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An Option to the 'Unigov' Example for St. Louis Region

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
By Aaron M. Renn
January 1, 2016


Metropolitan governance has long been the conventional wisdom in planning circles. In a fragmented region like St. Louis, this prompts the obvious question as to whether consolidation could be an answer to some of its challenges. While consolidation undoubtedly has some benefits, it also brings its own set of problems. Expending precious community leadership time and energy on consolidation is dubious, though some form of consolidation might be useful for tiny, troubled municipalities.

The arguments for regionalization, city-county consolidation, etc. are that they help equalize the fiscal base of the region, reduce harmful intra-regional competition, and save costs though economies of scale. The main traditionally observed downside is dilution of minority voting clout.

One traditional example of the consolidated city is the so-called “Unigov” system of Indianapolis, in which the city of Indianapolis merged with Marion County in 1970. Unigov undoubtedly played a role in stabilizing that city during an era when urban America was under great pressure from deindustrialization and suburbanization. It also provided an expanding suburban tax base to finance the rebuilding of downtown and other key civic initiatives. But it had major limits.

Unigov was less of a consolidation than it may appear. Four cities were almost completely excluded from merger, and a large number of towns retained their own legal existence and some powers. No school districts were consolidated, nor were police and fire services. It’s typically the case that consolidated cities are less consolidated than they appear.

Consolidations also don’t save much money and can even raise costs. When companies merge, major restructuring and layoffs often follow. But when governments merge, few if any employees lose their jobs, and pay and benefits can even be harmonized to the high-water mark.
The post-Unigov merger of the Lawrence Township Fire Department with the Indianapolis Fire Department is instructive. No firefighters lost their jobs, and the Lawrence Township firefighters saw pay and pension increases when they moved over to IFD.

And today, 45 years after Unigov, more downsides are becoming evident. Unigov did not prevent the collapse of the city’s urban core. Between 1970 and 2010, Indianapolis’ Center Township, the best proxy for the old, pre-consolidated city we have today, lost 47.8 percent of its population. This is almost identical to St. Louis’ 48.7 percent population loss.

Further, Unigov did not halt sprawl. The result is that today much of Marion County is now fully developed and the expanding suburbs are predominantly outside of the consolidated city itself. This happened at the same time many of the original consolidated suburbs themselves began falling into decline with age. The city of Indianapolis now contains regions with some similarities to Ferguson. While the acute fiscal problems that plague some St. Louis-area suburbs don’t affect these districts, the challenges of increasing poverty, navigating racial change and suburban decay are still present.

And to the extent that Indy’s urban revival continues, it will now be weighed down by declining inner suburbs instead of being supported by them. Mayor John Cranley of Cincinnati thinks that in today’s world his city is in better shape than those who consolidated or annexed large territory, because he doesn’t have to share emerging urban tax revenues with these struggling outer areas. As he puts it, “We get the benefit of, on a per capita basis, being able to invest way more in these urban neighborhoods than any of our peers because we didn’t annex.”

While Unigov hasn’t stopped inner suburban decline, it has prevented the formation of small “failed state” governments in these areas. But existing municipalities are often excluded from mergers in order to assemble the political coalition for passing merger. This was true in Louisville and Nashville as well as Indianapolis. Thus one real benefit of consolidation has in practice proven difficult to achieve.

Rather than expending energy on consolidation in St. Louis, a better approach might be for the state government to put in place enhanced resolution mechanisms for particularly troubled or abusive suburban municipalities. This could include an option to disincorporate and reabsorb them into the larger county government. Politically difficult to be sure, but in these cases there is no easy answer.