Cahokia, a small town in southern Illinois, has a past that its citizens can be proud of. Its history goes back to 1699, making it the oldest town anywhere in its region, and nearby are priceless Indian mounds and relics that go back a millennium before that. At one time, Cahokia was a territorial capital and one of the most influential communities in the entire state. Its array of venerable buildings includes a 1740 courthouse (still standing in somewhat altered form) that is on the National Register of Historic Places. The mounds are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of just 24 in the United States.

It's the present that isn't treating Cahokia so well. Jobs and residents have been slipping away, and it has lost nearly a third of its population in the last 20 years. Its poverty rate is nearly 35 percent. It has one of the highest crime rates in America. Its treasury is badly depleted.

How does a town like that climb out of its hole? The mayor and some of the leading citizens have an idea: They want Cahokia to merge with nearby Centreville and Alorton to form the combined city of Cahokia Heights. This isn't an obvious winner. Alorton is an old aluminum-plant town best known for its hazardous materials site, a dilapidated 400-acre eyesore ringed by nearly a mile of barbed wire. Centreville is poorer than either of the others. Its streets are full of potholes.

The now-defunct Center Ethanol Plant in Sauget, Ill.
The now-defunct Center Ethanol Plant near Cahokia, Ill. (Alan Greenblatt/Governing)

Still, proponents of this merger have placed a referendum to approve it on November's ballot. If the measure passes, Cahokia Heights could be a reality as early as next year.

Figuring out just what the merger will accomplish is a bit of a challenge. There have been a fair number of local government merger proposals in the past few decades, most of them presented to voters with a clear premise. In many cases, the idea is to save money by combining services. Those have had a fairly low rate of approval, even when the arguments are plausible. More effective is the pitch that a larger polity will stimulate a new feeling of pride and a sense of local importance. That's how Louisville, Ky., sold its successful merger with surrounding Jefferson County back in 2000.

The Cahokia Heights plan doesn't fit any of the usual categories. Basically, all three towns have horrendous infrastructure issues, including a flooding problem in Centreville that threatens to make it a permanent economic basket case. What Centreville needs most of all, in addition to street repair, is new sewers. What the three towns don't seem to need is multiple governments.

"Right now," Cahokia Mayor Curtis McCall Jr. told a reporter recently, "our communities are dying." His hope, and the hope of the pro-merger forces allied with him, is that a bigger entity would be better able to obtain help from the county, the state and especially the federal government. Why this would be likely, I'm not exactly sure. The merged town of Cahokia Heights would have a population of about 21,000. That doesn't seem big enough to make much difference. But under the circumstances, it may be worth a try.

I'm not suggesting that Cahokia, Alorton and Centreville are typical American communities. But they reflect the serious fiscal strains most towns of any size are enduring right now. Their merger effort points toward a debate on local consolidation and retrenchment that we ought to be having at this virus-plagued, cash-poor moment.

IT'S APPROPRIATE, in a way, that this debate is taking place in Illinois, because Illinois is the national capital of superfluous government. No one is even sure how many different governments it has. The 2010 census placed the number at about 7,000; the state controller has counted 8,466.

Many of these are special-purpose entities, but they are governments all the same. Illinois has a profusion of park districts, sanitation districts, forest-preserve districts, even districts for mosquito abatement. They are a primary reason property taxes have often ranked second-highest among the 50 states.

But the biggest offender in Illinois is township government. The state has more than 1,400 townships laid over its cities, towns and counties. Some of these townships run school systems, and others have some statutory responsibility for welfare payments or road and bridge maintenance. But mostly they are appendages that serve mainly to provide jobs and compensation for local politicians who, unsurprisingly, want to keep them. Most of the townships have tax assessors, but in many cases they don't assess anything. The county does that.

One of the many potholes around Cahokia, Alorton and Centreville

A pothole in Centreville. (Alan Greenblatt/Governing)


St. Clair County, where Cahokia, Alorton and Centreville are located, has 21 different townships, including one for Centreville, which overlaps with the city government in a community of fewer than 5,000 people.

It's pretty clear that an area as poor as greater Cahokia can't afford so much government. Combining the three cities would be a small step in the right direction. But a state-level effort to get rid of unnecessary governments would help the Cahokia region and many other areas as well. A series of commissions and studies have looked at this issue over the past generation, and all have come to that conclusion. But, except for a few isolated cases, very little has been done.

The picture is pretty similar in the nine other states that have townships. In some cases they are functioning governments with broad responsibilities, but just as often they are not. Next to Illinois, New Jersey may be the best example of a state with more governments than it needs. New Jersey has 241 townships in a governmental smorgasbord of 565 municipalities that also includes 254 boroughs, 52 cities, 15 towns and three villages. That's far more local government than exists in California, which has nearly five times as many people.

GOVERNORS AND GOOD-GOVERNMENT GROUPS have been pointing out for half a century that this clumsy patchwork of authority is one reason New Jersey is an expensive state to live in. Nearly 200 of the municipalities have populations of less than 5,000. One municipality in Camden County had, as of a couple of years ago, three households and an annual property tax bill averaging more than $30,000. A while back, the state Senate president called for a mandate that would force all municipalities under 5,000 to consolidate. That seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

The most conspicuous example of consolidation in New Jersey in recent years occurred in 2013, when Princeton Township and Princeton Borough voted to merge. By most accounts, the move has been a money-saving and bureaucratic success, saving as much as $3 million a year in administrative costs. "Consolidation has worked," the last mayor of now-defunct Princeton Township said recently. "We need to stop being afraid of it."

But most other localities in the state do seem afraid of it, or at least reluctant to move toward it. A current drive to merge the town of Roxbury with the much smaller Mount Arlington has attracted ferocious local opposition, even though some studies have concluded it would save the towns $12 million a year in administrative costs and would save residents an average of $1,000 a year in property taxes. But Mount Arlington doesn't want to become a section of Roxbury. Its citizens say their community would lose its identity.

In general, it's fair to say that fear of lost identity, not documented inefficiency, is the major reason that rationalization of local government has not moved very far in many of the places that appear to need it most.

With one exception: the consolidation of schools and school districts in rural and small-town America. In some ways, it's a puzzling phenomenon, because people in these places are far more attached to their schools than they are to their townships or sanitary districts, or even their police and fire establishments. A small town can lose its fire department and keep its sense of community intact. When it loses a high school, however, something precious is gone.

And yet it has happened. Let's take Iowa as an example. In 1935, it had 953 high schools. By 2013, it was down to 453. Over that same period, more than 90 percent of its school districts had disappeared. The pain this caused, the feelings of eroded community that it created in much of the state, are more profound than I could possibly express in a few sentences. I have to confess that at this late date, I sometimes wonder myself if it was all worth it. Still, the citizens of Iowa, who ultimately possess the power over these decisions, consented to the obliteration of half of their high schools, along with all the history and tradition and loyalties they carried.

There are a couple of reasons. One is that many of these schools were so small that their continuation was hard to justify in fiscal terms. But a more important reason is that the Iowa citizenry was persuaded that consolidation of schools would bring them something tangible: higher-quality education than a tiny underfunded schoolhouse could provide.

The numbers suggest that they have gotten what they wanted. Iowa consistently ranks among the top 10 states for school quality. Roughly 90 percent of its students who start high school eventually graduate. This wasn't true in 1935. It would be foolish to argue that the state's educational performance is entirely the result of consolidation, but it would be equally foolish to say that consolidation had nothing to do with it.

There's a lesson here for consolidation movements of all sorts, not just those in education. Government can be successfully consolidated — made more efficient — when it is clear to ordinary citizens that they will be better off. Iowa did that with its school reforms. Most other consolidation efforts, whether they involve townships or special districts, or cash-strapped village governments, haven't been able to make the case. That doesn't mean they can't. This may be the time for it. Perhaps Cahokia, Alorton and Centreville can help us out.