Local Government Consolidation:
A Framework for Effective Decision Making

by Michael D. Jensen

Various communities across the United States have formed city-county consolidated governments since the early 1800s. However, efforts to consolidate local governments are politically charged undertakings that fail more often than they succeed. Despite these challenges, community leaders continue to pursue consolidation as a solution to metropolitan area problems. Too often, decisions to pursue or support consolidation are based on a few anticipated benefits and anecdotal evidence from past consolidation successes. A broader framework for decision making is needed that includes a robust examination of the likely outcomes, the potential for achieving consolidation, and the availability of alternative solutions.

As urban areas expand beyond the confines of central city governments into unincorporated, county-controlled areas and newly incorporated suburban communities, many metropolitan areas consider consolidating these entities within a unified government structure. New consolidated governments hope to improve their operating efficiencies and solve a wide range of social, political, financial, service delivery, and infrastructure-related challenges that were not being addressed effectively by the previous local government structure. Local government planning professionals frequently play an important role in the decision-making process for local government consolidation efforts by assisting elected officials in evaluating the impact of the proposed consolidation, providing input on consolidation design, and implementing consolidation efforts. Unfortunately, much of the research and analysis conducted to assist decision makers is funded and conducted by parties with a predisposition to either support or oppose consolidation. That bias often leads to inflated predictions of the benefits or harm the community will receive. A framework for effective decision making that can assist planning professionals and other stakeholders in conducting an unbiased and thorough analysis of the consolidation issue is needed. By following a comprehensive framework for effective decision making, planning professionals can improve the outcomes of their decision-making process.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2002), there are 33 city-county consolidated governments operating across the country, including Boston, Honolulu, Indianapolis, Nashville, New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco. However, efforts to consolidate local governments fail more often than they succeed. During the 1900s, there were 94 consolidation efforts that resulted in public referenda, of which 25 of the questions passed, representing a success rate of only 27 percent (Briem 2003). Figure 1 graphs the attempted consolidation efforts during the past century.

Despite the many challenges, community leaders continue to pursue consolidation as a solution to the growing pains of metropolitan areas. After the recent consolidation of Louisville and Jefferson County, Kentucky, government officials played host to representatives from approximately 40 cities across the country that were interested in seeing how consolidation works firsthand (Cohan 2004). Planning professionals are likely to see more communities considering consolidation as urban populations expand into adjacent suburban and unincorporated areas.

Consolidation Attempts in the 1900s by Decade Key Consolidation Decision Stages
Figure 1   Figure 2
Consolidation Attempts in the 1900s by Decade   Key Consolidation Decision Stages


To merge local governments, the community at large must approve of the consolidation through a public referendum. This requirement creates a highly politicized, three-stage process to consolidation decision making (Carr and Feiock 2004). Each stage presents a unique context for decision making that involves an ever-widening sphere of decision makers. Generally, the role and influence of professional planners in the decision-making process is the strongest during the initial agenda-setting stage.

In the agenda-setting stage, local events push local or state institutional leaders to put consolidation on the legislative agenda. Only a few supporters of consolidation in key government positions are needed for this to be achieved. Decision makers at this stage need to evaluate whether consolidating the local governments can realistically solve the problems faced by the community, identify and evaluate alternative solutions, and gauge the likelihood that consolidation will succeed in a public referendum. The key decision is whether to proceed with the effort to bring consolidation to a public referendum. Analysis at this early stage has the most potential to result in unbiased conclusions. Stakeholders have not yet established entrenched positions or made political and financial investments in the outcome.

In the consolidation design stage, the rules and structural details related to how the consolidation will take place are codified. Decision making is in the hands of a wider body of stakeholder groups and is focused on crafting the design of the consolidation proposal. In this stage, supporters and opponents often wrangle over a large number of details in the consolidation proposal to be submitted for the public referendum. Consolidation opponents typically attempt to derail the design process or craft a proposal that will not pass. Supporters attempt to reach compromises that will keep enough allies on board to make it to a public referendum and pass successfully. Rather than a single go/no-go decision, numerous design decisions must be made. Unfortunately, much of the analysis and decision making at this stage is heavily biased by individual or ideological perspectives. Effective decision making involves an understanding of how the design elements impact the expected outcomes of the consolidation and the likelihood of the public approving a consolidation proposal. Decision makers supporting consolidation must attempt to find a design that preserves the benefits of consolidation while remaining politically tenable. Final consolidation proposals may need to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice before a referendum can be held to comply with the Federal Voting Rights Act (42 U.S.C. § 1973).

In the referendum campaign stage, proponents and opponents work to see their agenda succeed. The decision-making power is in the hands of the voters, but their perspectives are heavily influenced by the outreach campaigns of the two groups. The key decisions that supporters and opponents must make relate to how best to sell their arguments. However, the groundwork for a ballot question’s success or failure is often completed in the previous stages.

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