IBJOpinion

MARCUS: Rethink government consolidation now

Morton Marcus
February 18, 2011
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Morton Marcus

Ice on my driveway kept me house-bound most of the past two weeks.  A fellow gets to thinking …

Something is wrong. Our town of Meridian Hills encompasses just 1,616 people, according to the latest census. That’s down 5.7 percent, while Marion County grew 5 percent. It must be the brain drain. Can we find a plumber to fix it?

Of what earthly good is the town of Meridian Hills or, for that matter, most of the cities and towns of Indiana? Meridian Hills has just spent who knows how much money for large monuments more appropriate for cemeteries than a community. They carefully erected the sign nearest us to indicate that we are not included. I took that personally.

The town put up designer street signs to differentiate us from the rest of Indianapolis, but who cares? What does the town do other than pay for a constable and snow removal on minor streets driven by SUVs? Let the whale swallow it and no one will know it ever existed.

Look at reality. In this revolutionary period, under the leadership of the governor, Indiana’s township governments disappear. Trustees and boards tumble as assessors already have. School corporations build moats to protect their castles against charter schools. Why isn’t our Legislature shredding the fabric of community government by disbanding cities and towns that are only artifacts of horse-drawn days?

Am I serious about eliminating cities and towns? Yes and no.

Gary’s 2010 population sank to 80,300, 22 percent below the total of 103,000 from a decade earlier. The city is dysfunctional, its schools abysmal, its library system a burlesque. Could things get worse if Gary were combined with Hobart, Lake Station, New Chicago and other places in what we still know as Calumet and Hobart townships? By my count, 14 cities and towns crowd into the five northern townships of Lake County. Instead of getting rid of the townships, why not consolidate the cities and towns along township lines?

Someone ought to be asking if consolidation of cities and counties would succeed where only one city dominates a county. In 2000, Evansville’s population totaled 71 percent of Vanderburgh County. By 2010, the city accounted for only 65 percent of the county. The city’s population declined 4,000 and the county’s advanced 8,000. If the city doesn’t want to become hostage to the county, a joint government should be initiated now.

By contrast, Portland enjoys a stable 29-percent share of Jay County’s population, despite both city and county losing population over the last decade. The question becomes: Is a local government for 6,200 people in a county of 21,000 a luxury? Let’s rethink how we organize government in Indiana. Could we govern small towns and small counties effectively without separate governmental units?

Take the twin cities of South Bend and Mishawaka. They deny being twins, but that’s only because one is uglier/prettier than the other. Together, along with unincorporated Granger, they comprise 180,000 people. That’s a good size for an efficient city. Or is the current arrangement more efficient? Doesn’t someone care enough to look into the question?

 Similarly, 103,000 people live cheek-by-jowl in New Albany, Clarksville and Jeffersonville, but in two separate counties. Would these citizens be happier as one entity?

Many of our existing cities and towns could be pleasant neighborhoods in consolidated urban areas. But we’ll never know if we decide on the basis of another Kernan-Shepard report, a volume with little empirical evidence to support today’s radical change.•

__________

Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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  • I like the way you think
    I am from Gary and I like the idea of being consolidated to a nearby city. Maybe your next column can highlight the plus and minus of it.

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