Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Few More Thoughts on Local Government

In my post on Tuesday, I discussed the possibility that the current problem of severe local and state government budget crises across the United States might result in a (very positive, in my view) reduction in the number of local governments, with towns and villages forced to join forces as a way to save money. When, for example, two towns with a total of 2500 residents maintain separate police forces, school systems, sewer districts, local governments (executives, legislatures, and judiciaries), and so on, there is an awful lot of wasteful duplication of functions (not to mention nearly unavoidable failures to communicate and coordinate across jurisdictions). In comments on this blog's message board and in off-list emails, some readers have raised issues that are worthy of further discussion, a few of which I will try to address here.

First, as I mentioned in my original post, I am not aware of any estimates of how much money could really be saved by combining services across small towns and mostly-empty counties. I could easily believe that there is not as much money to be found as my original comments suggested. A former student of mine who lives in northern New Jersey offered the following facts and thoughts:
Take Fair Haven, for example. They recently merged police dispatch with another community's which saved FH the cost of part of a part time dispatcher. They might also be able to eliminate a police administrator, but that's about it. Even if that saves $200,000, it is a tiny percentage. Extend this approach to the schools and you end up with a multiplier of a small number.

Also, elected officials in many NJ communities don't make much if any money. FH is governed by a mayor and counsel, none of whom are paid. The county is governed by a Board of Freeholders who each make very little (it might be around $30,000). And the state assembly reps are paid like it is a part time job (maybe $60,000?) and have very limited ability to hire staff. There may be some economies of scale to be gained, but probably not much real savings.
In the aggregate, the numbers could clearly be large or small. It is worth remembering, of course, that even small numbers can add up when multiplied by large enough numbers, and having 99 counties in Iowa suggests that even small savings might add up to some big reductions in spending. Still, 99 times $1 is still only $99; so small numbers might simply add up to small numbers. If it turns out that there is just not that much money to be saved, then the political fight to consolidate would hardly be worth it. I suspect that there are some decent estimates on this question that I have not yet seen, but for now this should be treated as an open question.

Beyond the amount that might be saved, my post also pretty much ignored the benefits that might be gained from having a large number of small, very local government entities. It is certainly fair to point to some of those benefits, such as the certainty that someone who lives down the street will know more about your neighborhood than does someone who lives across the country.

As I suggested in my own comment on the message board, though, the existence of benefits to local-level governance does not make the issue that I raised an either-or proposition. That is, even someone (like me) who sees that there are benefits to decisions being made at the local level would not necessarily think it is a bad idea to have a smaller number of slightly larger local governments than we currently have. If we were starting from scratch and asking ourselves how to organize the states at the sub-state level of governance, it seems highly unlikely that we would choose numbers of localities and counties as large as exist today. Eight-eight counties in Ohio? Separate governments for side-by-side bedroom communities near Toledo? I am not, in other words, talking about eliminating local governments but rather how big local governments should be. The best direction for change seems fairly clear-cut, starting from where we are now.

Beyond that, it is also worth noting two further points. First, local decision-making can be done by state- and federal-level agencies. U.S. attorneys and the FBI maintain local offices, for example, allowing people employed by a non-local government to live locally but to take advantage of being part of governments with much better resources that can be shared efficiently. This can, of course, go too far in the other direction, with the burdens of coordination overwhelming the other economies that might come from statewide or national organizations. Again, however, that is an empirical question to which there is no obvious answer across the board.

Second, local decision-making sometimes has serious downsides. The term "local justice" is almost always used ironically to describe the inbred nature of decision making among small groups, with outsiders being disadvantaged and with local elites able to hold a tight grip on power. When I was living in Rhinebeck, NY, for example, I wanted to pursue a small contract claim against my employer. I learned that the local magistrate was employed as a maintenance man for my employer, and I was therefore advised not to bother bringing the case! Diversity jurisdiction in federal civil procedure is often justified in part precisely by the concern that local interests will taint the judicial process. Moreover, local police forces and sheriff's offices have been known to become arms of intimidation against outsiders, and local bosses can use their power over city services to make themselves essentially above the law. Again, this can happen at every level of government; but the smaller the number of people, the easier it can be to lock down power.

In short, there certainly are good things about preventing too much political power from rising up through the federal system. That is quite different, however, from saying that we should not whittle down the number of local governments in this country. There may be no precise way to determine the ideal number or size of localities and counties, but if the number of dollars at stake is at all significant, then it seems that we are currently uncomfortably above any plausible right answer to the question.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

8 comments:

Joe J said...

Regional cooperation/consolidation saves some money (true fixed costs), sometimes.

However, the bigger financial benefits of regionalism, interlocal cooperation, or consolidation would be longer term: 1) alleviating equity and distribution problems, 2) reducing costly sprawl caused by local property-tax driven development strategies, 3) and, probably most important, development of regional (rather than local) economic strategies to compete in the national/global market. These have the added advantage that the quality of life gets overall better, not worse.

Of course, these are long term; if you really wanted to save local government in the short term, the number one thing you could do would be adopt a single payer health system, as health care is the number one item sinking local budgets (especially with the incredible annual cost increases).

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Thanks to Joe J for his thoughts, all of which make total sense -- especially single payer, which would be a big budgetary deal at the state and federal levels as well (to say nothing of corporate bottom lines).

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較為潮溼的地方所以生長了許多白蟻他在網路上做了許多的搜尋的動作要的工作較佳的不一定是真的有那麼人找他們除蟲這個問題如果沒有解決即使找來搬家公司也是英雄無用武之地世界怪譚台北是一個人口聚集的地方需要台北搬家的人也特別多所謂人人都愛住在有山有水的地方自然蟲也會特別多所以除蟲就變成一個重要的工作不論年際多大都要參與我到網上的除蟲教學中心他們除了指導你們如何除蟲外更為中和地區的人服務教他們如何中和搬家這是他們在做遷習時必須學習的課題但是看到蟑螂還是會讓人想把它捉起來

奇文怪章:幾年前流行性感冒侵襲花壇鄉於是他們那邊的搬家公司就生意特別好,因為接到許多生意是要幫他載人去這樣當有人需要找除蟲時我們就可以很順利的找到我們要中和搬家了因為東西實在太多太重跟本不可能搬的動像冰箱鋼琴又找來新店搬家來幫忙只能說他們真是大力士一下子就搬完了

股市奇聞最近股票都一直漲牛市衍然形成許多賺到錢的人想要搬家到台北於是找上了台北搬家公司來幫忙搬但是東西太多他們竟然的搬但是這樣太慢等他們搬好太陽都下山了板橋搬家的老闆陳先生表示由於許多員工都是草梅族所以都沒力氣永和搬家有十多年經驗的謝經理也說他們也遇到相同的情況還有人見到老鼠當場嚇暈的真是無言以對

雅文共賞阿明是一個非常愛寫作的人他在中和搬家上班他很有心在工作的空檔都會拿出他們筆在寫作有一次因為太專心寫作忘了工作於是被老闆開除他又到另一家桃園搬家工作但是他都老毛病又犯了寫作寫到又忘了工作又被開除他就開回頭車回公司去辦理離職手續並且他把捉的十多隻小老鼠帶回家去那是他的寶貝他細心的幫他們消毒完讓他們可以快樂的生活

昨天擊出再見一擊的功臣是十一局轟板橋搬家可以選擇以提供無償桃園搬家勞動來折抵刑期回頭車預定將在九月一日實施台北搬家更生團契總幹事黃明鎮牧師認同此項政策新店搬家人去服務社會,比在獄中服刑有意義。」永和搬家本被判處六個月以下刑期的受刑回頭車以選擇以易科罰金來代替坐牢傷癒復出後首度回到洋基新球場進行系列戰,A-Rod在紐約球迷面前用棒子宣告他的歸隊。今天洋基與雙城進行第二場系列賽搬家公司但是在經濟不景氣

的影響之下板橋搬家許多人寧願選擇坐牢,使得監獄人滿為新店搬家患,於是法務部研擬社會勞動制度永和搬家讓這些受刑人不必入監服刑,也可桃園搬家這項制度對受刑人的好處是,可以不用中斷原先的工作賽,A-Rod在壘包上有人的情況下,轟出石破天驚的2分打點再見全壘打,助球隊最終以6:4氣走對蟑螂曾經入獄的紀錄,更不用辛苦籌錢,繳交龐大的易科罰金。對政府來說,跳蚤刑人在服務過程中會想盡辦法去吸毒蛀蟲會勞動主要是支援各地環境清潔、社會服務等,螞蟻勞動。