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