The old issue of city-county consolidation is making its rounds again since the Charlotte City Council voted to commission a $150,000 study on the matter. At issue are both political consolidation (which would consolidate the area's government services as well as its governing bodies) and functional consolidation (services only). Mayor Anthony Foxx has indicated a desire to pursue political consolidation, while most of the incumbent at-large city council members proposed functional consolidation during an October debate. Regardless of which they pursue, the question is: what is the possible upside of consolidating?
My main opposition is this: Voters are already disenfranchised enough by city- and county-level government. How much more marginalized will our voices be if we centralize our local government even further. Right now, your vote for district city council representatives is one of a few thousand. Comparatively, your vote for countywide representatives is one out of about 100,000. Where we land with consolidation is that we are all going to have a smaller proportional say in how a larger representative body will decide to allocate a larger pool of our collective tax dollars over a more dispersed geographic area.
Mayor Foxx has been quoted saying consolidation will save money through more efficient government and lead to more strategic budgeting and planning. My libertarian and professional business sensibilities cry foul on both counts. Does anyone really believe that governmental entities suffer less bureaucracy the larger they get?
Some would argue that cost-savings would arise from consolidation. I would like to know from where exactly. Do they mean from the economies of scale (an economic principle that larger enterprises can reduce cost through volume purchases, specialized knowledge or cheaper financing) that a larger governmental entity could achieve? I think that argument fails as a sweeping generalization. The kind of economies of scale achieved by large nonmanufacturing entities typically means getting a 2-percent discount on large office-supply orders. So basically, we would be giving our local government incentive to stockpile paper reams and staples.
Are you willing to give up your voice in the community in exchange for saving a half-cent per sheet of paper? I believe my voice is worth more than that.
The reality is that a large part of city and county government cost is tied up in personnel costs. The city has budgeted $394.8 million, or 74 percent, of the general-fund operating budget for fiscal 2012 and 2013 for personnel pay and benefits. Those costs don't get cheaper with economies of scale. So maybe the pro-consolidation crowd is talking about the dreaded elimination of redundancies by merging functions, such as human resources or fire departments. If so, will any politician pushing this agenda come out and say in public that he or she believes the cost savings will come from giving local government employees the ax? I very much doubt it. So, where are the savings coming from?
Another defense of consolidation is that it would allow for more strategic budget and planning decisions. According to this position, by increasing the pool of resources to allocate, better overall decisions can be made. I have worked in my professional career in accounting and have never come across a situation where the budgeting got more accurate as budgets were passed up the departmental food chain. The original budget requests come from people on the ground who are in the best position to really determine the resource needs of a department. Once a budget leaves the department, it becomes subject to departmental politicking and what eventually reaches the top rarely resembles the original request.
Consider this: As the geographic coverage of the consolidated city-county government gets more dispersed, where will the wealth be redistributed? Will tax dollars from Charlotte flow to the surrounding counties rather than stay here in our communities? Or will the city use consolidation as an underhanded way to annex every surrounding town and city, forcing them to pay into Charlotte's tax system?
I think what most taxpayers want is for tax revenue generated in our city to stay here — not for Charlotte to steal tax dollars from surrounding towns and cities. But if we consolidate, you can be sure there will be communities that win and those that lose on the redistribution of resources.
Is there a way we can achieve more efficient government and more strategic budgeting? Yes, by doing the exact opposite of consolidation. Deconsolidate city and county functions. Let the voters of Charlotte have the greatest say in what happens in city government. Let city staff budget for city needs. Let city government only pay the cost of administering city services.
Alex Vuchnich is a libertarian activist and small-business owner living in south Charlotte with his wife and two daughters. He can be found on the web at www.lpmeck.org.
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