By Hackett, Michael; Malloy, James
Government Finance Review , Vol. 8, No. 6
The relationship between a municipality and its county can be intricate, and the process of turning around a relationship mired in distrust can be difficult. But it can be turned around. The City and County of Alamosa have shown that it can be done. No longer threatening each other with lawsuits, they are now working together on several major projects. Here is how they worked to improve their relationship.
Relations between the City of Alamosa and Alamosa County sank to the lowest level in the mid-80s for the same reasons relations between many cities and counties deteriorate. These reasons included mistrust, an "us vs. them" attitude and a misunderstanding of the legal authority and responsibility of each other's level of local government.
The problems reached an apex in 1987 after the completion of an integration study. The study recommended consolidating the activities of the city and county by creating one government. While this study and its recommendations were intended to break down barriers and create the means to merge the functions of these rural Colorado city and county governments, in reality, the study drove a spike between the two governments.
In 1988, when both the city and the county hired new managers, the problem had magnified to the point where services provided by the city were on the verge of being cut off to residents of unincorporated areas. Similarly, services provided by the county were to be cut off to city residents as a retaliatory move. Discussions between the city and county were always attended by legal staffs. The threat of lawsuits and arbitrators to force the two entities to work together was the theme of many meetings.
The main issue was twofold. First, elected officials from both the city and the county felt that their positions were threatened by the integration study. Second, the then-current intergovernmental agreements had been in effect for 40 years in some cases. The only updates to these agreements had been through "gentlemen's agreements" and back-room politics. Working through these two issues was fundamental to improving intergovernmental relations.
The process used in Alamosa to improve city-county relations is not new. Managers simply applied good management techniques and dealt with each other in an open, communicative manner. This process included educational meetings for the city council and board of county commissioners, as well as other formal and informal meetings. Officials needed to work together as governmental entities to remove the personal stigmas that had in the past prevented solutions to city and county relations. The result was a team-building process that transcended city and county politics. In the end, this cooperative effort has benefited all residents of Alamosa and Alamosa County.
When the effort was begun, it was imperative to address the recommendations of the integration study. The study was deficient in that it did not take into account the concerns of local elected officials regarding political territories. The study had been awarded to a "big-eight" CPA firm that had little understanding of rural local government realities. The result was that the study alienated both city and county officials. The decision, therefore, was made to shelve the integration study and to remain as two separate government organizations.
In addition, there had been a lack of leadership and poor communication between the city and county. Often, discussions were between different council members and commissioners, which tended to confuse communications.
To address this problem, management recommended that the city and county appoint an Intergovernmental Relations Committee. This committee, consisting of council members, county commissioners, the city manager and the county manager, served as a conduit for the flow of information.
The managers' responsibilities were to collect data and assess the effects of various alternatives to be considered. …