Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Local Governments Consider Consolidation Options

Mark Felix
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Across the country, cities and counties are running out places to turn for cash. Residents complain that taxes are too high but then wince at cuts to services. In southeast Wisconsin and elsewhere, leaders are turning to a third option: consolidation of services or of whole communities. While it can save millions, some critics say autonomy is more important.

At Waukesha County Communications, 911 dispatchers assure callers help is on the way. It could come from one of 29 communities within Waukesha County because this is a consolidated dispatch center. Local governments pool emergency calls here to try to improve quality and save money. The most recent city to join predicts it will save it nearly a million dollars a year. Such consolidation is on the rise.

Even before the recent recession, Census Bureau data showed intergovernmental spending rose 234 percent from 1992 to 2007. Now, all states have service sharing laws, including Hawaii, where counties are on separate islands.

Still, for some opponents, autonomy is more important. In Waukesha County, the City of Waukesha is not part of the dispatch center. Dennis Angle is deputy chief of the Police Department. He says, “My job is to serve the citizens of the City of Waukesha. That’s their expectation of me: to render the best service that we possibly can to them.”

Angle says his city does share some services, but he’s concerned joining the dispatch center might reduce emergency response quality. Such concerns are common in consolidations though some wonder if it’s more about the fear of losing jobs.

Other opponents are concerned about something even more nebulous – civic identity. A bitter fight in Nebraska eight years ago led to the closure of more than 200 small school districts. To try to save his daughter’s school, farmer Mike Nolles formed Class Ones United. “When you lose a school like this, it’s the exact same feeling you have when your home burns down with all of your family photographs,” he says. “It’s the exact same feeling because I’ve experienced both.”

Russ Inbody says he sympathizes with people like Nolles. He’s head of Finance and Organization for the Nebraska Department of Education and says, “It’s an emotional issue, and sometimes you just have to bite the bullet for the welfare of the students.” Inbody helps guide schools through mergers. He says they give students better resources and spread out the tax burden. As rural communities shrink, he says, consolidation is necessary.

More extreme is the complete merger of two municipalities. Princeton, New Jersey, used to be a so-called “doughnut town” with the borough in the middle and the township around it. They shared services, but residents voted down consolidation three times. In 2011, it passed easily. The Center for Governmental Research helped with that process.

Its economist, Kent Gardner, says Princeton officials had to address the very real fear of change. “People like to think that the policeman actually will recognize them,” he notes. “You know, ‘it’s going to be Sergeant Joe, and Sergeant Joe is going to know me. If we consolidate, then maybe it’ll be somebody I’ve never seen before.’”

David Goldfarb is the only Princeton politician who spoke against the merger. He says he and others on the borough council worked hard to preserve its charm. He worries the new government, which took over this year, won’t care for the downtown in the same way. “When I walk out of my house and see people out on the street, it gives me a warm feeling,” he says. “It’s a place that’s vital and appealing both to residents and to visitors. It didn’t happen by accident.”

Time will tell who’s right about Princeton – and consolidation issues here in Wisconsin. While consolidation supporters cite significant upsides to these mergers, there’s something studies can’t easily predict: how people will feel about changes to their communities.

More photos related to this story are at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website.

The Public Policy Forum's Rob Henken weighs in on government consolidation.