Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Long View of City-County Merger

The single city-county in North Carolina where I live and have called home for a quarter of century is shaped much like the head of Astro the dog on The Jetsons 1960s television show which, by the way, the English-speaking canine pronounced as “Rastro.”

In a state where only one city-county merger has taken place, no city-county pair in North Carolina has seemed more suited to merger than the City and County of Durham.  This dates back to 1911 when the last 25+ square mile piece was added to the county to form “Rastro’s nose.”

The 17th smallest county in land area is inhabited by just one municipality, with the exception of tiny slivers granted annexation by towns in neighboring counties to facilitate utilities for developments that spillover. 

These two jurisdictions have always shared more than 85% of their inhabitants.  Today they also share various consolidated departments and a common school system, but there may be something in Durham’s historic DNA that inhibits a merger.

Dating to the Civil War that effectively ended here, Durham has always been more politically diverse than perceived, even today.  But one thing has been consistent, Durham has always marched to a different drummer than that played by the North Carolina establishment, regardless of the predominant ideology.

The chief reason for forming Durham County was ostensibly, to regain the lost productivity from having to frequently run to the Orange County seat of Hillsborough to file legal papers.  Ironically, four-fifths of the papers filed there at that time actually originated from Durham.

The major factor contributing to this was that the population of the proposed Durham County’s namesake city had swelled to twelve times its size in just over a dozen years, not counting numerous black settlements it would soon incorporate such as Hayti.

Today, nearly every city and town in the country is envious of entrepreneurs, but this attribute has been a central part of Durham’s DNA for more than 150 years, including political entrepreneurship. 

The roots of this political as well as ethnic diversity and entrepreneurship may explain many things, including resentment of Durham over the years as well as its own resistance to merging its two local governments, one county and one city.

Proponents for chopping off a portion of Orange and Wake counties to form Durham had to first overcome opposition from Raleigh interests including its chamber of commerce who had been fomenting opposition over here and in the legislature.

Some things never change.

Today, Raleigh is insisting that Durham pay to clean up that community’s water supply.  Back then, it insisted that Durham shoulder that county’s debts—which voters here agreed to do, proportionate to the number of taxpayers involved—when they voted overwhelmingly to approve formation of Durham as a county.

Yes, that is a double standard, and it goes way back.  While Raleigh and Charlotte were granted a prepared food tax in the 1990s without a vote of the people, the legislature insisted on voter approval in Durham just as they had done during its formation.

Raleigh interests meddled in the prepared food tax vote just as they did during the vote to form Durham County.  They had also meddled by subterfuge to switch the name of the jointly-owned airport to be non-alphabetical. And a decade later, they started to hoodwink relocating executives about the true location of Research Triangle Park.

Fast forward to my arrival.  Raleigh interests were spending millions to sway Durham voters against ballot proposals while also lecturing Durham to surrender its agency responsible for protecting and promoting the community’s brand and identity to leverage visitor-centric economic development.

The miracle, in light of this history, is not that there has always manifested a spirit of cooperation between the two neighboring counties and cities when it made sense, but that Durham has been far disproportionately entrepreneurial in the formation of those partnerships.

The terms political and entrepreneurial are not readily associated but in Durham they always have been.  Even more than outside interference, this may have spurred resistance to merger of the City and County, dating to formation of Durham County in 1881.

Nationwide, only six mergers of local governments had taken place before then and none in the southeast, so it isn’t clear it was even an option for consideration in North Carolina.   But by the 1950s, five more mergers had taken place across the nation including three in the south.

Even though more than a dozen attempts in the south had failed, including two in North Carolina, Durham officials put it on the ballot first in 1961 where only 1-in-5 voters approved and again in 1974 where 1-in-3 approved.

People think Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, North Carolina are merged, but a measure to do that in 1971 received only 30% approval.  Charlotte and Mecklenburg have consolidated some departments like Durham has.

Those two governments have also taken two further steps, establishing a common home page to their websites and getting state approval to form one common, county-wide police department.  There is still a sheriff’s office there that handles the customary activities of administration of the jail, security for the courts and the serving of warrants and writs.

Unfortunately, resistance by the sheriff in Durham scuttled efforts to again seek merger in Durham a few years ago.  More conservative Republican elected officials have also stymied any further merger in Charlotte/Mecklenburg.

Instead, ultra-conservatives there have threatened “de-consolidation,”  which may shed some light on a source of opposition for any future merger attempts in Durham where there is a long tradition of ideological diversity dating back to the formation of the county.

Countywide, Durham is not actually an island of blue in a sea of red as shown here in maps of election results in 2000, 2004 and 2008.  It is more complicated.

The maps were created by Dr. Mitch Fraas who received his doctorate here from Duke in 2011 before becoming the Schoenberg Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kislak Center for Special Collections.

Nor was Durham any more politically homogenous at its founding.  In the decade after formation, Durham became a center for populist third parties, which drew Democrats and Republicans as the shift to being politically Independent is today.

Even Durham’s conservatives at the time pushed back against their white supremacist peers across the state who were seeking to disenfranchise black voters at just the time that black businesses entrepreneurship was exploding in downtown Durham, both among former slaves and freedmen.

Angered, the then white supremacist paper in Raleigh sneered that in Durham, “white people and negroes were working side by side on the same street like a wild west town.”  Likewise, Durham had already earned a reputation for being politically entrepreneurial.

Current political affiliations aside, a fusion of conservative voters in the areas shown in red on these maps, as well as some black neighborhoods afraid of losing influence, could defeat a merger the same way they did the prepared food tax measure in 2008.

There is no reason Durham should not be able to move ahead with legislation to streamline and consolidate law enforcement similar to that which passed in Charlotte/Mecklenburg, preserving both, but with a far more productive division of effort.

Durham may also find solutions for a merger proposal by studying Anchorage where I lived and spearheaded community marketing in the 1980s.

A measure to merge the City of Anchorage with it borough (the name for county) failed in 1971—the same year Charlotte’s did—but passed when put before the voters again in 1975, with 62% voter approval, even under political divisions similar to those show on the maps of Durham shown above.

In the Anchorage formula, small crossroads, fire and water districts such as those in the red areas of Durham County on the map (including Research Triangle Park) were permitted to keep their identities and voting representation on the 11-member assembly, similar to the size it could be in Durham.

The mayor became a Chief Elected Officer, while the combined city and borough manager became a Chief Operating Officer.  This eliminated the confusion where in communities such as Durham, the mayor is chairman of the board of elected officials but often confused as a CEO.

As has been confirmed by many studies, a merger doesn’t really result in much saving because the two forms of government have very different responsibilities.

The huge benefit is that merger makes it much easier to streamline processes, achieve alignment and set a strategic direction including overarching policies.

Note: Some of the background for this post relies on sources in the book Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina by Jean Bradley Anderson.

No comments: