To merge or not to merge: Breaking down a community’s debate on consolidation

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Joseph Stefko

Over the years, CGR has provided analytical guidance to countless communities exploring the issue of municipal consolidation.  Of all the things that make those communities unique – their density, services, cost structure, geography and more – one aspect of the merger discussion has been omnipresent: The potential benefits or drawbacks of consolidation are very much in the eye of the beholder.

Some residents – perhaps most – focus on the dollars and cents: “What impact would consolidation have on my property taxes and, by extension, my wallet?”  This is clearly understandable, especially given the current economic and fiscal environment in places like NY, NJ, OH and MA where CGR has completed such studies.

Others focus on governance: “What impact would consolidation have on the level of representation, accountability and responsiveness I currently receive from my local government?”

Still others focus on less tangible ‘us vs. them’ aspects: “We’re densely developed, they’re suburban; we’ve smaller homes, they have larger ones; we’ve older infrastructure, they have new.  If we’re so different, how can we possibly merge into one?”

Collectively, these varied perspectives feed the vigorous community dialogue that typically accompanies merger efforts.  What intensifies the dialogue is the simple fact that individuals and groups prioritize these variables differently (if they consider the same variables at all).  To one voter, millions in savings may be the criterion.  To another, any amount of savings is secondary to issues of representation and accountability.

The ongoing debate in Princeton, New Jersey offers a case-in-point.  In 2010, the two municipalities in this community of 30,000 engaged CGR to complete an analysis of what additional shared services or consolidation might mean.  (See here for more information on that study). Based on CGR’s analysis, a joint commission recommended this summer that merger be placed on the ballot in November 2011.

With a specific plan now on the table, a spirited discussion has commenced.  Groups like “Unite Princeton!” are rallying support for merger by citing projected tax savings, similarities between the two communities and a desire to erase arbitrary boundaries.  Others like “Preserve Our Historic Borough” are rallying against consolidation, arguing that the Borough and Township are qualitatively different, and the Borough’s unique density and historic downtown demand a separate government entity focused on its own needs, challenges and opportunities.

The debate, which turns on a series of variables, is fueled by the fact that different variables mean different things to different people and groups.

This creates one of the most challenging aspects of analyzing consolidation’s impact in any community.  Some impacts – like dollars saved – can be measured empirically; other impacts – like fears of diluted representation – are more complex.  But it doesn’t make the latter any less integral to the community debate.

For CGR’s part in these studies, we serve the role of “informant,” marshaling evidence and analysis to test what shared or merged services would look like operationally and financially.  It’s our job to ensure that when a community makes a decision regarding merger, the decision is as informed as possible.

But the reality is that such analysis is only one essential aspect of the consolidation discussion.  Arbitrating diverging perspectives, priorities and concerns becomes a critical aspect of the consolidation debate.  This process – which must be owned by the community – is as critical to the fate of merger efforts as any amount of analysis.

Joseph Stefko, Ph.D. is Director of Public Finance at the Center for Governmental Research (CGR) in Rochester, New York. He directed CGR’s study of shared services and consolidation in Princeton, NJ.

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