When it comes to the consolidation of government, West Virginia lawmakers are constant drum-beaters to the dirge of “Merge! Merge!” Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, is a chief sponsor of its latest iteration, Senate Bill 138. His legislation flew out of the Senate Finance Committee on Monday, and it will move with near certainty to passage by the full Senate.
Yet, as Palumbo knows, Nitro and St. Albans have been free to merge under statutes passed long ago that provide a path to what consolidation advocates would claim would be better local government. In fact, no city or county has taken advantage of existing law to consolidate.
The inaction of local government leaders on consolidation is what irks its advocates.
Under Palumbo’s bill, cities and counties would be incentivized to consolidate. If passed, SB 138 would authorize the state to match 10 percent of contributions to public employee pension funds for 10 years, give preference on state road projects, the unfettered power to impose a 1 percent sales tax and match 10 percent of regional jail costs.
Making retirement systems a little less mind-blowingly insolvent, raising taxes and defraying mandatory regional jail costs: It all seems so irresistible.
Which is not fair to keen-eyed legislators, who, and I believe them, just want better local government. Or is it less-expensive local government? Which one is it? Or is it both?
Consolidation fans in West Virginia often point to well-known examples of unified government, such as Indianapolis and the alleged combination of Louisville, Kentucky, Jefferson County and the myriad towns among them. These are illusions of pure consolidation and efficient government. They are more sizzle than steak, as Aaron Renn, a national observer of cities, has pointed out.
“In the case of the ‘Unigov’ system in Indianapolis,” Renn wrote for Governing magazine, “virtually none of the existing municipalities in the county were legally eliminated during consolidation. Police and fire departments were left unconsolidated, as were 11 school districts.
“Similarly in Louisville, Ky., where the city and county merged, neither existing municipalities nor fire departments were abolished.”
In the history of the merger movement, consolidation of local governments, towns, cities and counties is usually floated as either an efficiency or cost-savings move. Cost-savings are really an outcome of efficiency. And, yet, no case for consolidation in West Virginia to actually save on the cost of government services is ever specified. The operating presumption, without evidence, is that consolidation will magically lower costs, if consolidation occurs.
I don’t buy it. Maybe I’m from Missouri. Show me.
No one ever does. In 2017, a group of capable scholars, through WVU Research Corp., issued a white paper called “A Roadmap on Maximizing Local Government Effectiveness in West Virginia.” The authors shilled for consolidation without demonstrating how both effectiveness and thus, one presumes, cost-savings would occur.
My theory is that just the opposite would occur. I’m not alone.
“If the rationale [for a merge] is cost savings, you’re going to be disappointed,” Enid Slack, of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto, told Conor Dougherty in a piece for The Wall Street Journal in 2011. (I saved his piece for times like this.)
Slack described an unsurprising phenomenon in civic mergers: leveling up. This is the perhaps irresistible tendency of the merged local government to raise salaries of the public employees of the merged entity to the highest level of pay represented in the group. Leveling up almost always occurs in the making of a merger, with few cuts in employment numbers. After all, reducing the police force normally is not a winsome or winning tactic for reelection.
Imagine a negotiation between Mayor La Trivia of Wistful Vista and Commissioner Hogg of Passthru County: “Mayor, let’s merge your police department into our sheriff’s office. After all, county sheriffs are constitutional officers. Oh, and I suggest dispatching Wistful Vista’s new fire engines through the whole county.”
“Commissioner Hogg, our city pays its police officers 10 percent more than Passthru County pays its deputies. I figure we can’t cut salaries. Let me recommend that we raise your officer pay to match ours. Plus, our pension systems are underfunded by $150 million because we have been borrowing on our future for 50 years. Thank you for imposing our ginormous debts on the good citizens of Passthru County.”
I wish I would not be reduced to contemptuous skepticism about the efficiency and cost benefits of local government consolidation. It makes me sad to question the prevailing wisdoms that it, like castor oil or marathons, simply have to be, must be, good for you.
Remember, Jim Fixx wrote “The Complete Book of Running,” a best-selling book in 1977. In 1984, he died of cardiac arrest while jogging near his home. He was 52.