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November 20, 2017

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Why consolidation is not a panacea

Due to the economic crisis and severe budget shortfalls facing Clark County and local cities, there has been renewed conversation at the state and local levels for the consolidation of governments in Southern Nevada.

While I believe there is a need to develop new types of regional governance structures and arrangements to provide a regionwide platform for economic development and regional planning and to address the ever-growing number of problems that cross jurisdictional boundaries, I am not convinced consolidation is the answer.

First, merging different levels of government has been difficult to implement and has not been historically popular in the United States. According to political scientist Lin Ye, since 1805, more than 85 percent of consolidation campaigns have failed. This is largely due to the constitutional design of American governments. Local government structures extend to the suburbs, which have the political power to resist increases in taxes for consolidated government.

Smaller governmental structures can also be seen as being more efficient because they can tailor their services and taxes to their residents. Additionally, empirical evidence does not support the notion that “bigger is better” and that these larger, consolidated forms of government have been more effective or efficient.

What is clear is that bold, new regional approaches are needed in Southern Nevada to support quality living and allow for productive and sustainable economic growth. But simple consolidation will not be the answer unless effective governance structures and coherent operability are priorities.

Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution recently proclaimed, “While leaders may want to promote mega-scaled responses to mega-scaled problems, they are frequently hobbled because they lack the super-scale governance and networks needed to shape their future.”

Southern Nevada has been very successful in developing regional authorities for water, transportation and flood control without consolidating local governments.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority, Regional Transportation Commission and Regional Flood Control District have been very effective and efficient structures in delivering services. Additional areas such as fire, parks, and police services could be regionalized under similar governmental arrangements.

However, further reform needs to center on how our local governments are structured, not whether bigger is better.

The basic structure of modern-day American government dates back to the time of the New Deal. It is a government focused on functional specialization. It is based on top-down, command and control decision-making and process accountability at a time when more problems are place-based and in need of communitywide responses.

Our local governments primarily still operate with the assumption they will deliver services directly even though services are increasingly being delivered through multiple and often nongovernmental partners.

Practically every significant issue we face (whether it be economic development or diversification, homelessness, traffic congestion, pollution, crime) requires a coordinated response from multiple entities — from all levels of government as well as the private sector and the nonprofit and faith-based communities. No single organization has the ability to solve these issues alone.

For effective cross-jurisdictional problem solving, local governments need to become better facilitators, conveners and brokers that engage the community’s talents to solve difficult and complex problems.

Local governments are in need of an array of employees who can perform not only traditional duties such as planning, budgeting and deploying staff but who are also trained in boundary-spanning skills such as facilitation and negotiation, contract negotiation, contract management, risk analysis and the ability to manage across jurisdictions.

The current budgeting and personnel systems found in local government often prevent the communitywide problem solving that is needed. Budgeting systems seldom have the ability to track communitywide spending and tend to be focused only on individual agency performance.

Likewise, the civil service system is often characterized by rigid job classifications that rarely hold individuals accountable for problem solving beyond their own departments.

New public-private arrangements are needed that have their own fiscal and administrative powers and are focused on regional problems. Involvement of the private and nonprofit sectors may offer additional accountability measures as well as flexible and creative ways to tackle “mega-scaled problems.”

Creating one large consolidated local government that continues to operate on an outdated model will do little to solve complex problems. It will also not enable our region to compete economically and be a quality, livable and vibrant community.

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