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The Hidden Downsides of City-County Mergers

Merging cities with their suburbs is sometimes seen as inspired urbanism. But it doesn’t always benefit everyone.

Code for America is a program in downtown Louisville
Louisville and Jefferson County, Ky., pulled off the last major city-county merger. That was more than 20 years ago. (David Kidd/Governing)
City planners have long had a soft spot for regional governance. David Rusk may be the best known among them. In his 1993 book Cities Without Suburbs, he argued that cities that were able to continue annexing suburbs (as in his own Albuquerque, N.M., where he was mayor), or which pulled off city-county mergers, such as Indianapolis or Nashville, were at a big advantage over older, core cities such as Cleveland that were hemmed in jurisdictionally.

That has been conventional wisdom among the planning elite ever since. Indeed, the cities that have implemented city-county mergers tend to view them as unalloyed positives, and often cite them as the catalyst that triggered their revitalization or growth.

But these mergers are not panaceas. A few critics have argued that city-county mergers amount to a suburban takeover of the city, and dilute much of what made the old core distinct. When Louisville pulled off a city-county merger in the early 2000s, a pair of academics at the University of Louisville, H.V. Savitch and Ronald Vogel, made precisely this argument. They lost. The merger was approved.

Their thesis has proven out in a number of places. One is Toronto, which went through a 1998 merger with several suburbs in a process called amalgamation. This led in 2010 to the election of the much-maligned Mayor Rob Ford, whose power base was in the newly annexed suburbs. Amalgamation imported the city-suburb divide into city politics itself.

In many places, however, it is the inner-ring suburbs that have suffered. When Rusk wrote his book, many of those suburbs were still thriving and growing. Annexing them seemed like a fiscal solution for declining inner-city areas. They could tap into the suburban tax base to sustain city services and fund downtown redevelopment efforts.

Where I live in Indianapolis, this certainly worked. In the wake of its 1970 city-county merger, called Unigov, the city was very early to the downtown revitalization game, earning plaudits for its strategy of using sports as a means for revival. The merger undoubtedly was a key factor in making this happen.

But fast-forward 30 years, and in Indianapolis, as in most metropolitan regions, the older, inner-suburban areas that were annexed into the city are themselves aging and experiencing challenges. The new, growing suburbs are beyond the limits of Unigov, in the surrounding counties. Yesterday’s suburbia can no longer contribute as much in the way of tax revenue as it used to. In fact, it can even start draining revenue away from a revitalizing urban core.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley made a similar point when I interviewed him a decade ago. Cincinnati was one of those cities that couldn’t merge or annex suburban territory. Although this was conventionally viewed as a challenge, he saw it as an emerging asset. As his city revived, many of the region’s high-value assets were contained within it, and Cincinnati did not have to share the tax revenue from them with struggling suburban areas.

And, unlike Philadelphia or New York in the 19th century, modern cities that have merged or annexed suburban territory have largely failed to fully integrate those areas and provide them with urban-type services or infrastructure. Indeed, they have often failed to invest much in them at all. Suburban areas annexed by the city of Portland, Ore., several decades ago still don’t have sidewalks, somewhat belying the city’s reputation as an urbanist success.

The outer areas of Davidson County, which were consolidated into the city of Nashville in its 1962 city-county merger, also still lack basic infrastructure such as sidewalks in many places. Indeed, many mergers such as Nashville’s are explicitly two-tier affairs, with quality services limited by law only to an urban services district consisting of mostly just the old city.

The same pattern emerged in the outer-township areas annexed into Indianapolis through the Unigov merger. The city has barely invested in them over the years. Meanwhile, suburban jurisdictions remaining outside of Unigov have poured large sums of money into multi-use paths along their streets, new parks and playgrounds, and walkable mixed-use districts. Compared to these thriving communities, the old suburban areas that were absorbed into the merged city are uncompetitive. And because those areas have no governments of their own, they can’t do much about it.

It's interesting to consider a counterfactual thought experiment in Indianapolis. What if, instead of a city-county merger, the outer suburban areas of the county had been incorporated into municipalities along township boundaries, with a regional tax-sharing system for municipal revenues, as in Minneapolis-St. Paul, or other mechanisms used to support the central city? This might have left those now-aging suburban areas in a much better place today, while allowing the urban core to benefit from its contemporary rise, as in Cincinnati.

There are trade-offs to any governance approach. But the big-box style of governance that’s considered to be best practice, as exemplified by city-county mergers, has real downsides that are seldom discussed.

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Indianapolis
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at aaron@aaronrenn.com or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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