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Thursday, June 6, 2013 01:50 pm

The case against metro government

Local governmental efficiency and city-county consolidation, also known as metro government, are not regular topics of conversation for most Sangamon County residents. Not so for the 23 members of the Citizens Efficiency Commission of Sangamon County (CEC), constituted by the Sangamon County Board in 2010. They are deeply immersed in their charge: “To improve local government effectiveness by identifying opportunities for improved cooperation, coordination and reduction of duplication of services among local governments in Sangamon County.” However, as the work of the CEC enters its final phase, the smaller scale, common sense recommendations issued thus far may have disappointed some observers who expected the CEC to embrace a broad framework for metro government.

I was skeptical of the commission at the onset and publicly questioned its lack of membership diversity. I also doubt the wisdom of attempting to comprehensively study all of Sangamon County’s 118 taxing bodies at once and wonder about the commission’s relevance, given its lack of authority to make changes. But my biggest concerns center not on the actual work of the commission, which has proven to be thorough, professional and substantive, but on the motive behind its adoption – to exploit the public’s appetite for governmental efficiency to advance a metro government agenda.

I have no problem with the concept of metro government. It is a popular strategy to counter urban blight promoted by many progressive urban reformers and is viewed as a model for good government. But despite these positive intentions, a wide body of literature argues that city-county consolidation doesn’t actually save money. This point deals a serious blow to pro-consolidation arguments since significant cost savings would undoubtedly be needed to justify the massive overhaul of institutional structure, practice and governance and offset the related upheaval.

Perhaps that is why city-county consolidations are so rare. According to the National League of Cities, “the Census Bureau identifies only 34 city-county consolidated governments out of a total of 3,069 county governments… and over the last 40 years, nearly 100 referenda and initiatives have proposed city-county consolidations, but voters have rejected three-fourths of them.”

Seldom do our local elected officials speak directly about metro government but the concept has been tossed around in back rooms, particularly in Republican circles, for some time. Could it be that local Republican leaders, not generally seen as urban reformers, see political benefits to metro government? I can’t help but think the county board and Republican leaders in Springfield would be less enamored with metro government if the political balance on the county board were not so lopsided in their favor. The issue would likely fade if the resulting new governing plan adopted city government expansion rather than county government takeover as the model.

In fact, the Springfield City Council, which has only 10 politicians representing 116,250 people, is a more efficient governance model than the Sangamon County Board, where 29 politicians represent 197,465 people. Because it is more efficient, the proportional expansion of the city council should be the governing authority if consolidation occurred. But I doubt the county board would allow for its own dissolution even to achieve the prize of metro government.

We already witnessed huge pushback when a public petition drive and subsequent advisory referendum in 2008 sought to reduce the size of the county board from 29 to 15 members. Ironically, the main arguments presented during the anti-cutback campaign in favor of maintaining such a bloated governmental body was the importance of local control, a concept in direct conflict with the work of the current Citizens Commission.

The politics behind partisan control isn’t my primary beef with metro government. Rather, my concern rests with the continuing sprawl on the outer edges of Springfield that stretches area resources thin and sucks life from the urban core. I fail to see how moving toward a metro identity helps urban Springfield unless the resources gained from outer fringe expansion are intentionally redirected to the inner city. That is an unlikely prospect given the “where’s mine?” individualistic political culture prevalent here.

With six months to go in its charge, the CEC has not made formal recommendations specific to city-county consolidation. But at the May Citizens Club meeting featuring an update on the CEC, former mayor and CEC chair Karen Hasara said that some kind of recommendation from the CEC addressing “metro government” is expected. A group of CEC members are also planning a trip to Indianapolis ostensibly to see how metro government is working there.

Maybe metro government deserves its day in court. However, if it is to be seriously pursued, the veil must be lifted and the issue addressed openly, employing an inclusive and extensive public engagement process and the careful examination of objective evidence.

Other city-county consolidations took years, if not decades, to form. Knowing that so few attempts have succeeded, will the potential benefits of consolidation outweigh its costs? If not, let’s save everyone the agony and embrace other strategies for good government and urban renewal.

Sheila Stocks-Smith is a special projects consultant specializing in nonprofit management, civic engagement, public policy and political campaigns. She is an active Democrat.
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