Which States Have Most Fragmented Local Governments?

New data indicates no significant shift toward consolidation has occurred in recent years.
by | August 30, 2012

Government fragmentation has long been torn between two competing interests. On one hand, many officials argue consolidation boosts efficiency and makes coordination easier. Citizens, though, remain attached to their local governments and often resent representation by a perceived group of outsiders.

The first set of figures from the 2012 Census of Governments, published Thursday, signals no significant shift toward government consolidation taking place in recent years, at least not on a national level.

There were 89,004 local governments across the U.S. this year, according to the survey. That’s down from 2007 by only 472, a small fraction of the total. In terms of raw counts, Illinois (6,968), Pennsylvania (4,905) and Texas (4,856) have the most local governments of any state.

Robert O'Neill, the International City/County Management Association’s executive director, said ongoing fiscal pressures sparked interest in consolidation in some localities, particularly those already with numerous government entities. But this hasn’t resulted in a big wave of mergers.

“There’s a community and political identity, and often that gets juxtaposed with the efficiency at which you perform a service,” he said.

Instead, O'Neill said some localities are exploring shared services to save costs and avoid consolidation. This is a particularly attractive option for transportation projects, economic development, public safety and other large-scale services.

“You keep the political jurisdiction, but perhaps there’s a way of organizing the work across boundaries that makes sense,” O'Neill said.

Over the past five years, special districts accounted for most consolidation. Nationwide, the number of special districts declined by 345, compared to a reduction of 127 total counties, townships and other general-purpose governments.

The prevalence of governments varies widely throughout different regions of the country. Historic boundaries and agreements, along with population and geography, often explain much of the regional differences.

Rural areas tend to have the most governments on a per capita basis. A Governing analysis of the new data and 2011 population estimates showed North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Kansas recorded the highest number of governments per capita.

The table below lists 2012 Census of Governments data and figures for each state per 100,000 residents:

The Census Bureau conducts the Census of Governments every five years, assessing organizational types, employment and finances for all state and local governments. The agency plans to release additional data describing local governments next year.

Illinois stands out with 6,968 localities, about 2,000 more than Pennsylvania, with the next-most governments.

Kent Redfield, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said the previous version of the state's constitution, last updated in 1970, had created an environment encouraging the proliferation of municipalities. Debt and taxing limits were tied to all governments, so many localities simply created additional public entities to thwart the requirements.

While Illinois added residents and has since changed some of its laws, often-antiquated governing structures largely remained.

The state’s libraries are typically divided into districts. One law requires coverage by a fire protection district for every property not served by a municipal fire department. In some suburbs, elementary schools feeding into a single high school are even divided into multiple districts.

“If you were starting from ground zero, you wouldn't design a system of local government like Illinois,” Redfield said.

What's more, political patronage plays a role in preserving many of the state's existing structures. "There's a relationship that develops between (politics) and all these boards," Redfield said.

That makes coordinating projects, especially regional planning, no easy task.

Citizens in some areas will likely continue to resist calls for consolidation in an effort to preserve their local representation. This could become more difficult, though, as localities face mounting fiscal pressures.

Read our profile story of township governments in North Dakota, which has the most governments per capita.

Historical Data

Click a state to view historical totals for general purpose governments, which include all localities, excluding school and other special districts.

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