Merging city and county might not be the brightest idea

Filed under: Hazlehurst | Tags:

“I wonder about you sometimes, Henry. You may fold under questioning.” — Joe Pesci to Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas,” 1990.

Enduring myth: by consolidating city/county governments, we’ll get cheaper, more efficient service delivery.  As taxpayers, we’ll save — as residents, we’ll gain!  Everyone wins, except the greedy, dog-in-the-manger politicians and bureaucrats who have stalled such sensible, cost-saving measures for years!

Right? Maybe, but maybe not.

Bigger is not always better.

Does anyone think that the Los Angeles Unified School District, with hundreds of thousands of students, delivers a better education at less cost than does a typical charter school in Colorado Springs?

The former has vast resources, professional management and highly trained, reasonably well-paid teachers.  The latter has a certain bold enthusiasm, dedicated parents and teachers, and no administrative hierarchy.

Are big cities better governed than smaller ones?  Would you rather live in Dallas or in Colorado Springs?

Do we believe in competition, diversity and variety — or should one size fit all?

Here in El Paso County, we must love governments — because we sure have a lot of ’em.  As well as the city and the county, we have 17 school districts, more than a dozen self-governing municipal entities, and scores of special districts and other single-purpose entities.

It’s untidy, unplanned and doesn’t conform to any planner’s notion of how local government should be organized. Despite the system’s chaotic messiness, it works amazingly well.

Perhaps its inherent irrationality makes sense.  It might be that the problems of government are best solved by many loosely linked, autonomous governments, each responsive to a particular and limited constituency.

Consider charter schools.

It makes no sense to have two classes of public schools competing with each other and operating under different rules.

School District 11 is rule-bound, hierarchical, tightly administered and delivers educational services to more than 25,000 students.  The Colorado Springs Charter School has several hundred students and almost absolute local autonomy.

The two models couldn’t be more different — but they both work pretty well.

Charter schools came into being not because of the wicked machinations of right-wing billionaires, but because many parents were dissatisfied with the one-size-fits-all model of public school education.  Politicians impatient with the sluggish bureaucracies that, they believed, hobbled public school systems, made it possible for charter schools to be created.

Public school advocates cried foul, claiming that diverting resources to “elite” schools would cripple public schools which must, by law, admit every eligible student.  Charter proponents argued that healthy competition between the two models would benefit students, taxpayers and the community as a whole.

Who was right?  Who knows?

Each system includes superb schools and ones that are, shall we say, challenged.  Would it be better to merge both systems, centralize all administrative functions, and have a single, citywide curriculum?  Isn’t that where we came in …?

Imagine a city-county merger.

How would the “City and County of Colorado Springs” be governed?

Would we have partisan or non-partisan elections?  Would all public safety functions be consolidated under an elected sheriff — or would they be handed over to an appointed chief of police?  Would we retain the city manager form of government?  Would all county residents be entitled to receive services from Colorado Springs Utilities?  Would county and municipal codes and ordinances be extensively rewritten in order to make the same laws apply to everyone in the city/county?

It’d take years of bureaucratic wrangling to sort everything out.  Elected and appointed officials would devote most of their time to joining the behemoths in unholy matrimony and would pay little attention to the real problems of governance.

Thoughtful innovation would be stifled, as career politicians/bureaucrats maneuvered for position.

You wouldn’t see Sallie Clark leading the initiative to restore Fountain Creek, and you wouldn’t see Jim Bensberg championing a simple, effective way to prevent builders from evading the county use tax.

In business, as the old saw goes, you determine your costs and your competitors determine your price.

In Colorado, a restless, empowered electorate often determines what revenue governments have, and how it will be used.

Different ad hoc coalitions form to support historic preservation or casino gambling or K-12 education and, as a byproduct, gut funding for higher education.  Taxaholics enact the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and spendaholics suspend most of its provisions.

The politicians might propose — but the people dispose.

And so it will be for any proposal to join city and county.  The process for doing so, which requires the assent of city/county voters,  the consent of the legislature and a statewide vote, is so complex and arduous that success might require that a dozen new Dougsters be cloned, and made to devote all their time to the project.

If it happens, I’ll wait for the movie – “Nightmare on Tejon Street,” with Joe Pesci as Vice Mayor Larry Small, Robert de Niro as County Commissioner Jim Bensberg and Ray Liotta as Mayor Lionel Rivera.

John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.