Local Government – Millstone or Catalyst?
The Opening Argument for a New Local Government Model
Local governments, especially cities, could be the catalyst to reviving America’s creativity, energy and entrepreneurial spirit. But, without wholesale structural change, they also could facilitate our decline.
America’s 90,000+ local governments vary widely.
Some are general-purpose entities, like cities and counties. Some are specialized, like school districts and park districts. Some are large, but most are small, serving less than 10,000 residents. Some states have few (Hawaii with 1.5 per 100,000 residents) and some states can’t get enough (North Dakota with 352.8 per 100,000 residents).
We love our local governments, small and large, but they face unprecedented challenges. Global competition. Federal gridlock. Disruptive state politics. Rising service demands. Fiscal instability. Without a new operating model, our local governments could become a millstone, rather than the catalyst we need.
As the pandemic reveals the flaws of American federalism and imposes crushing financial burdens on local government, will we continue to accept the status quo? Will our legacy include an archaic, fragmented system of local government that is unable to meet the moment?
Cities and towns, the heart of our local government system (and where most of us live), are about possibilities. Where people come together. Where diversity conquers isolation. Where creativity and energy collide. Where humans share their aspirations, join forces and realize their potential. Where a moment becomes a memory.
Many local leaders work hard at making their governments efficient and effective. And, over the years, they have had considerable success, in spite of American federalism and antiquated laws. Still, the pandemic—and its economic fallout—underscore the fragility of our local government system. Are we really so naïve to believe it can meet the next crisis without bold changes?
We should design a new local government model that is flexible and cost-effective enough to meet the likely challenges of the coming decades.
Designing a new local government model won’t be easy. It will require the contributions of many—scholars, practitioners, business leaders and citizens alike. While the particulars of any strategy merit debate, the model should include the following foundational elements: one entity for regional issues, multiple sub-entities for local services, service compacts for realizing jurisdictional efficiencies, a joint fiscal structure and modern operating practices.
We will present more details on this idea in the coming weeks. Our other commentaries on reconstructing government can be found at Civic Way.
- Metro Denver – Denver and its adjoining counties have two proven regional entities, the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation (Metro Denver EDC), a regional economic development organization, and the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), a state-authorized, voter-approved entity for distributing sales tax funds to nearly 300 cultural organizations in the Denver metro region; metro area blessed with top-20 economic growth, high-value jobs and rising median household income (up 25% from 2013 to 2018)
- San Diego – Live Well San Diego links cities, other governments, schools, healthcare providers and businesses around shared goals and community initiatives
- Bend, Oregon – Bend area, ranked by Milkin as the best-performing small metro area for economic growth, stresses regional collaboration with universities (e.g., Oregon State-Cascades) and others (e.g., St. Charles Medical Center)
- Boise, Idaho – factors such as regional cooperation, good public services, low long-term debt and affordable living costs, have spurred strong growth and national recognition (e.g., one of “America’s Fastest Growing Cities” by Forbes, best-run American city by WalletHub and top-100 place to live by Livability)
- Irvine, California – consistently rated highly for fiscal management by WalletHub; pre-pandemic reserves strengthen city’s ability to weather economic downtowns
- Provo, Utah – thriving regional economy, low crime rates, good public services, strong fiscal stability and growing high-tech sector; ranked as a top-100 place to live by Livability
- Sonoma County CA – after 2017 fires, formed multidisciplinary Safety Net Collaborative team to coordinate services across several departments
- Toledo, Ohio – Toledo Public Schools (TPS), after encountering serious enrollment losses and financial setbacks, instituted a long-term financial plan, made cost cuts, restored its fund balances and began a long-term turnaround
- Best-Performing Cities 2020, Where America’s Jobs Are Created and Sustained, Milken Institute, 2020
- A Modern Case for Regional Collaboration, Amy Liu and Nathan Arnosti, Brookings, February, 2018
- Best- & Worst-Run Cities in America, Adam McCann, WalletHub, June, 2020
- 2020 Financial State of the Cities, Truth In Accounting, January 2020
- Counties Matter to America, National Association of Counties, April 2017
- How to Assess the Financial Health of US K-12 Public School Systems, EY-Parthenon, February 2021