Would the city and county be better off if they merged?

The Takeaway

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Long-time Cincinnatians might picture Louisville as a down-river little brother, a smaller town with a Reds farm team. But its population of 597,000 in the 2010 census actually dwarfs Cincinnati’s 297,000—thanks to the 2003 merger of Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County. The change has allowed Louisville to trumpet itself as a major population center to prospective businesses and residents, and gives it a bigger share of federal spending.

If Cincinnati and Hamilton County followed suit, the Queen City could claim a population of 802,000, which in 2010 would have made it the 14th largest metro area in the country, leap-frogging Columbus (15th), Louisville (27th), and Cleveland (45th). It would also eliminate redundant administrative posts.

Various task forces have been discussing the possibility for years. Perhaps the biggest hurdle—besides logistical tangles—is how to unite the stakeholders around a single mission.

Has consolidated metropolitan government worked in other places? Yes and no. Louisville, Lexington, and Indianapolis are among the success stories. Indianapolis and Marion County resolved in the early 1980s to make the city a sports capital. After pumping fortunes into new downtown facilities—the suburbs, after all, were on the same team as the city folk—Indy scored the Pan American Games in 1987, the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four several times, and the 2012 Super Bowl.

Cincinnati City Manager Milton Dohoney, who was Louisville’s deputy mayor during its consolidation, credits the merger for creating a focused agenda that has produced such results as two Ohio River bridges—one downtown and one in the eastern suburbs—that are further along than Cincinnati’s Brent Spence replacement. “Instead of the county person saying ‘Let’s put it here,’ and the city person saying ‘Let’s do it downtown,’ they said ‘Let’s build two.’” They also merged their 911 dispatch systems, eliminating the question of which emergency service to send to a person having a heart attack or a house fire, saving lives and property.

In 57 other cases since 1921, similar merger efforts failed.

Even so, less bureaucracy and better service sounds like a no-brainer, so what are we waiting for? As Hamilton County Administrator Christian Sigman—who takes no position on a merger—points out, there are 49 political subdivisions and 39 school districts in the county and each one has its own agenda. Consolidation would require a years-long effort to disassemble things like township parks departments, small fire departments, and all those school districts—and then put them back together. If they resisted, it could be a decades-long battle, as was the case in Louisville.

With Hamilton County and Cincinnati facing deep budget deficits annually, consolidation seems like a bright idea. But in the short term, it wouldn’t save much money. In fact, it would cost a lot at the start to merge systems and protocols.

“If your reason for pursuing it is you believe that the government will be immeasurably cheaper because it’s merged, that’s not true,” Dohoney says. “You still have the same number of lane miles to pave, the same number of stoplights to maintain, and houses to protect from fires.”

Could the city and the suburbs play nice with one another? “That question comes up first in thinking of the composition of the group you’re going to assemble to even study the question,” says Phillip M. Sparkes, director of the Local Government Law Center at Northern Kentucky University’s Chase College of Law. “Finding an acceptable mix of representatives from townships, small cities, big cities, and unincorporated areas is no small challenge.”

Mergers can be crafted many ways. In Louisville, for instance, small suburban cities still have land-use control and their own police departments. Dohoney notes that a merger won’t succeed if neighborhoods think it’s being shoved down their throats. “The key thing is that every participating entity has to accept that they have to give up something,” he says. “If you’re going to go into it thinking you can keep everything intact, it just will not work.”

Can we do it half way? In some instances, yes, but that might leave some problems unsolved. Cincinnati and Hamilton County have been consolidating services for decades, including the Metropolitan Sewer District. But with separate governments, an “us versus them” mentality persists.

Even so, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber (which remains neutral on consolidating governments) supports combining services where it can create efficiencies. “Unless governments look to do that,” says Matt Davis, the chamber’s vice president of government affairs, “they’re going to be left with two unpalatable options—raising taxes or cutting services.”

So is a merger even realistic? “It’s just a question of do you as a community want to do this,” Sigman says. “We can merge anything they want us to merge.” That sounds awfully optimistic, considering the difficulties some other visionary civic projects have run into (e.g., The Banks, the stadium fund, etc.). Having been through it before, Dohoney advises: “You provide a singular focus the community can rally around and buy into, and you marshal your resources in order to do that.”

Well then, what does the community want? Voters rejected Louisville’s merger several times before the city and county realized that they desperately needed to unify to reverse a long trend of job losses and urban decay. Cincinnati and Hamilton County are both suffering population losses, but the problems don’t appear to be dire enough—yet—for conservative suburbanites, progressive city residents, and their politicians to band together for common cause.

“In the Louisville case, the majority of us concluded that we needed to change,” says Dohoney. “I don’t see that realization here. So if people don’t want it and elected officials don’t want it, I have plenty to do.”

Originally published in the May 2012 issue.

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