Urban, suburban and UniGov: “Municipal consolidation will only amplify the underlying fragilities inherent in our development pattern.”


I’m going to repeat something written two years ago during the pirate’s mayoral campaign, but first, the 2011 article that prompts it.

, by Charles Marohn (Strong Towns)

… Consolidation is a response to the notion that our problem is essentially one of efficiency. The idea is that local governments are not efficient enough and therefore we can increase efficiency by combining them into fewer governments. Like the banking sector, fewer players means more efficiency, and like banks, fewer players will amplify fragility.

Take school consolidation as an example …


… Our biggest problem as a nation right now is that our places are generally all vulnerable to the same things. That is because we have all used the same cookbook (standard zoning) and the same Mechanisms of Growth (government transfers, transportation spending and debt) to get to where we are now. Fundamentally, our cities are all pretty much the same. When gas prices rise, our cities struggle. When growth slows or stalls, our cities go into decline. When government aid goes away, our places start to implode. This lack of resilience will only be covered up by consolidation, the day of reckoning pushed off and made more difficult as a result.

Instead of consolidation, we should embrace the core strength of our system; an ability to innovate. This means loosening the controls we have placed on our cities and towns thus allowing local officials to try different solutions to the problems they face. The correct response is not to become more parochial, it is to become less …

Indeed, county government no longer is “starved” of cash since last year’s sale of Floyd Memorial Hospital. But the pattern of development remains exactly the same.

Urban, suburban and UniGov.

Hoosiers typically refer to combined city-county government as “Unigov,” this being the catch phrase that originated 45 years ago when Indianapolis and Marion County undertook a “consolidation” of government pushed by then-mayor Richard Lugar.

What this notion of “combining” governments implies to me is an economy of scale — but not the one we usually hear mentioned. We’re told about the myriad small efficiencies to be derived from reducing or eliminating overlap, and while I don’t contest these in every instance, what I see is a different kind of efficiency, or more accurately, inefficiency: Compact urban expenditures versus suburban sprawl subsidies.

It’s the 800-lb gorilla in the room, as illustrated and explained here.

Sprawl Costs the Public More Than Twice as Much as Compact Development, by Angie Schmitt (Streetsblog)

How much more does it cost the public to build infrastructure and provide services for sprawling development compared to more compact neighborhoods? A lot more, according to this handy summary from the Canadian environmental think tank Sustainable Prosperity.

To create this graphic, the organization synthesized a study by the Halifax Regional Municipality [PDF] in Nova Scotia, and the research is worth a closer look.

Halifax found the cost of administering services varied directly in proportion to how far apart homes were spaced. On the rural end, each house sat on a 2.5 acre lot. On the very urban end, there were 92 people dwelling on each acre. Between those two extremes were several development patterns of varying density.

It costs more to “service” infrastructure for a few houses five miles off the main road outside Greenville than it does multiple homes located on a city block downtown. Precisely for this reason, Floyd County government is starved for money. Sprawl costs more, and revenues aren’t sufficient to cover it. Somewhat surprisingly, the News and Tribune recently editorialized in favor of higher taxes to make up the difference, although the newspaper’s editorial board didn’t trace the need to the root cause: Sprawl costs more.

Of course there are areas suitable for sharing and cooperation between city and county government. These can and should be explored.

There’s also a fundamental difference in settlement patterns between more and less densely populated areas, with ramifications for the cost of services and infrastructure maintenance. The latter represents a serious discussion we have not had.

Shall we begin?