Politics

Little Mergers on The Prairie

Although Iowa failed in its efforts to make municipalities consolidate, collaboration is happening at the grassroots level.
by | July 2007
 

Local government in Iowa has always been unwieldy. Long before the population spread westward, state legislators kept creating new counties, confident that they'd fill up with people some day. They did fill up, to some extent--Iowa's population is spread remarkably evenly--but the state is no longer growing and is saddled with far more government than it needs. In addition to 99 counties (80 of which have fewer than 30,000 residents), Iowa boasts 3,000 cities and towns. There are about three times as many general units of government-- almost 36 for every 100,000 people--as the average in other states.

On top of all this, Iowa has special authorities to oversee many of the parks, hospitals and community colleges, and a host of independent school boards. It's simply too much public infrastructure for a relatively small state. "We don't have people knocking our door down saying get rid of our county or our township," says an aide to Governor Tom Vilsack. "We do have people knocking our door down saying my property taxes are too high."

The governor has worried for most of his eight years in office that the state's local government inefficiencies were hampering its economy. The present hodgepodge, he contends, is not the way to "sell regions to compete for economic opportunity."

Last year, Vilsack decided to propose a radical change in Iowa's local government structure. Meeting weekly with a dozen legislators in 2005, Vilsack came up with a bold plan to shrink the total number of local governments in the entire state down to a much more manageable number--15 or so, following the boundaries of current community college districts and modeled after a successful regional government about the size of Des Moines called Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada. The state wouldn't insist--"Iowa doesn't respond well to mandates," Vilsack says--but would offer plenty of carrots and sticks to encourage the preponderance of local governments to fold up their tents and merge.

The locals didn't buy into the idea. And the package wasn't sold well to legislators, who had only three weeks to digest it before the end of the 2005 session and received plenty of complaints from cities and counties already upset with a state government that has slashed payments to them in recent years. It seemed like the governor's vision for greater regional cooperation and efficiency died almost as soon as it could be expressed. That's the usual fate for regionalism discussions: A group of politicians decides that consolidating government would make tremendous sense, but the idea soon runs into a wall of resistance. It happened last December, when voters in Shawnee County, Kansas, rejected a proposed merger with Topeka. And Vilsack's failure came just months after voters overwhelmingly rejected a merger between Des Moines and Polk County, the state's largest. "It is a tough egg to crack," says Mike Tameris, the mayor of Creston, Iowa.

Even though Vilsack's legislation failed, however, his ideas still have the breath of life. For one thing, the governor's underlying argument--that a stagnant tax base cannot well serve both an aging population and redundant layers of government--remains valid. Enough legislators share that viewpoint to ensure regionalism will remain a vital topic even after Vilsack steps down as governor early next year. But the most remarkable thing is that many local officials, who were so strongly opposed to the state's attempted interference with their basic existence, are also increasingly embracing the wisdom of consolidating and streamlining their operations in conjunction with their neighbors. Having seen the specter of a state-imposed crackdown, many local governments have decided they're better off seeking out chances for cooperation themselves. Lately, there's been a lot more sharing of things such as engineering services, law enforcement and sewage treatment facilities and transportation department garages.

So although the governor didn't manage to muster any legislation, he did get the collaboration ball rolling. "That was the best thing he did," says Polk County Supervisor Angela Connolly. "It was almost a threat and it made a difference, just telling us we had to do things differently."

IT TAKES TRUST

Connolly opposed the Des Moines-Polk County merger, arguing that the two jurisdictions do too many different types of things to blend well together. But, in fact, they share many functions in common. A couple of years ago, the city and county jails, which are directly across from one another along the Des Moines River, consolidated their facilities and operations--with the exception of booking procedures. But in the months since the failed merger votes, even inmate intake has joined the list of dozens of services that the city and Polk County have combined. Although they fell far short of becoming a single government, the respective entities figure it's best to blend where they can.

Elected officials from both governments chair eight different task forces that meet regularly to discuss shared responsibilities, looking for opportunities to join forces in public works, technology, housing and human services and other areas. So far, they haven't found tremendous cost savings as a result. The best that they've been able to do is combine employee life insurance programs at a savings of $33,400 annually. Some items don't save the public money at all, such as pooling employees to earn deeper discounts on tickets to the Adventureland theme park. But some other efforts may soon pay more lavish dividends. A new regional transit authority, for example, starts operating this month, with universal participation among the cities in its district. There's even talk of imposing a new sales tax in a three-county area that will help reduce property taxes and lead to the most politically touchy of all regionalism concepts--revenue sharing. "There's so much protectionism of your own community that you need a mechanism to go forward," says Des Moines City Councilwoman Christine Hensley.

For local officials, saving a lot of money right away isn't as great a concern as doing things more efficiently when they can, whether that means streamlining internally or reaching out to new partners. Hensley explains that the talk of merger and the subsequent pairing of government functions all grew out of a Metro Advisory Council, consisting of a mayor and member of the city council from each locality in the Des Moines area. Getting to know one another was an important step in ironing out differences and lending serious contemplation to the idea of consolidating services.

Vilsack may have wanted to push consolidation from above, but cooperative efforts seem to work best where there's already a level of trust established on the ground. Elected officials in both Des Moines and Polk County credit the good relationship between the police chief and sheriff for making the shared jail happen. "A lot has to do with who's in charge and whether they get along," Connolly notes.

Established relationships are also the reason why regionalism has taken firmer root within Boone County, about an hour north of Des Moines, than in Poweshiek County, about an hour east. The two counties were selected by Iowa State University public administration professors for a project that looked at what local officials and residents held most dear about their communities--and which services that they were less sentimental about and would be willing to see merged. The discussion never really took flight in Poweshiek but became a widely embraced exercise in Boone, leading to city governments wanting to sign on to a countywide planning and zoning plan--a rare example of local governments proving willing to surrender control over land use policies. "We don't have the finances to do it in a small town," says Ogden Mayor Mark Treadwell. "It makes sense to have a central administration to lay it out."

Treadwell says that there are limits to regionalism efforts within the county, since residents remain proud of their local police forces and fire districts. And there are still some financing issues that will have to be worked out before the towns agree to the county's planning and zoning services. But the reason officials in Boone County have been willing to talk at all is based on the fact that all the elected officials within the county hold a standing quarterly meeting to discuss common issues and therefore already had attained a good level of trust and familiarity; Kurt Thurmaier of Iowa State calls this "picket-fence regionalism." There are plenty of contracted agreements between local governments in Iowa--roughly a thousand a year. But these are dwarfed, Thurmaier says, by the number of informal agreements between localities.

"It's going to get to the point where it's too much work to form the 28E," says the mayor of Boone, John Slight, referring to the form local governments file with the state after signing contracts with each other. Still, he's more than willing to share services when he can. He recently made a deal with the county to hand over police dispatch. "If you can save money and deliver a better service, shouldn't you do it?"

In the southwest corner of the state, the city of Corning and Adams County have recently agreed to combine their sheriff's and police departments entirely. The plan ran into a snag--state rules made it difficult for Corning to reimburse the county for the cost of officers' health insurance--but legislation sponsored by state Senator Jeff Angelo took care of the problem. Angelo, who served on the governor's regionalism task force, pledges to do whatever he can to promote intergovernmental cooperation. "You can't ignore the fact that as a state we have created layer upon layer of government," he says. "The tax burden that creates is a definite concern of mine.

HORSE-AND-BUGGY GOVERNMENT

The way local governments are set up across Iowa was literally a product of horse-and-buggy thinking. Iowa counties are generally about 25 miles long and 20 to 30 miles wide, with a county seat near or smack dab in the middle. The notion was that a person could leave his home in any part of the county on horseback, do his business with the government and ride home, all within the same day. The distance between towns, too, was based on agrarian transportation, since it wasn't practical for farmers to travel more than three or four miles to bring goods to market or pick up supplies. During settlement days, the state optimistically created new counties before there were any governments, or very many people, within the new local boundaries. Because Iowa has no deserts, mountains or large lakes, the population did disperse across the state.

Iowa is unique among Midwestern states east of the Missouri River in that it's never had a major central city dominate its economy or population. Today, there are 948 cities and about 2,000 towns. The latter are little more than glorified homeowners' associations, lacking much power beyond settling questions such as fence disputes. Nevertheless, each has several elected officials--except for places that are rumored not to hold elections because no one can be found to run.

Back in 1940, Phil Stong complained in a history of the state that his home county, which had well under 20,000 people, was served by no fewer than 10 high schools. "The multiplicity of county schoolhouses is a hangover from the horse-and-buggy days," he wrote. "A few school buses would close up two-thirds of them." That has proven not to be the case. Even where total student enrollment can be counted by the dozen, school consolidation remains a notoriously tough sell in Iowa, as in other states that have considered it recently, including Arkansas, South Dakota and West Virginia. Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman's veto of a rural school-consolidation bill was counted a major factor in his come-from-behind victory in the May GOP primary. "Small towns, they don't want to lose their schools," says Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey. "All across Nebraska and Iowa, you go the game Friday nights and that's your identity."

That's why officials in Adams County, the smallest and one of the poorest in Iowa, aren't talking about school consolidation, even though seven different districts fall within the county. But they are talking about merging everything else. Local officials commissioned an extensive survey of public opinion and found that more than two-thirds of the residents were at least "somewhat supportive" of the idea of unified government. "You could just have one government for 4,400 people and call it good," says County Supervisor Mark Olive.

Officials in Adams County, which sits about midway between Des Moines and Omaha, don't hold to a lot of pride about who performs what service. They've learned from experience that sharing the load makes a lot more sense than trying to do it all yourself with minuscule--or nonexistent--staffs. On a warm afternoon a few weeks ago, Olive sat down in Corning's modest city hall to talk with Mayor Guy Brace about sharing snow removal. The city likes its roads to be cleared in a timelier manner than the county, but the two men agree that it's foolish for each locality to remain responsible for its own plowing. Not one of the other three cities in Adams County, after all, is home to as many as 200 people. Nodaway, for instance, had a population of just 25, the last time anyone counted. "The mayor puts the blade on his pickup when it snows," Brace says.

In addition to the police and sheriff merger, Adams County collaborates with its neighbors where it can on such matters as engineering, public health, ambulance services, housing inmates and paying for a new swimming pool. Officials within the county are already hearing from counterparts in other parts of the state looking for advice on effective collaboration. But if they have "learned to play together," as Brace says, because of the threat of being forced to by the state, the local perspective on collaboration is quite different from the view under the great gold dome of the capitol in Des Moines.

State officials may believe that local governments could save taxpayers a lot of money by consolidating or sharing services, but Olive doesn't buy that particular explanation. There are only a total of about 60 full-time government employees among the county and its cities. It would be hard for governments that small to get much more efficient, Olive says. But he favors consolidation anyway, because it would spread services more evenly--Nodaway's mayor would no longer have to plow or put signs back up after they get knocked down--and help preserve those aspects of government that residents rely on most.

"The state's view is the reason to consolidate is lower taxes," says Tom Bredeweg, executive director of the Iowa League of Cities. But the motivation for local governments is "to do better what they're mandated to do."

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