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Would consolidation work for Charlotte and Mecklenburg County? 

A new Urban Institute study and GOP commissioners disagree

In 1962, when the city of Nashville and county of Davidson, in Tennessee, chose to merge its governments into one, the area boomed. Today, the Nashville region's city-county consolidation is considered a model of efficiency, with its single administration and 40-member legislative body overseeing two tax districts.

Charlotte has long looked at Nashville's success at consolidation, and in late 2011 city leaders re-opened discussions of consolidating Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. A recent study at UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute suggests that while consolidation doesn't necessarily make government more efficient, it does improve economic development. The big hurdle in this area is the County Commission, which has thus far been unwilling to even broach discussion of the issue.

After his re-election, Mayor Anthony Foxx pushed hard for consolidation. Even though Charlotte and Mecklenburg County already have some successful functional consolidation — the police and parks, for example — Foxx wants to complete the merger by politically consolidating the two governments into one. He believes the move would save money and lead to more government efficiency, but the mayor emphasizes the competitive edge it would give the city and county when trying to bring new talent and businesses to the area. That edge is a key point in a banking-dominated city that, in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial meltdown, is desperately seeking diversity in its local economy. Foxx says local government needs to be more streamlined if the area plans to be a vital part of the global market.

"In the 21st century, the communities that are able to move the quickest are the ones who are going to win. We're not set up to move quickly. We're not set up to be as nimble a community as we need to be," Foxx said.

Not everyone in local government wants to follow Foxx's lead. When he asked the City Council to approve its own study of the issue, the measure barely passed, with six voting yes and five no. Afterward, when then-County Commission Chair Jennifer Roberts approached the Commission members, she found support for consolidation so thin that she didn't bother bringing up the issue in a full meeting. No one knows whether the county's early rejection of consolidation will kill the issue for this year, but even if some commissioners come around to Foxx's view, the process won't be easy.

It also won't be the first time Char-Meck has flirted with the issue. The city and county have been talking about consolidating their governments since the end of World War II, with the last effort coming in 1996, when the county was the one leading the charge. The matter died in the City Council. Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, who was on Council at the time, said there were several issues that killed the talks.

"Many of the issues that were lingering then were, would there be equal representation for all citizens, and whether there would be a true cost savings," Cannon said. "Also, there was an issue around the size of government and whether you were creating a bigger government while saying that you were trying to reduce the size of government."

Foxx said those questions from nearly 15 years ago should be the starting point of today's consolidation discussion, and that's why he thinks a study is necessary to determine what consolidation would mean for the area.

The three Republicans on the County Commission are strongly opposed to consolidation, as Commissioner Roberts found out. Commissioner Karen Bentley said she could not support even placing the proposal on the commission's agenda; Jim Pendergraph said he had heard too much opposition from leaders of the county's small towns; and Bill James said those towns would want assurances that their tax money would not be diverted to pay for Charlotte projects.

Davidson Mayor John Woods told Creative Loafing he's opposed to full political consolidation, "but I await to know more about the functional consolidation issues." Woods said the smaller towns must be involved in the discussions. Foxx agrees and said that since there's been a vote on the study, he can approach the mayors in the other Mecklenburg towns to discuss consolidation. "You've got multiple layers of decision makers," he said. "Everyone in the county would have the opportunity to have a say if the process moves along," said Foxx.

Bill James remains opposed to Foxx's quest, and went so far as to suggest a form of de-consolidation, saying that the Ballantyne area in south Charlotte should become a separate town, in order to better fight off consolidation and keep the generally wealthy area from having to fund the rest of the area's projects. Most officials, however, say such de-consolidation (or actually, in this case, secession) would be impossible to make happen.

Roberts, who said she sees reasons why consolidation would make sense, believes the idea that small towns would be bulldozed by Charlotte are "fear-based, or based on a lack of trust. The truth is, these kinds of things can be worked out. The 1995 study, for instance, (which engendered the 1996 discussions) worked out a tax rate for each town and created different tax districts," so the town-tax concerns dear to Bill James and his GOP colleagues are actually, Roberts implied, non-issues.

Dr. Suzanne Leland knows a lot about city-county government consolidation. The UNC Charlotte associate professor is co-author, along with Kurt Thurmaier of Northern Illinois University, of a book titled City-County Consolidation: Promises Made, Promises Kept?. A summation of their findings were turned into a report on UNC-Charlotte's Urban Institute website. Since local politicians are talking about consolidation, having a national expert on the subject in town was timely and useful to city officials, who have consulted with Leland on the subject.

Leland and Thurmaier's book notes that efforts to consolidate city and county governments in the U.S. fail about 80 percent of the time, so getting the best information from experts like Leland would seem essential to local pols making the right decision.

In fact, Leland's book draws conclusions that speak directly to the issues raised by Char-Meck's current discussion. Here are those conclusions, in stripped-down form:

1. Consolidation does not necessarily lead to more efficient government ("While about half of the cases ... seem to have lower rates of expenditure growth ... the other half of the sample does not produce the same data.")

2. Pro-merger campaigns delivered on most of their promises (In most cases, "the evidence is quite strong that the particular promises made to voters were kept, with very few exceptions").

3. Consolidation can, indeed, improve economic development ("Consolidated governments have performed more effectively in economic development than their comparison counties ... This is one promise the majority of consolidated governments delivered on.")

When consolidation works — as it has in Nashville—Davidson County — citizens see better services, one tax code and smaller government, said Jacqueline Byers, director of research and outreach for the National Association of Counties.

That kind of success is what Foxx hopes consolidation would bring to Charlotte-Mecklenburg. "While the rest of the community is rethinking ways that it does business, it's up to government to do the same," Foxx said. "Regardless of where the discussion lands, I think the community will be better off for having had the discussion."

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