Abell Foundation report examines pros, cons of city-county mergers. Could it work in Baltimore?

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By merging with their surrounding counties, the cities of Nashville, Indianapolis and Louisville were able to grow local economies and save taxpayer dollars by reducing redundancies, according to a new report by the Abell Foundation.

Research began in 2012 to see if a similar approach could work in Baltimore, which remains an independent city surrounded by Baltimore County and, in a few places near the southern border, Anne Arundel County. The authors of the study think it’s worth exploring again.

“The five-county Baltimore region is ripe for a similar effort to rethink its rigid geographic
boundaries and explore the challenges and opportunities that could come from consolidated government,” Jeff Wachter, Beth Harber and Sarah Manekin conclude. “Our future could depend on it.”

Each of these municipalities arrived at the decision to merge with their surrounding counties for various reasons and at different times, but they are the three most prominent examples to occur within the last six decades, the report says.

In each case, the newly consolidated jurisdiction saw its economy grow.

Following a 1963 merger, Nashville and Davidson County saw growth of 19 percent during the 1960s, 25 percent during the 1970s, and 15 percent during the 1980s. The economy there has sustained a growth rate just above 10 percent in the 1990s and 2000s.

After Indianapolis and Marion County merged in 1970, the number of businesses opening increased by 30 percent in the two decades that followed. The region ranked in the top 15 for growth into the 2000s, when things flattened out. Despite the slowdown, the report suggests that the consolidated government allowed the area “to avoid the more traumatic declines of some other Midwestern cities.”

The sheer growth in acreage allowed the consolidated city-county government, known colloquially as Unigov, to take on more debt–a state law restricts borrowing to 2 percent of the value of the land–and brought more federal dollars to the area. While part of this was attributable to the newly enlarged population, a factor in allotment, it was also due to a string of Republican administrations in the White House sending money to what became one of the largest cities governed by a GOP administration, the report says.

The report does not have hard figures for Louisville and Jefferson County, which consolidated in 2003 after decades of proposals were dismissed by voters, but it says that the localities now have a singular approach to economic development.

“The members of the economic development community insist that the merger has played a pivotal role in attracting new businesses, particularly white-collar positions in health care and logistics,” the report says.

There are differences and drawbacks in these three cases. The Nashville and Louisville regions have joint school boards, but Indianapolis and Marion County keep theirs separate.

In both Louisville and Indianapolis, political representation for African-Americans declined post-merger. With the latter, the consolidation was carried out to solidify Republican control of the city government, even though Indianapolis had mostly been controlled by the Democrats for the prior two decades. Presently, it’s split 14-11 in the Democrats’ favor.

Read the full report, titled “Combining Forces: An Abell inquiry into three local government consolidations and their results,” here. And there will likely be a fresh case study soon as St. Louis and St. Louis County consider the Better Together plan.

As Baltimore has struggled with population loss and crumbling infrastructure over the last several decades, merging with Baltimore County has been put forth as a possible cure to the city’s ills. The idea is a frequent topic of conversation on the civic-minded Facebook group Baltimore City Voters and has been championed in op-eds.

Abell Foundation has been pushing for the idea since as far back as 1995, when president Robert C. Embry Jr. wrote the foreword to a book by urbanist David Rusk, “Baltimore Unbound,” that argued the city was held back because it was “inelastic,” unable to either annex parts of the county or join forces with it.

Both are a political impossibility, “Combining Forces” notes, because of a 1948 state law that required the city to get the approval of the residents who would be part of an annexation. A 1999 bill proposing an amendment to the state constitution to dissolve Baltimore’s borders and merge with the county never got a hearing.

“Despite dramatic ups-and-downs in the population size and economic health within the region—and aside from numerous cooperative efforts focused around economic development, port and transit infrastructure, and water and wastewater—little has changed the way governments operate along and across those borders,” the report says.

Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore Business Journal, b and others. Prior to joining Baltimore Fishbowl, he was an editor at City Paper from 2012 to 2017. He can be reached at [email protected]
Brandon Weigel


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