Metro Atlanta’s cityhood movement appears to have taken a decided step back last month after a referendum on the proposed incorporation of Eagle’s Landing, formed out of unincorporated portions of Henry County, GA, and a part of the existing municipality of Stockbridge, was voted down. The motivation for this effort, however, and others like it, lives on. It’s part of a long and complex history of suburban fragmentation in America. Such fragmentation can seem benign but can in fact be malignant.
On the surface cityhood offers what everyone purportedly wants: local government with better oversight and responsiveness, and a clearer view of citizen tax dollars at work. That’s clearly the point Eagle’s Landing supporters were trying to make; after years of suffering from what they termed as neglect by the city of Stockbridge, this was an attempt to exert their own political authority. But there comes a point when more local control means less overall efficiency at the metro level. Furthermore, as in suburban Atlanta’s recent example, such efforts could be viewed as an attempt to hoard valuable property and sales tax revenues, and insulate people from perceived negatives. And the spread of municipalities in need of leadership may thrust municipal leaders into roles they’re neither prepared or trained for.
Perhaps most importantly, many metros have preceded Atlanta down this path, and it would do well to learn from their experiences.
Let’s start with some context on this phenomenon. Municipal incorporation varies widely by state across America, but there are some general trends evident by region. East Coast metros tend to have large core cities surrounded by a mix of small municipalities and unincorporated areas or lightly-governed townships, giving counties substantially more powers in suburban local government. Long Island’s Nassau County, east of New York City, is a good example of that type of mix. About half of the county’s population lives in the nearly 60 small municipalities scattered throughout, with the remainder living in unincorporated areas governed by larger townships. West Coast metros tend to have large, often very large, suburban municipalities that surround core cities. Arizona’s Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, contains not only the 1.6 million people living in Phoenix itself but large cities in their own right in places like Mesa (440,000 residents), Scottsdale (236,000), Glendale (227,000), and Tempe (185,000). Sun Belt metros often mimic East Coast metros and have greater amounts of unincorporated areas surrounding the core city, as in Atlanta until the cityhood movement took off. Then there are places, as seen in much of the Midwest, where core cities are surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of small municipalities. Cook County, IL, for example, is best known as the home of Chicago. Of the county’s 5.2 million people, 2.7 million live in the Windy City. But the remaining 2.5 million live in 130 municipalities throughout the rest of the county.
Consider this chart which looks at average municipal size differences between St. Louis County outside the city of St. Louis, MO, and Contra Costa County, across the bay from San Francisco:
Average Municipal Population Size, Selected Suburban Counties Pete Saunders
Why does this matter? The proliferation of small municipalities can lead to inefficient government — it creates the need for more school districts, more fire and police, more services, more staff, than would otherwise be needed. It also makes it more difficult for municipalities to find the qualified personnel to work in and manage municipal government. It might be reasonable, for example, for a county the size of St. Louis County to find 15, or 20, or 25 public works directors to work in local government. But can it reasonably find almost 90?
What’s worse, however, is that the quest for the revenue to do what municipalities are supposed to do pushes them to find ways to generate revenue that works counter to larger metropolitan and regional goals. It pushes municipalities to pursue high-end housing that can pay more in property taxes. If forces municipalities to compete aggressively for retail, even when there’s little demand – leading to overly retailed landscapes that bristle with vacancies. And it makes municipalities dependent on alternative means of revenue generation to make ends meet. In the aftermath of the unrest following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO in 2014, it was found that heavy municipal reliance on traffic fines and fees to balance budgets likely was a contributing factor to the unrest that plagued the county at that time.
There is a simple, if politically unpalatable, answer – annexation with adjacent core cities, or consolidation with other suburban municipalities. It’s a tough pill for many municipalities to consider, but it may be necessary. Aaron Renn of the Manhattan Institute made the point in a study released last year that struggling inner ring suburbs could be good candidates to merge with adjacent large cities – in part because the economic forces that supported their creation are losing steam. Writer Edward McClellan recently made a similar case in the Chicago Reader, focusing on the northwest suburb of Niles:
Like most of Chicago’s inner-ring suburbs, Niles occupies an uncomfortable niche between city living and modern suburbia. As a first generation suburb, it was an attractive destination for young Chicago families fleeing their two-flats after World War II. But today, Niles’s combination of dated housing stock and sparse public transportation (it doesn’t have an L or Metra stop) makes it feel like a town that time forgot…
Chicago’s inner-ring suburbs have outlived their original purpose as alternatives to city living. And today, they’re suffering problems indistinguishable from — and in some cases worse than — those of Chicago itself."
Large urban centers may have the resources to deal with major challenges in inner ring suburbs, but short of major city-county consolidations, may lack the inclination to do so. Some cities simply will not want to take on the burden of a struggling and poorly resourced community. Suburbs may be more willing to merge with adjacent suburbs that share similar characteristics, but it would still mean giving up a very important value – their municipal identity. In either case, it would be a battle that would be fought in state legislatures across the country, and it would depend on the strength of various urban coalitions in statehouses to push either effort forward.
This could be a new metropolitan front line in the coming years.