Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The “M” Word – Never Simple – Sometimes Not A Savings

I arrived in Anchorage AK in 1978, just a couple of years after the City of Anchorage and the Borough (County) of Greater Anchorage had merged into the Municipality of Anchorage. I thought at the time that it must be common but I guess that even today, there are only 40 or so instances in the nation. The Mayor of the Municipality of Anchorage now is the son of George Sullivan who was Mayor during and after the merger.Capture George, a good friend and former board member, just passed away last Fall.

Two things have brought to mind the merger of of the City of Durham and County of Durham, NC in recent days, although it has been thoroughly discussed and rejected a couple of times since I’ve lived here and by voters twice prior to that.

First, at a budget presentation, the County Manager Mike Ruffin apparently raised the issue of merging law enforcement and fire protection as noted here by Jim Wise in his blog Bull’s Eye. Then an article by Judy Kean in USA Today about cities and counties thinking about overall merger with a mayor of one just merged claiming a 22% savings in personnel. All I can say is they must have had some huge management offices which Durham doesn’t.

You would think though that Durham as essentially a single city-county would be a natural for merger ( very tiny slivers of Chapel Hill and Raleigh, each in other counties, were just accommodations by Durham to enable some spill over developments to have integral services).

Ruffin’s proposal isn’t to be confused with what the City briefly experimented, years ago, when it merged police and fire departments before separating them again. I think he must be talking just about merging the County Sheriff with City police and fire.

The savings Ruffin projects as significant must be related to just collapsing the Sheriff’s office back to just handling its traditional responsibilities for warrants, public safety in the counts and schools and oversight of the detention center and fingerprinting. Of course, the City would have to expand police coverage to cover 14,000 or so households so I’d have to know more about how he sees significant savings overall. This would certainly be a much smoother division of effort.

I am assuming, as it is in the merged Charlotte/Mecklenburg, there would still be a county sherriff in Durham if the City and County here merged. Alaska is one of three states without Sheriffs so I suspect that was never an issue with merger in Anchorage. In the Anchorage merger though, they preserved, at least initially, many of the little fire districts and crossroad identities, e.g. Bahama, Rougemont etc.

The City and County here already operate departments several combined services such as Planning, Inspections, GIS etc. While they each handle land-centric economic developmet separately, they handle visitor centric economic and cultural development jointly, though DCVB is an “authority” established by State legislation as a provision to granting the City and County permission to levy a special tax on the rate paid by overnight visitors 20%) with a portion invested back to self fund community marketing.

Cities and Counties are not replicas of course. The City here handles hard services like protection, streets, traffic, fire and parks, which is more typically a function of counties elsewhere. The County here oversees or funds public schools, public health, tax collections, elections and social services etc. and of course the Sheriff's office. Counties are official sub-divisions of the State while cities are incorporations.

So in Durham, there is already a pretty good division of effort and they have very different cultures, one centralized and the other not. Merger here would integrate some management and consolidate the elected governance bodies but not a lot else that I’ve been able to tell.

But I can see how merger sounds good politically. Those advocating smaller government would like that it collapses one into two even if the one is essentially the same size as the two combined. And fans of centralization would also like having just one entity so ostensibly approvals by elected officials would be simpler. One downside to merger is that it often legitimizes "full-time" elected officials but increasingly since the 1980's they've been operating like that anyway, just without pay.

Merger is never the slam dunk issue some make it out to be.

No comments: