Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Effects of City-County Government Consolidation: The Perspectives of United Government Employees in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

The Effects of City-County Government Consolidation: The Perspectives of United Government Employees in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia

Article excerpt


For many civic reformers, city-council consolidation remains an alluring, though elusive goal.(1, 2) Despite the findings of public choice researchers and political economists that metropolitan fragmentation--not consolidation--has substantial benefits, these civic reformers are likely to hold the view that, if two or more smaller local governments are combined, the resulting government will cost less, provide better services or more fairly distribute governmental services and costs. Even the would-be reformers who believe such benefits would, at best, be small may yearn for a government merger to end bickering among local officials, to kick some encrusted officials out of office or simply to try something new.(3) Whatever benefits the reformers expect from merging local governments, the urge to merge lives despite long odds against a successful effort.(4)

The faith of pro-consolidation reformers in structural reform may or may not be warranted but does not seem unreasonable when tested against research evidence concerning unification impacts. But then, the arguments of consolidation opponents are also not unreasonable because research about consolidation effects is inadequate to refute either side. Therefore, both merger supporters and opponents can assert the value and drawbacks with little fear they will be contradicted by persuasive empirical evidence.

The lack of convincing knowledge about the impacts of city-county consolidation, especially in smaller and non-metropolitan counties, inspired the research in this article. The research explores the impacts of consolidation through the perspectives of the employees of the Athens-Clarke County (Georgia) consolidated government. Since January 1991, these employees have made the transition from separate city and county governments to a merged government; thus, have a unique perspective from which to evaluate the changes.(5)

This article is organized as follows: after the introduction the researcher briefly reviews research on the impact of city-county mergers and suggests why the body of literature is inadequate to influence policy debate strongly (especially outside of large metropolitan areas) about this structural change. After that section, the author reports survey and panel data collected over three years on employee perceptions of the impacts of city-county consolidation and compares the perceived impacts after thirty months of consolidation with the benefits suggested in the literature on the topic. The article then concludes with a discussion of the findings.


The debate about the value of city-county consolidations dates back over half a century. Much of it has been concerned with claims that consolidation would solve problems created by governmental fragmentation in metropolitan areas and that consolidation can create economies of size that reduce the cost of government. (The arguments are presented and summarized in numerous places, including Jones, 1942; Committee for Economic Development, 1970; Advisory Commission for Intergovernmental Relations, 1977; Dolan, 1990). By solving these problems, a consolidated local government will, according to pro-consolidationists, increase the efficiency of local government.

Some researchers have rejected efforts to define fragmentation as a problem and have suggested that possible economies of size are few. They assert that fragmentation can lead to intergovernment competition within a metropolitan area that produces a quasi-market holding down prices (Ostrom, 1972; Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1987; Ostrom, Bis, and Ostrom, 1988). They argue that decreasing the number of local governments through consolidation will reduce the "market" for public goods, causing additional inefficiencies in local government operations.

The pro-consolidation side of the dispute has been supported in a few early studies of consolidations that found increased efficiencies following the consolidation of city and county governments (Horan and Taylor, 1977; DeGrove, 1973). …

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