Monday, February 13, 2012

Pros and cons of city-county consolidation

The Urbanophile recently had an interesting post on the pros and cons of city-county consolidation, or, as he prefers to put it, "big box" vs. "small box" municipal government.  This is particularly relevant to Houston because of the talk from time to time about Harris County vs. the City of Houston.  Here's his opening:
I haven’t read all the academic literature on city-county consolidations, so won’t make any strong claims about the benefits its promoters have touted. But I will make two observations. One, I’m not aware of any city that has gone through a city-county consolidation that has become a civic failure, or which has a severely under-performing region. Most of the ones I’m familiar with seem to be doing ok or better. Two, if you look at the Midwest region, the metros that are doing well almost all feature a core city that either underwent a consolidation or has managed to maintain its ability to annex new territory (certainly this has been a benefit for Houston over its history). Minneapolis-St. Paul is an exception, but it has regional revenue sharing. (Landlocked and unconsolidated Chicago has a thriving core, but the regional numbers are lagging). So my gut tells me that big box solutions at a minimum don’t hurt and probably have some benefit to a region. 
But they do come with downsides, and one of them is that it can make neighborhood redevelopment more difficult. The root of the problem is that with a single city covering a large area, there is only one mayor, one city council, etc. These have a large area to concern themselves with and cannot physically devote significant time and attention to each neighborhood. They inevitably spend most of their time dealing with the biggest and most visible challenges, which often means downtown development issues.
Houston's solution to this issue has been the creation of independent management districts to focus on improving specific districts like Uptown, Upper Kirby, TMC, Midtown, Downtown, and many more.  We also have smaller city council districts and the super-neighborhoods to help with this issue.

His case study is Indianapolis, specifically two neighborhoods, Midtown (part of Indy) and Bexley (its own city, like West U or Bellaire).  Some key observations:
[Bexley] This keeps land prices high, which preserves a largely affluent and exclusive resident base. This has pros and cons. Of course it means the city can be kept nicer. But it also denies the experience of that to those who can’t buy in. And the overall regional tax base misses out on one of its most affluent areas. This is the problem of all upscale suburbs. Midtown, Indianapolis, whatever its faults, has many well-off homeowners who pay significant money towards the broader community, including the city schools. And it is a much more mixed income area. 
Bexley also has its own municipal authority, while Midtown does not, with the implications discussed above. 
But another thing occurs to me. Because Midtown is part of a much larger city, it suffers from the problem of a diffusion of responsibility. That is, it can assume the rest of the city will carry the load in some respects. This manifests itself in a strong anti-development NIMBY contingent that is opposed to urbanization. Any proposed development of any kind is greeted by wailing and teeth-gnashing by opponents, who’ve been known to do things like pull their kids out of school to serve as props at mid-day zoning hearings where commissioners are told neighborhood kids will literally die if new apartments are approved. 
I don’t know what the sentiment is in Bexley, but they’ve certainly implemented more actual urbanization than Midtown. I suspect one reason is that Bexley knows it has only its own tax base to rely on. If its residents want to keep quality schools, they can either approve more commercial and intense development, or watch their residential property taxes go up significantly over time. That focuses the mind wonderfully
So I also hypothesize that in addition to making redevelopment more difficult for reasons of the structure of government, big box government also inculcates an anti-development mindset to a greater degree than small box government.
Houston seems to have mostly avoided the NIMBY mindset, Ashby high-rise and a few other projects aside, of course.  I think the lack of zoning and its associated bureaucracy and process has helped a lot here.  There's no easy way for NIMBYs to fight a development in Houston.  I actually think NIMBY-ism is a bigger issue here in the smaller cities like West U, Bellaire, and the Villages.

His conclusion sums it up nicely:
I think the lesson here is that there are always, always trade offs to be made in governance. The trick is to understand the trade-offs you are making and take steps to try to mitigate the inherent problems with the model your city and region operate in. 
Based on this and the previous post, we might say at high level that for big box government, the pros are stronger civic consensus and cohesion, generally stronger regional and downtown growth, a fairer tax base, and a general lack of totally failed central cities and suburbs. The cons are a weaker city neighborhoods, redevelopment challenges outside of downtown, weaker urban identity, and lower quality development. 
For small box government is is basically the inverse of this. The pros are a strong central city and urban identity, higher quality development, more redevelopment opportunities. The downsides are civic fragmentation and lack of consensus, the potential for a failed central city, some failed suburbs, and possibly weaker downtown growth.
I think we have a good balance here.  We have a large, strong, dominant central city, but also many smaller cities to compete as well as the unincorporated county areas around it, not to mention the benefits of the management districts.  Dallas may be starting to tip in the wrong direction, with the City of Dallas representing an ever-smaller part of the DFW metro (in population, tax base, jobs, and power).  My impression is that Austin and San Antonio are more trying to follow the Houston model and avoid being landlocked by suburban cities.

I don't sense any appetite for merging Harris County and the CoH, but there is still the issue County Judge Emmett raised about what to do with the now very large northwestern suburbs in the unincorporated county.  Form a separate city?  Have Houston annex them?  Keep them as they are?  BTW, keep in mind that Harris County now has almost as many people outside of the City of Houston as inside of it.

You can read one of my older posts on the pros and cons of Harris County-City of Houston consolidation here.

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At 4:58 PM, February 14, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Note that in addition to recent examples of fusion (Miami, Jacksonville, Indianapolis and Nashville), great cities like New York and Philadelphia which combined municipalities in the 19th century have managed to thrive at the expense of cities like Boston and Saint Louis, which didn't. It tends to be one of the best ways to combat middle class flight (leaving the social burden of an underclass on the central area left behind). Of course the aggressive annexation by Houston in past decades has already blunted much of the problem (compare with Dallas), but one can't help but feel that more is better -- specifically Houston and Harris County.

At 1:04 AM, February 15, 2012, Blogger Rail Claimore said...

City-County Consolidation is supposedly illegal in Texas, but I don't known of any case where it "needs" to happen, other than maybe City of Dallas/Dallas County.

I did read that a lot of neighborhood associations in unincorporated Harris County that are within Houston's ETJ are having trouble paying for infrastructure maintenence, particularly roads.

My guess is that Houston will eventually either a) implement more user fees for those living in its ETJ or b) outright annex much of northwest and north Harris County. Much of this area has "matured" so to speak: the neighborhoods are mostly built out, the area is quite ethnically diverse, and businesses are starting to show their age. Improvement districts could go a long way in this area, particularly along FM 1960.

At 8:38 AM, February 15, 2012, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks for the link. Although I think it makes sense for Houston to consider annexation, I also think the other alternative mentioned in there could work: just legally authorize MUDs to do street work, including making contributions to a management district.

At 8:28 PM, February 15, 2012, Blogger Jardinero1 said...

The state of Hawaii is an interesting case study on the hazards of city county consolidation and over centralization. There are no incorporated cities in Hawaii only county governments. There are no school districts either, only a single unified school system run from Honolulu. The schools in Hawaii are awful and the further you get from Honolulu, the worse they get. Services in the various communities varies from bad to worse depending on your proximity and access to members of the county council. It is a mess and perfect example of the importance of local control.


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