The option of consolidating the City of Omaha and Douglas County was recently proposed in the Legislature. It has been suggested that this possible reform may improve government efficiency and service provision. The experience of similar efforts can help inform this discussion.
City-county consolidation has been rejected by voters more often than accepted. There have been 180 such proposals in U.S. history, and in only 40 cases were consolidation successfully implemented. In Nebraska, this issue has never been on the ballot. In the Midwest in the last 100 years, there were three unsuccessful attempts in St. Louis/St. Louis County, two in Des Moines/Polk County and three others in Indiana and Kansas.
There were two successful city-county consolidations in this region: Kansas City Kansas/Wyandotte County (1997) and Tribune/Greeley County, Kansas (2007).
What political factors lead voters to support consolidation proposals? Three factors are more likely to lead to the adoption of city-county consolidation.
First, the new government’s charter should avoid tax increases and have a council with representatives from single-member districts to ensure fair racial representation. Second, successful referendum campaigns have avoided disruptive changes, such as moving elected officers to appointed positions, or requiring taxpayers to assume the debt burdens of the consolidating governments. Third, the proposal should clarify how public employees would be treated in a new unified government and avoid significant layoffs that may attract the opposition of employee unions.
One of the important economic arguments for city-county consolidation is that it will reduce the cost of services. Research finds little effect of consolidation on the efficiency of local government operations. Where efficiency improved, cities and county services went from totally separate to fully merged. However, in cases like Omaha-Douglas County, some services have already realized cost savings by use of coordination and interlocal agreements. Research finds that consolidation had no influence on per capita government spending, government employment, and payrolls.
Consolidation can improve the coordination of economic development efforts because a consolidated government can articulate a unified economic development vision. An example of this is the Wyandotte County/Kansas City, Kansas merger. Before the merger, when they first attempted to acquire a NASCAR track, the city was told they had too much debt and that their leadership was not strong enough. After the consolidation, all services were fully consolidated, and the Kansas Speedway was constructed. After the consolidation, population stabilized, retail sales increased, the decline in housing units was slowed, and citizen attitudes of government improved markedly.
A consolidation proposal needs to be structured to avoid political pitfalls and provide voters a clear alternative. While cost savings are not likely, better coordination of economic development policy is possible. An alternative to full political merger is continued efforts to cooperate and share services such as law enforcement, information technology, purchasing and emergency response.
John Bartle is dean of the College of Public Affairs and Community Service at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. This essay reflects his view only and not necessarily that of UNO.