisions will always complicate efforts to carry out cross boundary visioning, plan cooperatively or coordinate decision making across large areas. Research shows that metropolitan fragmentation exerts a negative impact on competitiveness and weakens long-term regional economic performance.
The upside of the impending local fiscal crisis is that it may encourage voters to take a second look at how much their beloved local governments are costing them. The effects of the recession on local budgets, as Mark Muro has pointed out, is going to be brutal. Note the use of the future tense – the crisis hasn’t yet reached its nadir, which the National League of Cities predicts will be sometime in 2011. This means service cuts, furloughs, and layoffs are in the future for most municipalities if they continue on their present course.
One option is to share services to save money: Consolidating just one town and county police force in New York, for example, could save $1.7 million a year – or a 20% reduction in costs for the town, without sacrificing services. The Westshore Regional Fire District in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, could save taxpayers $1.3 million a year.
A bolder step is to dissolve some of the smallest municipalities altogether. A proposal to eliminate Indiana’s 1008 townships altogether has struggled to gain traction in the state legislature and is dead for this year. But incremental changes are still possible elsewhere. A new law in New York allows voters to use a petition drive to start the process of consolidation or dissolution, bypassing local officials who aren’t generally interested in seeing their municipality, and their jobs, disappear. And on March 16th, voters in three small communities in New York, the Village of Seneca Falls, Village of Port Henry, and the Village of Perrysburg (population 380), will vote on whether to merge with larger towns or counties.
At least once before, little Seneca Falls sparked a massive shift in American life. Maybe this consolidation vote could generate another one.