Hundreds of jurisdictional boundaries weave through the rolling hills and rivers that make up Pittsburgh and its surrounding suburbs. The region is carved into numerous neighborhoods, each with its own identity. But what makes the area unique is that many of these communities also have their own governments and separate services.
In fact, a total of 35 suburbs share borders with the city. Other public entities responsible for a range of services -- often referred to as “special purpose” or “special use” districts -- span the region as well. In all, more than 250 local governments serve city and Allegheny County residents, making life for public officials -- not to mention taxpayers -- complicated.
Given this level of fragmentation and public concerns about high taxation, one might expect calls for consolidation. Yet this hasn’t happened in Pittsburgh. Indeed, it rarely has in most other metropolitan areas surrounded by a host of local governments and special-purpose districts. Figures from the 2012 Census of Governments signal no significant national shift toward consolidation in recent years. The survey, published in August, tallied 89,004 general and special-purpose local governments across the U.S. in 2012, down only slightly from 89,476 five years prior. Rather than merge, officials seem to be seeking answers to solve mutual problems cooperatively, but are doing so while leaving governmental boundaries and districts largely intact.
Robert O’Neill, the International City/County Management Association’s executive director, said last fall that continuing fiscal pressures sparked talks of consolidation in a few localities, but that this hasn’t resulted in any great push for mergers. Instead, municipalities explored tactics like shared services to curb inefficiencies, an attractive option for economic development, transportation and other large-scale initiatives, according to O’Neill.
Government fragmentation has long been tugged at by two competing interests. On the one hand, many argue consolidation cuts costs and allows officials to better coordinate efforts. Citizens, though, are often emotionally attached to their local governments.
Many governments are packed into dense areas of the Midwest and New England. The Census Bureau counted 6,968 governments -- including special districts -- in Illinois alone, the most of any state, followed by Pennsylvania (4,905) and Texas (4,856). Not surprisingly, rural states harbor the most units of government per capita, with North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska recording the highest number of governments relative to population.
Voters, along with some states’ rules and regulations, often impede consolidation. For most general-purpose government consolidations, residents of all affected communities must approve public referenda before a consolidation can proceed. In New York, only two of 18 votes for consolidation of towns and villages have passed since the state’s government reorganization law was updated in March 2010.
But are all these distinct units of local government necessary? Myron Orfield, who leads the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School, doesn’t think so. Divided regions often experience disparity in quality of services. One of the most prominent such examples is the long-running statewide battles over education that pit cash-strapped school districts against their more affluent neighbors. Similarly, government fragmentation contributes to racial segregation in urban areas, Orfield says.
Another consequence of fragmented government is that competition among municipalities potentially hinders land use and economic development. “You have a lot of warfare between units of government to move shopping centers,” Orfield says. “They spend a lot of time fighting with each other.” By comparison, consolidated governments, such as the city-county systems of Indianapolis and Lexington, Ky., create more effective incentive packages to lure employers.
This doesn’t mean fragmented regions can’t successfully pursue ambitious projects, especially with involvement from nonprofits and the business community. It’s this type of alliance that has contributed to Pittsburgh’s revival, says David Miller, director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. “In a way, being so decentralized creates access into the civic community in ways that are remarkable,” he says.
Miller says centralized metropolitan regions with fewer local governments typically perform best economically, as long as the state affords them a broad range of powers. He assesses fragmentation using a “metropolitan power diffusion index” he developed, which factors both the number of governments and distribution of expenditures. By this measure, the Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, Ill., metro area is the nation’s most fragmented, with Pittsburgh close behind.
If there’s one state that’s a poster child for fragmented government, it is Illinois. The state’s nearly 7,000 total local governments far exceed any other state. The bulk of these -- more than 4,000 -- are special-purpose units, dating back to a previous version of the state’s constitution that moved municipalities to create new governments to get around state-mandated debt requirements.
Today, Illinois still maintains a long roster of special districts. One law mandates coverage by a fire protection district for properties not served by municipal fire departments. Local boards oversee more than 20 streetlight districts. In some areas, elementary schools in multiple districts feed into a single high school.
But like Pittsburgh, the state has yet to experience significant consolidation. The state Legislature has explored the possibility of reducing special districts, forming a 17-member Local Government Consolidation Commission in 2011. However, consolidation is far more difficult to actually carry out, says Larry Frang, executive director of the Illinois Municipal League. Some cities, for example, lack the capacity to provide adequate protection for outlying areas if fire districts are eliminated.
Historical boundaries further explain why some areas have so many governments. In North Dakota, more than 1,300 sparsely populated civil townships stretch across the state, many of which are occupied by only a few families who’ve farmed the same land for generations.
Some state lawmakers have brought up the issue of consolidating townships, but the idea failed to gain traction. Part of the opposition stems from the state’s culture. Larry Syverson, president of the North Dakota Township Officers Association, says many residents cling to their local control, resisting interference from outsiders.
“We’re just used to the idea that somebody has got to be taking care of these things,” he says, “so it’s either we have to roll up our sleeves and do it or the next guy has to.”