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Counties: An Outdated Concept or the Future?

Hit harder by the economic downturn than either cities or states, counties are feeling pressure from all sides, leading many to reexamine county functions altogether.

J. Stephen Conn/Flickr CC
Fulton County is coming apart. Over the past decade, four new cities have been carved out of the Georgia county, which is dominated by the county seat, Atlanta. As a result, Fulton County now provides a full set of services to fewer than 10 percent of its 920,000 residents. All but one of the new cities are in the northern part of the county, which is both more affluent and more white than Atlanta and the rest of the county. Northern Fulton residents have always felt that they receive less than their fair share of county services. Now that they depend on the county for so little, with their new cities providing most core services, they believe more than ever that their tax dollars are simply underwriting other county residents.

Not surprisingly, then, there’s constant fighting when it comes to matters such as divvying up tax revenues or choosing representatives to sit on the regional transit board. More than that, there’s a movement afoot among the northern communities to break off from the rest of Fulton County entirely, by reconstituting Milton County, the territory that went broke and was absorbed by Fulton back during the Great Depression. “There are certainly people working actively on splitting the county,” says Joe Lockwood, mayor of the city of Milton. “There’s a sense that the county’s so big -- it’s 70 miles long -- that it’s inefficient and an unfair share of resources are going from one part of the county to another.”

About 85 miles to the southeast of Atlanta, policymakers in Bibb County have been trying to take things in an entirely different direction. On July 31, Bibb County voters decided the fate of a proposed merger between the county and the city of Macon. The county had long held the record for the most failed city-county merger votes in the country, with five previous ballot measures having been rejected going all the way back to the 1920s. But supporters of the latest proposal argued that the right moment had finally arrived.

The arguments for merger were familiar: A large enough population could attract federal grants and economic development, while limiting the number of elected officials that companies have to deal with. Local merger supporters argued that having one government take the place of two would be more efficient and save money. “Bibb County and Macon are joined at the hip,” says attorney Calder Pinkston, an organizer of a pro-merger group in the county. “We’re all in the same boat.”

The recession and its long aftermath are changing the shape of counties. Few are taking steps as drastic as those in Fulton and Bibb. Most are not shrinking their geographic footprints, and outright consolidation remains a tough sell. But plenty are undergoing changes that, in practical terms, mean they are pursuing similar courses to those in Georgia, for most of the same reasons.

It’s not news that all levels of government are experiencing fiscal stress just now, with revenue intake still struggling to top levels last seen before the financial crisis in 2008. But counties are feeling a special pinch. They are typically funded largely by property taxes, which have taken a hit due to falling assessments in both the residential and commercial markets. Another big share of their funding comes from states and the feds, which have cut aid to localities deeply and consistently in recent years. “It’s a terrible time for us,” says Larry Naake, executive director of the National Association of Counties. “I can’t remember, in my 40 years of being involved in this, a worse time for us.”

Counties typically face greater limitations than cities -- and certainly more than states -- when it comes to authority for raising revenues. And at a time when money is tight, Naake points out, counties are facing greater demands for resources in areas such as social services, health and public safety.

Even though the roles counties play are often little understood -- officials joke about having to explain what counties do, not just to residents, but also to city managers -- they are essential. Counties have cut salaries, staff levels and funding, not just for parks and the arts, but for just about everything. Still, their core responsibilities, including health care, prisons, roads and the judicial system, often come saddled with state or federal mandates. At any rate, they aren’t the kind of things counties can get out of the business of delivering entirely. “Every person goes to bed in a county,” says Paul McIntosh, who leads the California State Association of Counties. “It doesn’t matter where they live. We provide more services to residents in a city than the city does.”

The growing disconnect between the demand for services and the general county-level ability to pay for them has led to a round of structural changes in the ways that counties do their business. For one thing, counties are outsourcing and privatizing like never before. And they are collaborating more with other governments than they ever have, both with the municipalities and special districts within their borders and with other counties in their regions.

“County lines don’t mean anything anymore,” says Stephan Ritter, a county commissioner in rural Lyon County, Minn. “I shouldn’t say that -- they mean something -- but people are realizing that it doesn’t hurt to cross county lines to provide a service.”

The post-county attitude Ritter is referring to comes from a consortium of counties in southwestern Minnesota that have banded together to provide health and human services through a single, unified agency. Counties in the area have long collaborated in offering such services, but they set up a single agency to handle all the client and patient loads at the beginning of last year. What started as a group of four counties has already grown to six, with the size of the population that’s being served set to double by the start of 2013. “The bottom line is that most county human services departments do the same thing, in Minnesota anyway, and health departments do the same thing,” says Chris Sorensen, chief administrative officer of Southwest Health and Human Services, the regional agency.

The size of Sorensen’s staff has been in decline, but will rise with the increase in service area and population next year. Still, he expects his staff will grow by only about 55 percent to ultimately serve twice the population. He’s already been able to keep costs under control through use of technology and savings in areas such as fleet management. The result is that the agency hasn’t imposed a tax levy increase for two years and doesn’t plan one next year either. Lyon County alone is saving more than $300,000 a year, Ritter says -- not bad for a county of 25,000 people. And in addition to the cost savings, residents in southwestern Minnesota are receiving a level of medical services, including specialty care, which their individual counties could never afford to offer on their own.

Similar efforts are under way across the state. An even larger group of counties to the southeast is thinking not of combining departments but merging individual services where it might make sense, such as mental health. “In our own county, we now have a detox facility that serves four counties and an adult mental health crisis unit that services three counties,” says Monty Martin, community human services director in Ramsey County, which includes St. Paul.

Minnesota is not alone. All over the country, counties are working with their neighbors on issues such as housing and transportation while contracting with their own cities to provide an ever-increasing array of services. In Ohio, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, seeking to emulate the large amount of collaboration Los Angeles County enters into with its 88 local jurisdictions, outlined a plan earlier this year to offer a menu of services such as information technology and sewer maintenance to localities. He’s already been taken up by 10 of them. In North Carolina, the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have never fully consolidated their governments, but they’ve consolidated nearly all the service delivery, with no unincorporated territory left.

“Today, it’s not just the county but cities that are looking for more efficiencies,” says Dow Constantine, county executive in King County, Wash. “When there was plenty of money, it was easy to ignore the inefficiency of having 40 different governments perform essentially the same service.”

Constantine recognizes that his county has long been seen as less than a perfect neighbor, not listening to the concerns expressed by municipalities in the Seattle area. That’s one reason why true government consolidation within King County, as in most parts of the country, is a nonstarter. Still, even if people want to be able to maintain political control within their smaller jurisdictions, he suggests, that’s no reason they can’t act together regionally. Constantine has contracted with two dozen of the cities within King County to provide animal control, while reaching an agreement with Seattle to house its prison population.

Even as he looks for more ways to share services with other governments, Constantine has made a concerted effort to wring out savings from programs within his direct purview. Borrowing management techniques from the private sector, he has had various departments reexamine what they do, step by step, to ferret out duplication of effort and speed things up. Employees of various departments have been locked together in a room for a week at a time, finding out what all of them actually do to see projects through and correcting hiccups that don’t really need to be there. To cite one example, King County has been able to reduce the turnaround time for receiving a vehicle license tab renewal down from three weeks on average to just four days.

Smart leaders in other counties are similarly striving to create cultures that seek long-term continual improvements, not just short-term savings. But counties haven’t always been paragons of efficiency. Nearly a century ago, H. S. Gilbertson’s book The County referred to them as “the jungle” and “the dark continent of American politics.” Their problem wasn’t just corruption, but incompetence and departments working at cross purposes, says University of South Florida political scientist J. Edwin Benton. There’s been a long legacy of independently elected officials scoffing at budgets set by the county’s legislative body or top administrative officer. “In Florida, if the county sheriff does not like the budget proposed by the county commission, he can appeal to the governor,” Benton says. “Many times, they’ve been successful in appealing.”

A number of counties are trying to get rid of elected positions that create budget silos. Miami-Dade County, Fla., was one of the earliest counties to pursue a charter revision that eliminated the elected sheriff. Other counties are pursuing different paths toward more centralized leadership, including Luzerne County, Pa.’s recent move to a county manager-council form of government and the decision in Macomb County, Mich., to reduce the size of the legislative body from 26 members to 13. FitzGerald’s position as elected executive came about thanks to a charter revision that in turn was prompted, in part, by the raid on Cuyahoga County offices by 175 FBI agents back in 2008.

In some of these cases, scandals such as financial improprieties helped push the changes along. In others, the route toward merged services was accelerated by the retirement of top elected officials or staff, which helped limit the amount of turf protection that can make streamlining difficult. In many parts of the country, though, resistance to any structural changes remains real. Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana, has enjoyed some success pushing proposals to allow or prod changes in local governance structure through the state Legislature, but has also encountered strong resistance to implementing such changes at the local level. On the other hand, residents in Evansville and Vanderburgh County will vote on a city-county merger this fall, and supporters there are optimistic.

“If we’re willing to be a little less territorial, a little less tradition-bound, we can find ways to get more value for our shared constituencies,” says Constantine, the King County executive.

Still, there’s no denying that plenty of county officials sound frustrated these days. A number of well-regarded managers around the country have voted with their feet, deciding that now is the moment to retire. After all, the anti-tax, anti-government message remains potent and, if nothing else, limits flexibility on the revenue side of the ledger. Members of the public seem angry about the levels of services that strapped counties are able to offer. And counties feel like they’re at the end of a long daisy chain of decision-making, from the feds and states on down, which typically leaves them with limited authority over certain program decisions and, lately, less money to carry out missions mandated from above.

In California, counties are girding for a realignment of some $6 billion worth of services, notably in public safety, which the state wants to bequeath to them. Funding for such services remains contingent on passage of a tax-increase measure on the November ballot. “We’re in the earliest throes of probably one of the largest structural changes in state and local government in American history,” says McIntosh at the California State Association of Counties. “We certainly have to obtain the constitutional protections we’re seeking to lock down those funds, so future legislators can’t mess with it.”

California counties have learned the lessons of mission creep. Twenty years ago, the state gave counties responsibility for home medical services, which was a small program at the time. Costs have expanded and it’s now an expense of several billion dollars statewide every year. Both cities and counties in California have turned to voters for protection from further changes to the ways Sacramento provides funding to localities.

The state-local fiscal relationship in California has long been horribly complicated, made worse by Proposition 13 back in 1978. Since then, McIntosh says, there never seems to have been a time when counties didn’t struggle financially. There have been occasional respites, but never a period when counties felt prosperous and officials no longer had to look over their shoulders. “Most counties have exhausted their ability to, quote, do with less,” says Valerie Brown, a Sonoma County supervisor, in Northern California. “We’ve been doing it so long that almost all our programs are bare bones now.”

When Governing surveyed the performance of the 40 largest counties a decade ago, the conclusion was rather bleak: “Any reasonable accounting of the problems and burdens of county government risks creating the impression that the men and women who choose careers in it must be masochists.”

But today, those burdens have become so pervasive that they are starting to force what looks like needed change. Because of the long, lingering pressure on budgets across the country, counties have become more willing to rethink the way they do business, and who they’re willing to do business with. It’s almost as if they needed to have a financial gun to their head, says Benton, the University of South Florida professor, in order to discover a new willingness to work together on common problems with municipalities, their regional neighbors and their states.

“The longer that the misery continues and there is continuous pressure, I think we’ll see more success at either consolidating departments or streamlining administrative processes,” Benton says. “The gun will get closer and closer to the head, and we’ll see more of it than we’ve seen in our lifetimes and perhaps our parents’ lifetimes.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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