Municipal Consolidation

Municipal consolidation, or regionalism, frequently comes up in discussions of cities and their relationship with suburbs. This is especially true in places where there is a stark racial and/or economic wealth divide between the city and its suburbs, with Detroit being the classic example. Recently, with the protests in Ferguson, MO in response to police gunning down an unarmed black teenager, the New York Times published an op-ed calling for municipal consolidation in St Louis County.

Consolidation can offer many benefits for urban policy, but I don’t know if it would help the situation in Ferguson, because policy always has technical and political aspects.


From a technical perspective, we should just organize government at the most efficient level for the service to be provided. For example, a flood control district would logically be set up with political boundaries corresponding to the limits of the drainage basin. An irrigation district would logically be set up to govern the territory to be irrigated with a certain allotment of water. A bus service district would logically be set up to serve the denser part of a metro region.

Institutions like this exist, if imperfectly. The Imperial Irrigation District gets a fixed amount of water every year, and they manage allocations within the entire Imperial Valley. Each county in southern California is a flood control district; this means that they have to work together with drainages that cross county lines like the Santa Ana River, but it seems to work pretty well. For example, the Seven Oaks Dam is in San Bernardino County, but Orange County funded most of the local share, because it’s downstream and stands to gain from controlling floods.

In California, many cities contract out some of their city services. Maywood, for example, contracts out everything – police and fire to the county sheriff and county fire department, ambulance service to a private contractor, and schools as part of the LA Unified School District (LAUSD). Other cities contract out just a few things. Bell uses county fire and LAUSD, but maintains its own police force. Service districts often don’t follow city boundaries, as is the case with LA County’s Sanitation Districts. And for some of its sanitation districts, like District 4 (Beverly Hills), the county uses the City of LA for wastewater treatment. This setup lets cities and county entities arrange things however makes sense, without regard for city boundaries.

(Really, the only reasons I see to have a city in California are (1) local control over land use and (2) it provides a way for rich school districts to avoid having to contribute funding to poor school districts. Both of these things result in undesirable outcomes, so land use and school funding should probably be organized at a higher level of government, but that’s an issue for another time.)

With something like bus service, you can sort of feel out the right scale. For example, LA Metro provides bus services throughout much of LA County, but on the Westside, Culver City and Santa Monica operate their own bus services. As a result, services on the Westside aren’t as efficient as they could be. It makes no sense for there to be no continuous service on Bundy/Centinela, Westwood/Overland, and Jefferson. Meanwhile, Culver City is responsible for running the north-south service on Sepulveda, despite the majority of the route being in Los Angeles. Likewise, Santa Monica runs the north-south service on Lincoln all the way to the airport, and Big Blue Bus Route 12 never even comes close to entering the city. Big Blue Bus still doesn’t have real-time data, and while you can transfer from Metro buses for free, you can’t transfer from Culver City buses.

This outcome is not because the folks at Metro, Culver CityBus, and Big Blue Bus don’t try to provide quality transit services – they do! The issue is that they work under a structure that puts too much emphasis at the local scale, at the expense of the regional scale.

On the other hand, there’s no benefit to going to the next level up and integrating LA Metro bus services with, say, Bakersfield. There’s no need for the state to get involved in local bus service; in fact, you could argue there’s no real need for the local bus agency to get involved at the regional rail level other than to coordinate schedules. For example, Metrolink is operated by a joint powers agency that receives funding and planning input from all of the counties it serves; that separation insulates local bus service provided by the county. San Bernardino County can extend commuter rail to downtown SB, and Riverside County can extend service to Perris, but LA County bus riders won’t be on the hook for issues with those projects.

When one transportation agency’s scope extends beyond the logical boundaries, you often end up with questionable planning. For example, the MBTA operates local bus, express bus, rail transit, and commuter rail services in Boston. The political power of the suburbs has resulted in major expansions to commuter rail over the last couple decades, while rapid transit projects in the core have languished.

Another possible benefit of consolidation is that larger political entities draw more media scrutiny. Everyone knows the president, and most people know their federal representatives. If you’re reading this, you probably know the mayor of Los Angeles, and you might even know the CEO of LA Metro. However, unless you live in Culver City, you probably don’t know the mayor, let alone any city councilors or the people in charge of Culver CityBus. I live four blocks from Culver City, and I don’t know any of them! While media attention doesn’t guarantee a lack of corruption, it at least increases the odds that someone is trying to investigate it.

Political Realities

None of this really matters, though, if the people running the agencies are acting in bad faith.

It’s no coincidence that things like sanitation districts and flood control districts are the best examples of effectively working optimized service areas. Even if you really hate black people, it’s hard discriminate in the provision of sewer services or flood control at a fine enough scale or in a way that doesn’t impact the entire city (though obviously, New Orleans managed to do so in a blunt way with flood control, and even in the case of sewers, low-income and minority communities can face discrimination at the neighborhood level). You can’t deny sewer service to one house without causing problems for the surrounding houses. The Seven Oaks Dam is going to protect everyone in Orange County from floods, no matter what race.

However, for many services, the potential to discriminate exists within the agency’s service area. For example, a public school in a rich neighborhood and a public school in a poor neighborhood might be in the same school district, but the rich school will often systematically get better teachers, more resources, etc. Consolidation does not ensure fair distribution of resources.

In fact, in the context of discrimination, regional consolidation can make things worse, even if it makes technical sense. For years, urbanists bemoaned the lack of a regional transit agency in Detroit. The feds finally forced the issue, and in late 2012, the state created such an agency. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) was charged with administration during the transition, and promptly used its power to reduce Detroit’s transit funding by 22%. When the problem is a desire to avoid treating some people fairly, technical solutions are helpless. There are no apolitical technical policies.

Police services are effectively administered at two levels: the neighborhood level and the individual level. At the neighborhood level, there is the relationship between the police force, the community, and the city at large – the resources provided to the police and the community, how they see each other, and so on. At the individual level, there is the way that individuals on the police force and individuals in the community interact every time they encounter each other. There’s no level of municipal consolidation that changes those interactions. Small city police forces, like Ferguson, end up with the same problems as large city police forces, like NYPD and LAPD. In other words, there’s no technical solution that ends up with Mike Brown not getting shot.

5 thoughts on “Municipal Consolidation

  1. Pingback: High Standards–A Unifying Cause for Transit Advocates? | Itinerant Urbanist

  2. calwatch

    A couple of minor quibbles – in California, as most states, school districts are not under any city government but rather are independent districts under the state’s education code. When Mayor Villaraigosa tried to take over LAUSD, the folks of Carson, East LA, South Gate, and West Hollywood rebelled – and rightly so, since they have no say over the mayor. Yet confusingly the LAUSD, as well as the LA Community College District, contract out those elections to the City of Los Angeles City Clerk, so you have off year elections for community college board in places like Rosemead and Inglewood with little to no connection with the rest of LA, with corresponding low turnout.

    For bus service, the pre-1980 bus systems are generally from historic reasons that dated to the streetcar era. For example, Santa Monica runs several bus routes wholly outside of their jurisdiction due to the merger with Bay Cities Transit. Culver City runs buses to the West LA Transit Center because that’s where the old streetcar used to end. Or they bought private operators which used to run downtown, as in the case of Gardena.

    As far as city size goes, it’s self evident that Saint Louis County’s median city size of just over 4,000 is ridiculous. One big reason for consolidation is cost savings. Fewer elected officials, fewer chiefs of police and fire, fewer city managers, etc. due to economies of scale. (Although once you scale up too much, you create bureaucracies which are not needed in smaller cities.) Contracting can help reduce some of the need of that, and certain jobs, i.e. transit manager, can be shared easily among cities – I have a friend who was running transit systems for six small California cities simultaneously, since managing contracts are the same regardless.

    Los Angeles County’s median city size of 40,000 is pretty ideal in my opinion. It’s small enough to be locally responsive and not create levels of bureaucracy, while large enough that it is not a personal fiefdom. This would be cities similar in size to Culver City, San Gabriel, or Monrovia. Elected officials can run without spending large amounts of money. City staff is held personally accountable rather than being mere specialists in a large machine. While breaking up the City of Los Angeles into one hundred constituent pieces would be pretty dumb, even LA city leaders have gotten the idea that local input is better through the use of community planning commissions and neighborhood councils. Indeed, the governance issue is a big reason why I would never buy property in the City of Los Angeles.

    The statewide median is 27,000, which includes the smaller communities of rural California, and would be similar to a Eureka, Monterey, or Ridgecrest, which aren’t small towns either.

    1. Alon Levy

      The problem with this is that in St. Louis County, the problem doesn’t seem to be much about size. Very small towns do have endemic problems with police harassment that big cities don’t, but these are entirely about personality: for example, if the police chief’s teenage kid rapes a high school classmate, the town will run the victim out if they say anything. This doesn’t happen in big cities because personal favors can’t extend to a large city, and personal biases cancel one another out, e.g. the police chief has many enemies who have a political incentive to help the victim. The situation in Ferguson is nothing of the sort: it’s about the combination of racism (which includes police brutality) and police militarization, and these happen at all scales, up to and including NYPD.

      1. calwatch

        Of course there are bad cops in any agency, but the toxic combination of way too small cities, combined with INDIVIDUAL CITIES HAVING THEIR OWN COURTS (which has not been the case in California for decades) and fine revenues going to individual cities rather than to the State or larger entities add an additional layer of hell to residents, and exacerbate the normal level of racial imbalance and discrimination found in the country. Radley Balko latches on to this here: and he’s one of the first national writers to get it. Having individual cities of 1,000-10,000 with their own cops, city councilpeople, and courts; judges that act as prosecutors on another day (unlike in California where part time judges are usually not employed by the State in any other capacity); and speed trap towns devoted solely to raising revenue (California’s 85th percentile law is attacked by the livable streets activists, but was done precisely because of the abuses of the West Covinas in the early motoring era, and the Maricopas of the world today) just adds an order of magnitude of bullshit on all residents, especially blacks.

        It would be interesting (not that I’m asking you to do this) to look at average municipality size of major metro areas. I wouldn’t be surprised if the St. Louis MSA is one of the smallest. New York and Pennsylvania have townships that handle stuff in unincorporated areas which are much larger, while Maryland and Virginia just have counties (or Virginia cities, which are county-equivalents) covering relatively large areas. If people are wondering why St. Louis is depopulating so quickly, despite a relatively robust economy, the general governance fuckitude of the area is one unexplored reason. As Balko shows small businesses can’t get off the ground unless they buy off or pay for influence from local kings, and large businesses have to worry about staffing and compliance issues when they have 90 municipalities to deal with. Kansas City, despite being in the same state (and in Kansas as well) has largely fared better economically, and one reason may be better governance. I’m sure someone has done a paper on governance about the St. Louis metro area, but maybe not given that there seems to be a natural resistance for the light to be shown on it.

  3. Pingback: Revisiting State-Level TOD Planning | Itinerant Urbanist

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