Sustained Outrage

Metro government: There’s no one size fits all

Bruce Katz is something of an expert on metro government. He is vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, where much study of the nation’s brucekatz.jpgmetropolitan areas is done. During a recent chat, I asked him if he had any advice for a community, such as Kanawha County, where residents are considering whether to form a metro government. Katz (pictured) warns that reorganizing local government is difficult, but more people are finding it worth the trouble.

“Nothing comes easily in this area,” Katz said. “The fact remains that more and more places feel a need to change. They’re realizing that business as usual, with everyone going their own way, leads to paralysis.”Municipalities spend a lot of time competing against each other. “

While it’s true that merging governments does not increase the population or make the workforce any more skilled, a cohesive regional government is frequently associated with a better job market, he said.

“The literature is still divided on whether consolidated government leads to a better economy, but there is tantalizing evidence that it may be so. The intuition is that greater cohesion in government might be a economic value.

“It’s not as immediately sexy as an effort to land a particular manufacturer, but over time, it may be the most important thing.

“There’s no single model. Every place has to figure it out for itself, what fits the local culture.”

Salt Lake City chose not to change government very much, but they have a strong regional consensus that allowed them to build a light rail system and do things to boost the quality of life, he said. The other end of the spectrum is Portland, Ore., where people created a metro regional government. Louisville, Ky., is somewhere in the middle, with their municipalities grandfathered in. Denver has a metro mayors caucus  to serve as a forum for working on things in common.

“Don’t get hung up on any single model,” Katz advises.

Kanawha’s merged library, health department and 911 services are “great precedents” and something to build on, he said.

“You can’t just create this out of whole cloth because you read it in a good government screed or in a Brookings Institute report. We won’t tell you how to do it.”

We’ve written about Brookings research before. Katz recommends another of their reports, MetroPolicy: Shaping a New Federal Partnership for a Metro Nation. In it, Brookings faults federal policy for being behind the times on interacting with governments of metro areas. Here’s a sample:

 1.  “Washington is often absent when it should be present.” For example, the federal government has failed to establish even uniform goal on two important issues that cross state boundaries — reducing carbon emissions and supervising immigration. The failure leaves states and metro areas scrambling to deal with these issues on their own.

2.  “Washington is too often present when it ought to be absent.” Federal rules and ‘policy biases’ can interfere with local problem solving. Federal transportation programs favor automobiles and buses, regardless of local preferences. Housing policy has concentrated very poor people in special, isolated urban neighborhoods. Yet, federal policy has discouraged or prevented state and local governments from enforcing predatory lending laws against national banks or from limiting greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks.

3. “Washington has failed to embrace the possibilities of 21st-century governance.” Most federal agencies were set up decades ago, and few have let go of obsolete ways of doing business or embraced 21st-century methods.