Balkanized Local Government and Political Inequality

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All of you who are concerned about growing inequality in Pennsylvania really must read Cities Without Suburbs and Little Boxes, Limited Horizons (PDF) by David Rusk. But in the meantime, you should read this pair of articles in Governing magazine, How Well is Power Spread Across Metro Areas? and Governments Resisting the Urge to Merge.

The political cost of PA’s balkanized system of 2562 municipal governments (not even counting school districts or special authorities) is severe segregation by race and income, huge disparities in public service quality and access, and an unequal distribution of political power:

But are all these distinct units of local government necessary? Myron Orfield, who leads the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School, doesn’t think so. Divided regions often experience disparity in quality of services. One of the most prominent such examples is the long-running statewide battles over education that pit cash-strapped school districts against their more affluent neighbors. Similarly, government fragmentation contributes to racial segregation in urban areas, Orfield says.

Another consequence of fragmented government is that competition among municipalities potentially hinders land use and economic development. “You have a lot of warfare between units of government to move shopping centers,” Orfield says. “They spend a lot of time fighting with each other.” By comparison, consolidated governments, such as the city-county systems of Indianapolis and Lexington, Ky., create more effective incentive packages to lure employers.

David Miller of the Center for Metropolitan Studies at University of Pittsburgh has created a Power Diffusion Index to measure how fragmented political power is within metro regions. In this post, there is a table ranking 942 metro areas by diffusion of political power. Four of Pennsylvania’s top 5 largest metros were in the top 20 (bad!), and when you include Harrisburg, all 5 are within the top 30.

Balkanized local government isn’t just a government efficiency problem, it’s also a huge problem for equality.

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3 Responses to Balkanized Local Government and Political Inequality

  1. Pingback: 1/10 Morning Buzz | PoliticsPA

  2. Tom says:

    Could there be an argument that consolidated and bigger municipal government isn’t always better? There is a right size of local government out there. Once you have a bunch of managers of staff, it just becomes a mess of issues that the big metro areas deal with. Political jobs and back slapping would run rampant.

    I was told once that a progressive Democrat in Western Pennsylvania pushed a police merger a few years back and was voted out of office because of it. I’ve never been able to find anything more about it and forget who told me that info.

  3. Jon says:

    Sure, I probably wouldn’t want a government bigger than one or two counties running a police department or a fire department. I’d be for having the Intermediate Units run education though. There’s a certain amount of patronage that goes on in any government, but I think that’s an argument for designing better institutions. Hyperlocal government is too costly a way to insure against political patronage.

    I’m not surprised that a Democrat would get voted out for that. If you look at what’s happening in Camden, public sector unions sometimes view this stuff as union busting. I think viewed correctly, it’s a way of cutting waste without laying off necessary personnel, and public sector unions should embrace this stuff as an alternative more job losses.