Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Expenditure Impacts of Unification in a Small Georgia County: A Contingency Perspective of City-County Consolidation

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Expenditure Impacts of Unification in a Small Georgia County: A Contingency Perspective of City-County Consolidation

Article excerpt


Urban reformers and proponents of city-county consolidation claim that consolidated governments reduce costs and deliver services more efficiently. This claim is largely unsubstantiated with the little empirical evidence indicating that expenditures tend to increase after a governmental consolidation. This study offers evidence of greater efficiency and reduced costs in general government or administrative services when the consolidation occurs in a relatively small county. Based on an analysis of real operating expenditures in the United Government of Athens-Clarke County, Georgia and in three comparison governments, this research finds that overall expenditures increased over time but that there were cost savings in some but not necessarily all functions and departments. Moreover, the analysis suggests that there is nothing intrinsic in the act of consolidation that will guarantee more efficient operations. Like other governmental reforms, city-county consolidation offers the potential for economies of scale or size but governmental costs are contingent on the policy decisions of the elected commission, the management initiatives of key professional staff, and the constraints imposed on policy-makers and managers by provisions in the consolidated governments' charter.


For decades, urban reformers have advocated city-county consolidation as a form of metropolitan reorganization. However, despite the claims of reformers that consolidated government can deliver services more efficiently, effectively, and equitably, only six consolidated governments have been created since 1980. One obvious reason for the small number of consolidations over the past two decades is that city-county consolidation involves structural change, procedural approaches to governmental reorganization (eg., annexation, intergovernmental service agreements) (ACIR, 1982). The political obstacles to consolidation are formidable and have been well documented (Lyons, 1977; Marando, 1974; Hawkins, 1966).

In addition, community leaders pushing for consolidation of city and county governments have not been helped much by the research community. The metropolitan reform literature that has evolved over the past 50 years has involved a largely normative and ongoing debate about the desirability of consolidation and has offered little empirical evidence to support the claims of urban reformers. Proponents of consolidation have been constrained by the conflicting governance and service delivery prescriptions emanating from this research. In community discussions and debates about various aspects of the consolidation issue and have been hard pressed to cite any data or concrete evidence to support their positions.

Much of the debate in the metropolitan reform literature has focused on the significance of jurisdictional fragmentation. Historically, traditional public administration scholars have viewed fragmentation as a problem and offered city-county consolidation as one solution (Zimmerman, 1970; Committee for Economic Development, 1970; Friesema, 1966). Political economists/public choice theorists, on the other hand, have seen the advantage of market competition and choice in jurisdictional fragmentation and argued against reforms that would centralize authority and reduce the number of local governments (Parks and Oakerson, 1989; Ostrom, Tiebout, and Warren, 1961; Tiebout, 1956).

With such divergent views of jurisdictional fragmentation, it is not surprising that these two research perspectives offer quite different arguments about how local governments can reduce costs and deliver services more efficiently. Traditionalist/reformers argue that by merging one or more local governments and thereby reducing fragmentation, the new consolidated government will be able to reduce service duplication and eliminate redundant jobs, equipment, and facilities. With the increase in the size of departments, additional savings can result by improving the coordination of work, attracting better personnel, employing labor-saving technology, and centralizing administrative services. …

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