By Thomas R. Collins
Barrier island towns, each trudging through their individual budget nightmares, have been batting around ideas for saving money that involve more than the usual cutting of library hours or eliminating a job or two.
The towns have been discussing bolder measures that involve closer interaction with other towns: possibly sharing more services with each other or annexing neighboring areas.
The discussions raise the possibility of a more radical cousin of those notions: two or more municipalities merging into one.
Mergers of cities or towns have not been discussed much yet locally and no one has publicly voiced support for it, but the sharing of services is often a precursor to serious discussions about towns joining together to become one town.
More common is the city-county merger — something that surfaced in August when County Commissioners Priscilla Taylor and Shelley Vana said that cities in the Glades are so destitute that the county should consider dissolving them and making them a part of Palm Beach County. The idea met with immediate resistance from leaders in those cities.
Around the U.S., mergers of cities are talked about more often than you might think.
But it rarely ends up happening, with the proposals often done in, experts say, by concerns over loss of identity and by the complex logistics.
“To my knowledge, which is certainly not exhaustive, this is not something that happens with any frequency at all,” said Scott Paine, associate professor of government and world affairs at the University of Tampa.
Mayraj Fahim, a New York-based local government advisor, said that it can sometimes make sense for towns to merge, but often with each jurisdiction maintaining some degree of autonomy and with the aim of economic development.
“It’s different for every area,” she said. “But you need something that gets the region working together and operating with each other and looking to expand on whatever their strengths are.”
Voters have resisted
In Princeton, N.J., voters will go to the polls in November to decide whether Princeton Township and the Borough of Princeton should join to become the singular Princeton, operating as a borough.
The 16-square-mile township (pop. 17,000) encircles the more densely populated 1.8-square-mile borough (pop. 14,000).
They already share 13 services — including fire protection, planning, sewer and recreation — but have separate police forces and zoning departments.
“When you have 13 shared services and two separate governing bodies, it creates a very cumbersome way to govern,” said Princeton Township Mayor Chad Goerner, who supports the idea even though his mayorship would be eliminated and he’d have to run again to retain public office. “It’s hard on the citizen to go to one meeting. And we want them to go to two.”
A majority of voters in the borough, and a majority in the township, must approve the merger for it to happen.
Merging “the Princetons” has been put to a vote, and failed, three times in the past 60 years — and the smaller borough has been the one resisting, worried largely about a loss of identity and control, Goerner said.
This time, new state law in New Jersey makes merging more feasible, allowing each jurisdiction to keep its own ordinances and their own advisory planning districts, Goerner said.
There is a concern that merging would lead to a loss of the borough’s historic character, Goerner said, adding that he thinks the combined economic resources of the two entities would actually protect the borough’s character because it would be less likely to have to turn to redevelopment for tax revenue.
A consultant recommended consolidation, saying that it would save $3.1 million a year.
But, “the debate has really just gotten started,” Goerner said.
Savings can be elusive
The few studies on savings after government consolidation have focused mainly on cities merging with counties — and they have found that the savings doesn’t always pan out in those cases.
A Harvard review of the literature on the subject found that a variety of factors can sometimes lead to “diseconomies of scale,” rather than economies of scale.
Sometimes, labor-intensive services such as police simply have to be replicated when an area is expanded, meaning there isn’t much savings. Plus, larger bureaucracies can put politicians out of touch with residents, leaving them with less incentive to keep costs down; personnel benefits often simply rise to the level of the employees who are most generously provided for; and transition costs to the new consolidated government can be higher than expected.
Cities value uniqueness
On Anna Maria Island just south of Tampa, merging of three towns — the cities of Anna Maria (pop. 1,503), Holmes Beach (pop. 3,836) and Bradenton Beach (pop. 1,171) — was discussed as recently as 2009.
The idea, initiated by Holmes Beach, was that the cities could operate with fewer employees. But the talks fell apart when Anna Maria was not interested, said Diane Percycoe, that city’s treasurer.
In the end, Anna Maria felt that that the cities were too different — Anna Maria, for instance, has hardly any commercial property compared to the others.
“The island cities here are unique,” she said.
She anticipates that there might be future talk about consolidating certain services, but there are no such discussions now.
Tiny towns took the plunge
In rare cases, consolidations of municipalities actually do take place.
One example is the merger of the city of Rockville, Rockville Township and the town of Pleasant Lake, northwest of the Minnesota’s Twin Cities. In 2002, all three became just the city of Rockville, with a total population of 2,500.
Voters in all three municipalities approved the merger. In that case, there was one clear, primary goal: merging would make it easier to build a new city hall and fire hall, something each jurisdiction wanted. At the time Pleasant Lake’s “city hall” was just a “small little cabin,” said Rena Weber, the city administrator and clerk in Rockville.
Plus, the areas of Pleasant Lake and Grand Lake outside the city wanted to hook into a sanitary sewer line, something the merger made possible.
Since then, six small sections have de-annexed from the city, Weber said.
Overall, though, the consensus is that the merger has worked well, she said. The key was that voters were open to the idea, Weber said.
“I don’t know that there was a whole lot of opposition to it,” she said. “I think they had open minds.”
Budget-cut reflex not enough
Government experts say that efforts to consolidate usually fail, either at the ballot box or before then. Often, city leaders look to their staffs for input — and those same staff members might have their jobs at risk if a merger were to happen, Paine said.
“City staff are among the first to raise thoughtful arguments against consolidation,” he said.
Even if there would be savings should a city merge, the savings might come from services that had been tailored specifically for a city’s residents and might be considered too important to give up, he said.
Often, it is the worry about loss of identity that sinks a possible consolidation, Fahim said.
“People have sort of a tribal thing,” she said. “They think that consolidating with someone else is going to take something away from them,” even if maintaining that identity means that “they’re going to be sinking.”
Merging can make sense if it is done thoughtfully and not just as a reflex against budget problems, she said.
“It’s not just about sharing of services because you’re desperate,” she said. “If you have that mentality you’re not going to get much from it. You have to do it in an ambitious
Briny Breezes: 601
Gulf Stream: 786
South Palm Beach: 1,171
Ocean Ridge: 1,786
Highland Beach: 3,538
Palm Beach: 8,348
Lantana: 10, 423
Delray Beach: 60,522
Boynton Beach: 68,217
Boca Raton: 84,392
PB County: 1,320,134
Source: 2010 U.S. Census