Rethinking the Ideal City Government Will Be Messy

“I hope the next two decades are a period of experimentation in the United States.”

Philadelphia’s City Hall (Photo by Max Binder)

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Next year, Paris will swallow most of its suburbs into an enlarged city government in an attempt to correct inequities that have trapped poor and immigrant Parisians in huge suburban housing complexes where unemployment is high and quality of life low. Paris’ action comes on the heels of similar annexations and consolidations in cities from Toronto to Louisville over the last 20 to 30 years.

Meanwhile, London continues to flourish under a form of municipal federalism, with a metropolitan mayoralty overseeing big-picture issues while individual cities and boroughs handle local services. And the debate continues: In St. Louis, there’s talk that it’s time to undo the 1871 “Great Divorce” that separated St. Louis City from St. Louis County, while at least one commentator has called for undoing the first big municipal consolidation in America, the 1854 consolidation of Philadelphia County into a single municipality.

All of this ferment points to one big unanswered question: What is the right form for a city’s government?

“I think another way of putting the question is, ‘What’s the optimal size for a metropolis?’” says Bruce Katz, vice president and co-director of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “Even before we get to the government question, there’s a debate about how big you need to be to compete globally.” (Katz is also a Next City board member.)

In today’s global economy, it’s cities that are the principal drivers of growth. And just about all of the cities that register as players in that economy have populations of at least one million in their commuter-sheds. Of the 388 metropolitan areas in the United States, 52 have populations above that threshold.

“The question for those 52 metros is, What’s the right way to organize yourself governmentally?” Katz says. “A lot of them are fragmented, but not all of them. Some are organized rationally. Because of annexation power or city-county consolidation, there’s more conformity of the government to geography.”

This, Katz explains, allows metropolitan regions to effectively marshal regional resources to deal with regional issues — one of the motivating factors behind Paris’ consolidation, which seeks to bring the services provided to marginalized minorities in the southern and eastern suburbs up to the level those in the historic city of Paris enjoy.

A bunch of marginalized minorities have for the past year thrown into sharp relief the inequities that afflict one of the nation’s most fragmented metropolises, St. Louis. Katz notes in his own essay on Ferguson that the residents of that mostly black northern St. Louis County suburb lived close to 14 percent fewer jobs in 2012 than they did in 2000, exacerbating the tendency for the local government to raise revenue through traffic and court fines, a source of both impoverishment and resentment among the city’s residents.

Katz also notes that the commission created by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is charged with examining the issue of governance. In his opinion, the arrangement in St. Louis has outlived its usefulness: “It’s a structure that may have made sense in the 19th century but doesn’t make sense in the 21st.” Certain issues, including infrastructure, energy and the environment, housing and workforce readiness, are best addressed at the scale of the metropolis, Katz believes, especially in an era when national governments are devolving responsibility for these matters to the regional level.

And as the Paris example shows, this isn’t confined to the United States. “Europe seems to be going through more of this tumult,” Katz says. “There’s the devolution in England, the city deal in Manchester, the deal in Denmark” where the national government has forced smaller municipalities in greater Copenhagen to consolidate, “the Italian experiment with governments, and what Paris is doing.”

The tumult in the United States so far has been limited to street protests and sporadic outbreaks of unrest in the most disadvantaged communities. But Katz says that even though there’s no movement right now to reimagine metropolitan governance in the United States, one will have to come simply because the federal and state governments are pushing more responsibility for items like infrastructure down to the metropolitan level.

The good news is, there are already several functioning arrangements that could serve as models for other cities to adopt. Many of the city-county consolidations of the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, left responsibility for some local matters such as schools to the formerly separate municipalities, while others allowed existing municipalities to retain some autonomy, as in Wyandotte County, Kansas.

Then there is the regional revenue-sharing arrangement in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. There, an appointed Metropolitan Council gathers revenue from all of the Twin Cities’ local governments and distributes it according to a formula designed to ensure equitable funding of services no matter where in the area one may live. “I think it’s worked quite well,” Katz says of the Twin Cities model. “At the end of the day, if you’re going to maintain a lot of little-box governments, for whatever reason, then you’ve got to lower the fiscal disparities between places. Otherwise, you end up with metropolitan areas that are not only unequal by income but unequal by place.

“The Minneapolis-St. Paul model is a tried and true method of reducing fiscal disparities and allowing economically and fiscally weak municipalities to provide services to their residents.”

Also, last fall, Rachel Dovey reported for Next City on how the Council planned to change distribution of federal transportation funds by assigning points to potential projects based on how they stand to improve racial equity.

Another possible model, Katz says, is the establishment of a regional authority that, while it might lack taxing or revenue redistribution power, has the ability to direct regional policies in areas such as housing and infrastructure. The current setup with metropolitan planning organizations for infrastructure issues is a step in that direction.

But even in a federal metropolis or a regional revenue-sharing arrangement, the question of optimal size remains, and here Katz says there is such a thing as governments that are too small. Into that category fall many of the 91 municipalities where St. Louis County’s one million citizens reside. “At some point, we just have to bite the bullet here, and that’s what Denmark had to do,” he says. “Many London boroughs are quite large.”

The one thing that Katz thinks is certain: Change will come, because it must. New balances must be struck between local autonomy and democratic participation and metropolitan economic organization, and the process of achieving that new balance will be messy. “We’re trying to achieve different but complementary goals around efficiency and inclusion,” he says. “I hope the next two decades are a period of experimentation in the United States.”

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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