Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Political difficulties of municipal consolidation

Image: 2010 mayoral election results in Toronto. Majority winner by ward: Blue = Rob Ford; Pink = George Smitherman. From "Mapping "Ford Nation": U of T PhD student reexamines urban-suburban split in last municipal election," from The Newspaper, University of Toronto.

While I agree that the advantage of smaller municipal units can be closer attention to issues and better services, duplication of agencies and services tends to cost more. One solution is shared services, such as for trash collection, but even there may be significant differences in the level of service between communities, for example, Mount Rainier, Maryland has a separate waste pick up day for yard waste, in addition to recycling and regular trash. In Maryland, taxes are higher in the communities that are incorporated, as they pay both city/town taxes as well as county taxes.

There are issues with a merger of the Borough of Princeton and the City of Princeton in New Jersey. See the AP story "Even when town mergers make sense, voters fight." From the article:

Fewer than 30,000 people call Princeton home, but two of them are mayors. There are also two police chiefs, two treasurers, two administrators and two public works superintendents in this community best known for its Ivy League university.

That's because one of each belongs to the Borough of Princeton, while the other belongs to Princeton Township, which wraps around the borough like a doughnut.

In November, voters from both municipalities will decide whether they should merge. It will be at least the fourth attempt in almost 60 years to create a unified Princeton and one of dozens of attempts over the years at consolidation in New Jersey.

Consolidation is an old idea that has been given new urgency in the aftermath of the recession, which has left some U.S. towns on the brink of bankruptcy and studying the issue. But difficult questions about economic benefits and community identity often get in the way.

In few places is the issue as pronounced as in New Jersey, a small but populous state with 566 municipalities, nearly 600 school districts and some of the highest property taxes in the country. By comparison, California would stretch from Maine to North Carolina if it were along the eastern seaboard, and it has 482 cities and 58 counties.

Interestingly, the City of Grosse Pointe Shores in Wayne County Michigan and immediately abutting Detroit, is considering asking for permission to leave Wayne County, which has a lot of economic issues, to join Macomb County, where the other four "Grosse Pointes" (Woods, Park, Farms, and just plain "Grosse Point" have also discussed merger.

See "Grosse Pointe Shores eyes Macomb move" from the Detroit News. From the article:

"A quick review of county taxes in Macomb County versus Wayne County seems to indicate we would enjoy lower taxes," Schulte said. "It's primarily a financial concern. We might find out there are other benefits. Maybe we'll get services we don't get now."

The northern tip of the city sits in Macomb County and because of that, according to a state statute, all it would take is a vote by residents to fully shift to Macomb County, said city attorney Mark McInerney.

"That's the curious thing about this," he said. "The statute reads we can decide among a vote of the people by Grosse Pointe Shores and that's that. The legal question is amazingly simple."


• In the 1990s, a vote was required to fully merge the City of Takoma Park, Maryland into Montgomery County. Previously it had been part of Prince George's County as well.

• there is a lot of discussion and pressure on the City of Pittsburgh to merge with Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. There are more than 200 separate municipal and government districts in Allegheny County.

• there are consolidation efforts going on in the Cleveland area of Ohio.

• and there are a number of city-county combinations, such as in Indianapolis/Marion County in Indiana, Lexington/Fayette County and Louisville/Jefferson County in Kentucky. (See the Metropolitics arguments of Myron Orfield and similar points by David Rusk.)

• in Virginia, you have the odd characteristic that cities are legally independent of counties.

I have tended to be in favor of the idea of city-county consolidation.

However, lately I have been a little more critical and/or concerned about the idea, because suburban voters tend to have different concerns and agenda items from urban voters. Plus urban voters tend to be more liberal than suburban voters.

In a combined government, depending on the size of the center city, the urban voters can be overwhelmed by the suburban voters.

That's what happened in last fall's election in the City of Toronto, which is destroying the city, because the conservative mayor, Rob Ford, is comparable to a tea party type person, and aims to destroy many of the qualities that make Toronto special. See "Why the 905 [area code] needs Rob Ford" by Christopher Hume of the Toronto Star.

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P.S. With regard to associations with either Detroit or Wayne County, in the 1980s, the City of East Detroit, located in Macomb County, changed its name to Eastpointe, because it wanted to be associated with a community with better image and brand--the Grosse Pointes vs. the City of Detroit.

My best friend at the time suggested that in response, Detroit should change its name to "Pointe."

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