Overcoming Governmental Fragmentation

Options for Pursuing Cooperation


In the preceding chapter, Governmental Fragmentation in Jefferson County, we have established that Greater Birmingham is fragmented and that fragmentation in metro areas correlates with lower rates or economic and population growth and increases racial and economic segregation.

We also described the historical development of fragmentation in Greater Birmingham, as well as efforts made locally to counter the forces of fragmentation and promote regional cooperation. In this chapter, we look at four metro areas that have taken varying approaches to countering the forces of fragmentation.

To prepare this report, we researched and visited Charlotte, North Carolina; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Denver, Colorado; and Louisville, Kentucky.

In each of the metros studied, there has been a long-running and robust conversation about increasing cooperation and sharing the burden for investments made to improve the region. In each metro area, leaders in business, universities, civic groups, and foundations have been instrumental in pushing for and implementing regional cooperation efforts. It is not a matter simply left to politicians.

While each metro studied has pursued a different path toward greater cooperation, they share goals.

Common Goals of the four metros studied: 

  1. Decreased duplication and better coordination for the efficient delivery of services
  2. A more equitable arrangement for sharing the burden of paying for government
  3. A deeper collective pool of resources to address community needs
  4. A more unified vision for progress
  5. A more efficient and effective structure for pursuing community goals

Discussion of regional cooperation and government reform has occurred in Greater Birmingham, but it has not received, here, the sustained energy and action present in the communities studied.

Governmental fragmentation prevents Greater Birmingham from working together, from sharing resources to pursue common goals. Our municipal boundaries separate us and amplify racial and economic disparities.

Fragmentation fractures lines of responsibility and authority and obscures accountability. Our cobbled-together structures for working around fragmentation create mismatches between who pays for services, who delivers them, and who elects the representatives that decide how money is spent.

How might we build common ground and create an improved framework for cooperation?


Fragmentation is a condition or process that, if recognized as a problem, can be countered by adjusting or reinventing governmental structures. Around the country, cities and metropolitan communities apply various levels of effort to combating fragmentation. While every community’s response is unique in its particulars, PARCA has identified four general approaches to countering fragmentation.

To further explore how each of these approaches works, PARCA identified an example metro for each approach. Researchers collected information on each of those metro areas and visited each to talk to local officials and citizens.

1 | Functional Consolidation 

The use of cooperative arrangements between existing governments to provide services.

Example Metro: Charlotte, North Carolina

2 | Modernizing County Government 

Using a modernized county government or alternative arrangement to provide services that cut across municipal boundaries.

Example Metro: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

3 | Cooperation Through Regional Entities 

The creation of special-purpose authorities or organizations to deliver or support services that are regional in nature.

Example Metro: Denver, Colorado

4 | Political Consolidation 

The merger of governments, most often a combination of the central city and the central county.

Example Metro: Louisville, Kentucky

In each locale, we have examined their primary approach to encourage regional cooperation, but in each case, we also note additional measures taken in the subject metro to facilitate cooperation. For example, in Pittsburgh, we feature its efforts to modernize the government of its central county, Allegheny. However, we also identified other measures that area has taken to cooperate. Those include a countywide sales tax and distribution system to support arts, parks, and the library system.

In all metros studied, approaches are mixed. And it wouldn’t be accurate to say Birmingham and Jefferson County haven’t developed arrangements for regional cooperation and burden-sharing. We have. None of the selected cities may provide an exact road map, but they each offer possibilities for Greater Birmingham to consider in strengthening regional cooperation in an effort to counter the negative effects of fragmentation.

In the cities studied, the climate and avenues for cooperation are different and are heavily influenced by existing facts on the ground. For instance, both Louisville and Charlotte have consolidated school systems in their counties. Those communities already have a common ground for cooperation. That consolidated structure for schools removes one of the strongest reflexive opposition points to cooperation or merger of governments.

However, having multiple school districts in the region does not rule out reforms that can lead to greater regional cooperation. Pittsburgh and Metro Denver have multiple school districts, but both have made advances toward greater cooperation, leaving school systems out of the equation.

In fact, it should be noted emphatically here that moves toward greater regional cooperation rarely, if ever, involve the merger of school systems or the merger or disincorporation of existing cities or towns.

When Louisville consolidated in 2000, no existing cities and towns were merged into the consolidated government. The cities and towns simply came under the umbrella of the merged city-county government. The form of the overarching county government changed, but their local governmental structures remained.

Additionally, no single approach to increased cooperation rules out using elements of other approaches. For example, a metro area might encourage cooperation between existing governments through interlocal agreements, the approach known as functional consolidation. At the same time, that metro area could modernize its county government in order to make the county a leader in providing services that cross jurisdictional boundaries. Similarly, special purpose districts that provide a regional support base for services, such as transit, parks or culture, can be created to overlay existing or reformed governments.

Further, it is important to emphasize that, in all cases studied, overcoming fragmentation is a long and incremental process, the result of multiple efforts and steps along the way, requiring persistent effort. Every city studied developed its own approach, taking advantage of available opportunities for improving government and strengthening cooperation over time.


Charlotte, North Carolina

Approach: Functional Consolidation

Charlotte is pictured in red, independent towns in gray. Areas in white are unincorporated land in the county.


Fast-growing Charlotte, North Carolina, is held up nationally as a model of functional consolidation as a means of regional cooperation. Instead of consolidating governments, the elected bodies remain intact, but the governments of the city and the county divide up responsibilities for certain services.

Through multiple interlocal agreements, which are, in essence, contracts between governments, the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have consolidated all major government services, giving the responsibility for some, such as police, fire and transit, to the city government and others, such as building inspection, tax collection and operation and development of parks to the county government.

The City and the County share a building and use the same chambers for city council meetings and county commission meetings.

This arrangement avoids duplication of services and administration in an attempt to deliver those services efficiently.


The current state of cooperation in Charlotte results from decades of effort to avoid fragmentation and duplication of governmental services. A number of pre-existing conditions and progressive steps facilitated Charlotte’s journey to its present state.

Professional Management of Government 

North Carolina city and county governments have a long and strong tradition of professional management of government. The idea of professional management of government arose in the early part of the 20th century. It was developed in reaction to what had been the prevailing model, the spoils system. Under the spoils system, elected political leadership of government made virtually all decisions about who would work in government.

The spoils system often led to abuses: heavy turnover when political leadership changed and the appointment of friends and allies to posts regardless of qualifications. Reformers advocated for a new system that included civil service employment protections and professional management of governments. The position of city manager and, later, county manager arose under these reforms. The idea was that elected leadership would provide policy direction to the government but that they would rely on the objective advice and expertise of trained governmental managers to carry out those policies through professional management.1

Though the transition was gradual, North Carolina was an early and eager adopter of both the city and county manager form. By 2012, all but 36 of the 222 North Carolina cities with populations exceeding 2,500 had appointed a manager under their charters. Today, all of North Carolina’s 100 counties employ a full-time professional county manager.

The professional management system supports Charlotte’s use of interlocal agreements to achieve functional consolidation by providing expertise and continuity of operations despite changes in the elected leadership.

Meanwhile, in structure and practice, both the Mecklenburg County Commission and elected officials of the city are relatively weak in comparison to counterparts in other parts of the country. All the elected officials are elected for two-year terms. The mayor, council, and the commission are part-time positions. The legislative bodies function as a board of directors, appointing the managers, enacting ordinances and setting policy. Managers of the city and the county run day-to-day operations.

Mecklenburg’s Board of County Commissioners has nine members, with six commissioners elected by district and three commissioners elected at-large. In 2015, for the third time since 1985, Mecklenburg County voters rejected a proposal to create four-year terms for commissioners.

In Charlotte, the mayor and four at-large council members are elected by a citywide vote; seven council members are elected from districts by voters who reside in each district.

Strong Business Community Interest and Support for Functional Consolidation 

Functional consolidation has also been supported by Charlotte’s business establishment. The business community in Charlotte has a tradition of strong involvement in partnership with government and is pointed to as the driving force in shaping and propelling Charlotte’s extraordinary growth.

Unified School District 

Charlotte’s city and county school systems were merged in 1960 after a vote of the people. In the late 1960s, the unified system was sued for failing to fully integrate schools, resulting in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which required the school district to use busing to achieve integration. Charlotte’s busing efforts, though contentious, served as a national model for achieving desegregation through busing. Because of busing, the location of one’s home didn’t necessarily dictate where children would go to school. The unified school district and the busing plan removed one of the strong forces that drives fragmentation and prevents cooperation. The busing order is no longer in effect, but the countywide school system remains, forcing a countywide approach to educational improvement. Though a strong network of private schools has developed, the Charlotte- Mecklenburg Schools are considered one of the strongest urban systems in the U.S.

Liberal Annexation Laws 

North Carolina has some of the most liberal annexation laws in the U.S., which has allowed the city to prevent fragmentation by expanding its borders to take in emerging suburban development. By majority vote of the council, the City could take in new territory without needing the consent of those being annexed. Those laws, which operated basically unchanged from 1959 until 2012, allowed Charlotte


For much of its history, Charlotte was a minor trading crossroads, a regional backwater, far from ports and major navigable rivers.

After the Civil War, entrepreneurs in the sleepy southern town recognized the opportunity to create an industrial economy based on textile manufacturing. Prior to the Civil War, most of the South’s cotton was shipped to mills in the North to be turned into finished products. The Charlotte area offered itself as an alternative and became the center of the Southern textile industry. As the textile industry grew, the local banks who had helped finance the mills’ development prospered, laying the groundwork for the financial services hub Charlotte would later become. Still, by 1950, Charlotte had only barely cracked the top 100 of U.S. cities in terms of population and was much smaller than its Southern cousin, Birmingham.

to expand massively, capturing suburban growth and limiting the emergence of multiple independent suburbs. Besides Charlotte, only six other suburban municipalities exist in Mecklenburg County, compared to Jefferson County, Alabama, where there are at least 35 municipalities. Today, only a small portion of Mecklenburg County is outside the limits of one of the incorporated cities in the county, with 80 percent of the county’s population living in Charlotte. This expansive power of the city encouraged cooperation because the county had a shrinking geographical base in which it was solely responsible for services. The emergence of functional consolidation was somewhat a response to these forces.

Figure 2: Darker shades of green represent more recent annexations.

Birmingham was larger than Charlotte in 1950, but Charlotte has grown while Birmingham’s population has declined.

However, growth was on the way. The city had already had some important wins before its coming boom years. In 1927, Charlotte was chosen as the site of a branch of the Federal Reserve Bank, a boon to the emerging banking industry there. The city had also built an airport in the 1930s, which would grow into a regional airport hub.

Unlike Birmingham, Charlotte avoided major turmoil in the racial conflicts of the 1960s. As in Atlanta, “The City Too Busy to Hate,” Charlotte business leadership helped diffuse racial tensions. Charlotte dubbed itself the “Spearhead of the New South.”

In 1963, while in Birmingham Bull Connor was deploying dogs and fire hoses to hold back protestors demanding integration of downtown businesses, in Charlotte, black and white civic leaders went to out lunch together at prominent downtown restaurants, publicly signaling an end of segregation.

The desegregation of schools also occurred in Charlotte with much less turbulence than in Birmingham. Black students enrolled in city schools in the late 1950s. After the city and county school system merged in 1960, there were efforts to desegregate, but ultimately the incomplete integration of the schools launched a lawsuit that ended with the Supreme Court decision mandating busing. Again, Charlotte earned a reputation for progressive thinking, as the community and school leadership, in the end, devoted great effort to making busing work in Charlotte.

The 1970s saw the beginning of extremely robust engagement of the Charlotte business community with the city and county government, which was the driving force in shaping modern Charlotte. The most significant figure in the movement was Hugh McColl, who at the age of 39, became the president of North Carolina National Bank. McColl set his sights on growing the bank into a national and even an international powerhouse, an ambition he eventually realized with the merger of his bank, NationsBank with Bank of America. The combined bank established its headquarters in Charlotte in 1998. It is the second largest bank in the U.S. with assets of $2.15 trillion.2

But at the same time as he was building the bank, McColl was determined to build the city, as well. To attract talent from the world capitals of finance, McColl believed he needed a city that offered the urban form and amenities offered in major league cities. Others in the corporate community joined McColl in his ambition, including the leadership of First Union Bank, another Charlotte bank that grew into a financial powerhouse. Through mergers and acquisitions, that bank became Wells Fargo. Though it is now headquartered in California, Wells Fargo’s East Coast operations are centered in Charlotte, contributing to Charlotte’s prominence in the financial services world.

One of McColl’s first projects was the revitalization of the Fourth Ward, a formerly affluent district adjacent to Charlotte’s Uptown business district. The district was suffering the same inner city decline seen elsewhere in urban America in the period. NationsBank saw potential in transforming it into a revitalized neighborhood within walking distance of downtown, giving the urban-oriented workforce McColl was importing a more familiar environment in which to live.

McColl’s bank loaned the city $100,000 to establish a pool for low-interest loans available to homeowners willing to buy and rehabilitate the homes in the ward. His bank’s involvement attracted similar-sized loans to the city from six other Charlotte banks. Duke Energy also cooperated with the city, underwriting infrastructure improvements such as the installation of brick sidewalks, decorative lighting and underground electric utilities.

The program was so successful that eventually it was replenished by a second round of funding at an even higher level of investment.

In 1983, Charlotte elected Harvey Gant, an architect and the first African-American mayor of Charlotte. Gant was an early promoter of Smart Growth, taming suburban sprawl and redirecting energy to the city center. Working closely with McColl during his two terms as mayor, Gant initiated the process of thoughtful downtown revitalization that continues today.

Working with a succession of city and county managers and elected officials, the business community and philanthropists cooperated to build sports facilities and secure sports teams. The public-private coalition built arenas, convention centers, museums, and parks in Uptown Charlotte. Those additions were complemented with a flourishing of office towers, hotels, and downtown residential developments. After a 1998 referendum, a county half-cent sales tax for public transit was enacted. That revenue provided the local match for remaking Charlotte’s transit system, improving bus service and adding light rail and streetcar lines.

The confluence of those investments and a unified strategy for creating a fully realized urban center has transformed the city. The city and the suburbs are growing in tandem, with both jobs and population being added.

Because of Charlotte’s ability to grow its boundaries and capture suburban growth, the economic condition of the central city is far stronger in Charlotte than in Birmingham. Additionally, economic performance measures in Charlotte, the city, the county and the metro area are much more evenly matched, compared to Birmingham, where there is a sharp disparity between the city, the county and the metro area in household income, unemployment, labor force participation and poverty rate.

Getting Governments To Cooperate 

That same cadre of business leaders also saw the need for high-functioning and non-duplicative government services. They helped cultivate a climate in Charlotte that pushed governments to look for ways to cooperate and consolidate services where possible.

Like most cities, Charlotte has periodically considered political consolidation as a route toward efficiency and unity. As early as 1927, enabling legislation was passed to permit a referendum on consolidating Charlotte City and Mecklenburg County government. However, that referendum was never held. The idea was revived in the 1960s but failed at the ballot box. Though the idea has continued to bubble up ever so often, it has failed to gain support. The limited number of suburban communities in the county has tended to oppose the idea, fearing that they’d be subsumed in a consolidation. City residents haven’t been enthusiastic about the idea either, with entrenched interests and minority groups fearing a dissipation of their influence if consolidation were to occur.

Besides, Charlotte’s extensive use of functional consolidation and the city’s annexation expansions have diminished much of the impetus for political consolidation. Many of the gains in efficiency promised by political consolidation have already been achieved through functional consolidation.

Some functional consolidation had taken place before the 1980s. The department of health, the library system, the school system, and tax collection were handled at the county level, while planning and zoning and water and sewer utilities were provided by the city for both Charlotte and the unincorporated areas.

But with the arrival of Mecklenburg County Manager Jerry Fox in 1980 and Charlotte City Manager Wendell White in 1982, a new era began, with both managers oriented toward finding the most efficient and effective ways to deliver government services. Fox would go on to serve 20 years in his post; White 17 in his.

White and Fox developed strong relationships not only with the elected leadership but also with the business community. As the city and county were experiencing a development boom, the two managers began by looking at ways to streamline and unify the process for planning and permitting projects. As that relationship was established, they began to look at other areas where it made sense to consolidate.

The county had a police department, but as Charlotte grew and annexed more territory, the county had less area to patrol. So it made sense for the city to provide a unified law enforcement agency for both the city and the unincorporated area. The Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office exists as a countywide service, but the Sheriff’s duties are now administrative functions relating to the court system, rather than law enforcement.

In something of an exchange, it was decided that the county would operate a consolidated city and county park system. The city had a larger purchasing program and took over bulk purchasing for both governments. The county provided building permitting and inspection services, as well as air, water, and storm water regulation on major streams.

In a move that was both symbolic and functional, the city and the county entered into a cooperative agreement in 1985 to construct a new joint city-county governmental building to house both the city and the county government headquarters. Now, the city, the county, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board meet in the same council chambers.

By the mid-1990s, all significant public services had some form of functional consolidation, with the service offered countywide by either the City of Charlotte or Mecklenburg County. The six other municipalities may choose to participate in the consolidated service or may opt out.

Charlotte’s experience suggests that functional consolidation is fruitful in areas in which capital investment is needed, and economies of scale can be achieved through a larger system, such as water and sewer. Other areas in which functional consolidation may be beneficial are those in which greater size allows a department to provide a more advanced level of service, such as a countywide approach to examining construction plans and inspecting buildings.3

Functional consolidation is more flexible than political consolidation and easier to achieve. Most political consolidation votes fail, and when they succeed, the political compromises made to achieve passage often undermine efficiency gains. Under political consolidation, merger is permanent; under functional consolidation, agreements can be modified or ended as conditions change. Functional consolidation can also be expanded to include other governments within and even beyond county boundaries.4

While functional consolidation cuts down on duplication, it still presents challenges. Cooperating city and county departments still operate under separate governance structures, and considerable energy must be spent in communicating across structures. While functional consolidation preserves local autonomy, it can also be less stable. As political administrations change, new leadership can pull out of existing arrangements.


Government Service and Efficiency Improvements 

In Charlotte, professionally managed governments both at the city and county are committed to cooperation and avoiding duplication. They both follow processes designed to encourage continuous improvement of efficiency and customer service.

One way to get a sense of how integrated the county and city services are in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is visiting the city or the county website.

From both sites, citizens or businesses can look for the service or information and follow links to the specific services, regardless of whether they are provided by the city or the county.

Similarly, the city operates a 311-call center set up to answer any requests for services from citizens. Despite the fact the 311 center is operated by the city, its operators can connect citizens directly to county services, as well.

Additionally, the county operates a customer service center, a building that serves as headquarters for the county land use and development agency.

A resident arriving there is greeted by a customer service specialist who can guide them through their requests to the proper agency whether that be from the city or the county.

Both the city and the county, through the leadership of their respective managers, are managed and evaluated for performance. Customer satisfaction is frequently assessed, and identified problems are addressed.

Mecklenburg County’s Customer Service Center helps residents connect homeowners and construction professionals with building code officials and with outside agencies that connect with the development process.

Evidence of that persistent attention to process improvement can be seen in a 2015 evaluation of city and county services by Gartner Consulting.5 The 287- page report evaluated the city and county processes for development planning, building permitting and inspection services. The city handles planning and zoning. The county issues reviews and permits for construction plans. The evaluation revealed strengths in customer service and advanced technology from both the city and the county. However, the city and county have separate software systems that don’t talk to one another.

FIGURE 3: Mecklenburg County’s Customer Service Center helps residents connect homeowners and construction professionals with building code officials and with outside agencies that connect with the development process.

In the wake of the Gartner Study, the city and county staff and their respective governing bodies are working to come up with a unified software solution so that electronically submitted plans can be reviewed and moved through both city and county processes simultaneously.

Functional consolidation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg avoids redundancy of staff, but it is always a work in progress. The county has the more advanced GIS service and shares that technology with both city and county departments. However, the county’s GIS resources aren’t unlimited, and they do come at a cost. Allocating and recouping those costs across two governments can be difficult.

While there are trust and cooperation between the city and the county and close working relationships, there are times (from the city’s point of view) when it would be simpler to be able to work with a collection of departments under one unified government. Former Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee points to the example of crafting a neighborhood redevelopment plan. Carlee could pull together department heads for transit, housing, and community development. However, the city manager doesn’t necessarily have everyone at the table he needs. For example, the countywide parks department or representatives of the county library system have to be invited into the project for consultation.

Mass Transit Reshaping the City 

Charlotte has established a countywide support system and governance structure for mass transit. More than most southeastern cities, Charlotte has put mass transit at the forefront of its community development plan. With local support for the transit system provided by 0.5-cent countywide sales tax, the system has been able to launch a light rail system and streetcar line along with enhanced bus service.

After the 1998 vote on the tax, Charlotte’s transit system was reformed as the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS). It has since grown to the largest transit system between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, with 95,000 unlinked weekday daily trips. For comparison, Birmingham’s system provides about 12,000 unlinked trips on weekdays. CATS is a department of the City of Charlotte, but its policy board is the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC), which is comprised of the chief elected official of each member jurisdiction and a representative of the state department of transportation. The MTC sets policy, approves work plans and budgets, and prioritizes projects.

Charlotte invested much of the new local revenue into improving bus service. However, it also chose to pursue and invest in fixed route solutions, such as light rail and streetcars. Though these modes come with a high upfront investment, they provide not only transportation advantages but also urban development advantages. Charlotte’s light rail line opened in 2007, after an investment of $465 million and an additional $50 million investment in community connectivity enhancements, including new street connections, street and intersection enhancements, 9 miles of pedestrian and bicycle access routes, and 16 miles of new sidewalk.6

Rail projects provide assurance to developers that the transit put in place will stay in place. With that assurance, developers are more willing to build dense residential and associated commercial development along the rail line. This approach has borne fruit in Charlotte. The corridor along the 9.6-mile Linx Blue line, which now runs from Uptown Charlotte to the southern interstate beltway, is filling with condo and apartment complexes that are now just a short train ride from downtown.

By 2010, Charlotte had seen almost $2 billion in construction development along the Blue Line corridor.7

That public transit development is being complemented by the development of bike and pedestrian greenways, which also connect residential developments to the office and entertainment districts of Uptown Charlotte. An extension of that line, which will eventually connect to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte campus, is under construction. Under its long-range plan, the transit system plans to build out from Center City Charlotte along five different corridors.

Connecting the light rail to surrounding neighborhoods is a street car system, now 1.5 miles in length with planned extensions.

Voters have continued to show their support for the developing transit and community development along the routes. They approved $146 million in city bonds in 2014, and in November of 2016 voted for another $218.4 million in City bonds for transportation, housing and neighborhood improvements.

Systematically Pursuing Improvements to Parks and Greenways 

Until the 1992 merger of Charlotte’s Parks Department with the County Parks Department, neither entity spent much time or money expanding parks, despite the fact that Charlotte was seeing rapid suburban and urban growth. As a consequence, Charlotte compared unfavorably with other cities in the amount and proximity of park space available for residents.

With the merger of the two departments under county government, the consolidated parks department began playing a methodical game of catching up by building new parks with a long-term goal of ensuring that a park or greenway is within six blocks or a half-mile of every county resident.8

In 2008, county voters approved a $250 million bond issue for parks, with $60 million set aside for land acquisition and $190 million for new capital projects. The Parks Department has developed a series of frequently updated 10-year master plans for expanding park and recreation offerings. The planning and land acquisition process is guided by a sophisticated, GIS-based analysis of available land, existing parks, and population density. The department considers itself to be in something of a race against time. As rapid development continues in Mecklenburg County, the department estimates that by 2030, 96 percent of the county will be “built out” or developed. A regular program of strategic buying now should enable the county to reach its park acreage and coverage goals before cost and development foreclose opportunities.

Since the initial master plan in 1998, eight neighborhood parks have opened and 10 community and regional parks have been added, as have two nature preserves. Two showcase urban parks in Uptown Charlotte have been added: Romare Bearden Park, opened in 2013, and First Ward Park, opened in 2016. Both are approximately five acres in size, and both have spurred adjacent hotel, office and housing developments.

During that period, the county has added 13 miles of paved greenways, bringing the total to 40 miles of paved trails, with a long-range vision of a system of 200 miles of trail by 2030. Walking and cycling accommodations are being built alongside the transit extensions, increasing the appeal and connectivity of the neighborhoods near the transit stations and further stimulating development.

The county now has a total of more than 210 parks and facilities with 20,472 acres of parkland. In addition to the paved trails, the county has 200 miles of hiking and biking unpaved trails in their parks, 14 disc golf courses, five golf courses, three nature centers and three senior centers. The county manages 240 athletic fields and 18 recreation centers, 21 gyms and seven fitness centers.


Improvements Through Functional Consolidation 

  • Decrease in duplication across governments
  • Savings generated through sharing of buildings and assets
  • Greater efficiency gained through economies of scale
  • Greater expertise enabled by specialization and scale

Criticism of Functional Consolidation 

  • Division of responsibility between governments can complicate collaboration
  • Partnerships between the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County are numerous but more rarely are other suburbs involved in the functionally consolidated service
  • Functional consolidation is incremental rather than the kind of wholesale change forced by political consolidation

1 County and Municipal Government in North Carolina, University of North Carolina School of Government.

2 BankRate.com

3 Governing Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Timothy D. Mead, State and Local Government Review Vol. 32, No. 3 (Fall 2000)

4 Political and Functional Local Government Consolidation, Suzanne Leland and Kurt Thurmaier, American Review of Public Administration, 2014, Vol. 44(4S) 29S–46S

5 Gartner Study, City of Charlotte Land Development and Mecklenburg County Code Enforcement

6 Connect Our Future, http://www.connectourfuture.org/tools/transit-oriented-development-incentives/

7 Charlotte LYNX Blue Line Economic Development Impact, National Governors Association

8 National ranking puts Charlotte near bottom for ‘ParkScore’, https://ui.uncc.edu/story/parkscore-charlotte-trails-park-land-accessiblity-0  


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Approach: Modernizing County Government

Figure 6: Pittsburgh in red, other municipalities in gray, townships in white.


Greater Pittsburgh is arguably the national champion of fragmentation with 130 general purpose governments and 43 school districts in its central county of Allegheny. It’s configured a lot like Birmingham, a core city built on an industrial base ringed by suburbs, which captured most of the population growth in the second half of the 20th century.

While Pittsburgh remains more fragmented than Birmingham, the area has taken steps to unite at the county level by reforming county government and by creating a county-level system of support for arts, parks, cultural and entertainment facilities and for transit.


The current state of cooperation in Pittsburgh results from decades of effort to overcome fragmentation and forge cooperative arrangements.

Regional Support System for Cultural Amenities 

In 1993, the Pennsylvania Legislature created the Allegheny Regional Asset District, which distributes one-half of a 1 percent sales tax to support libraries, museums, trails, parks, arts entities, and to support debt service on stadiums for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

County Government Reform 

In 1998, voters approved a home rule charter that replaced Allegheny County’s three-member county commission with a county council, elected by district, and a chief executive elected countywide. The county government was restructured to create a separation of executive and legislative powers with checks and balances between them.

County-based Support for Transit 

In the mid-2000s, Allegheny County initiated a tax on alcoholic drinks, now at 7 percent, to support public transit. Along with a more recent infusion of state funds, the countywide transit system has stabilized its finances, modernized and expanded, increased service frequency and reliability, extended its light rail system and created three rapid bus corridors, which have both improved transportation between job centers and revitalized neighborhoods with transit-oriented housing development.

Public-Private Partnerships for Regional Cooperation 

Outside of those formal governmental arrangements, Pittsburgh has pursued several initiatives designed to promote cooperation between governments and the private sector in the region. In a move similar to the formation of the Birmingham Business Alliance, Pittsburgh developed a regional approach to lobbying for legislative priorities, recruiting new business, marketing the region, and performing research and strategic planning.

While there continues to be resistance to merging or consolidating governments, Pittsburgh has pursued intergovernmental cooperation through organizations such as the nonprofit Congress of Neighboring Communities, which brings Allegheny County municipalities together to work on issues of joint concern.

All of Greater Pittsburgh’s efforts at regional cooperation were driven by concerted efforts of an engaged corporate, university, and philanthropic leadership. This public and private commitment to working for the betterment of the community has been instrumental in bolstering the health of downtown and transforming former industrial sites into corporate parks, public parks, and new housing developments.

A broad coalition has continually pushed higher expectations for governmental efficiency and cooperation. A broad base of support has helped support a flourishing arts and cultural scene, new sporting venues for professional sports franchises, expanded trails and parks, and an energized technology sector which hosts regional offices for tech companies, such as Google, Apple, and Uber.

Bill Flanagan, Chief Corporate Relations Officer for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, said Pittsburgh’s comeback wasn’t happenstance. It was the result of tireless effort. “None of this just happened,” he said.


Birmingham’s nickname, “the Pittsburgh of the South,” rings true for more than the obvious reasons.

Both cities were smoky steel towns, blessed with natural resources that helped build an industrial-centered, blue-collar economy.

Both have since transitioned to a more diversified economy centered on education, health care, and financial services. Both might be considered “underrated,” with a leftover reputation from a polluted past that obscures present realities of clearer skies, lush and mountainous landscape, and first-class art and food offerings.

Both cities developed in a fragmented fashion, with numerous municipalities ringing a central city. Fragmentation is common in communities built on an industrial base, such as Birmingham and Pittsburgh or Detroit and Cleveland. That underlying pattern of fragmentation laid the groundwork for steep inner-city decline as suburbanization gathered momentum and the steel industry shrank.

Both central cities have lost a significant percentage of their populations to outlying municipalities. That outmigration left both center cities with higher concentrations of poverty and blight. In 1950, 45 percent of the population of Allegheny County was concentrated in the city of Pittsburgh with the remaining 55 percent in the rest of the county. By 2015, only 25 percent of the population was in the city with 75 percent in the county. Birmingham, by comparison, dropped from 60 percent of Jefferson County’s population in 1950 to 32 percent in 2015.

In Birmingham, outmigration from the central city is often talked about in racial terms as “white flight.” However, Pittsburgh, where whites make up 65 percent of the city population, has experienced an even more acute population decline, suggesting that race is by no means the sole driver of outmigration.

While there are numerous similarities between the two cities, Pittsburgh, unlike Birmingham, has engaged in an almost continuous conversation about community cooperation since the 1940s. Though the faces have changed through the years, the leadership of the city and the county, business and industry and the university and philanthropic community have promoted the concept of cooperating as a region.

Post-War Renaissance 

During World War II, Pittsburgh was an industrial powerhouse, accounting for 20 percent of worldwide production of steel. As the war was drawing to a close, civic leaders took stock of what that massive industrial output had wrought.

Civic leaders recognized that the region was overly dependent on its steel industry. Situated in a valley at the point where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers converge to form the Ohio, Pittsburgh sat in a thick cloud of smoke that blackened city buildings. Its rivers were contaminated with industrial and municipal sewage.

To develop a response to the situation, Pittsburgh Mayor David Lawrence enlisted the cooperation of industrial and corporate leaders to form the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, created to coordinate private and public efforts to rehabilitate downtown, diversify the economy, and combat the air and water pollution that made the region unattractive for new business and residents.

With the leadership of the city’s most prominent businessmen, such as Richard K. Mellon, president and chairman of Mellon Bank, the Conference helped spawn a collection of projects that came to be known as Pittsburgh’s Renaissance.

The collaboration between business and government led to the formation of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, which forged deals to revitalize downtown properties and begin the conversion of contaminated brownfield sites into post-industrial uses. The Renaissance also included the first efforts to reclaim the city’s waterfronts, creating Point Park, which even today is the basis for an expanding system of riverfront greenways. The Conference also brokered an agreement for the phased-in implementation of smoke control that became city policy. A comprehensive anti-pollution law was passed for Allegheny County in 1949.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the initial Renaissance and successor civic initiatives helped Pittsburgh’s downtown avoid the ravages of retail and office decentralization that debilitated so many other American downtowns.1

The Concerted Response to the Decline of Steel 

However, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the steel industry collapsed, resulting in economic distress and another wave of civic soul-searching. As the Pittsburgh region was experiencing the nation’s highest percentage decline in jobs during the period, civic leaders came together again to produce a series of economic analysis and strategic plans, each one building on the last, each prompting incremental changes that have helped the region regain its footing.

The first, Strategy 21, published in 1985, laid out a joint strategy for regional economic development agreed to by the governmental leaders from the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. The plan was developed in cooperation with the presidents of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Both those universities—Carnegie Mellon with its nationally known science and technology programs and the University of Pittsburgh ranked among the top 20 medical research facilities—were identified as key building blocks in the transformation of the region. The joint agenda formed the basis for a unified request to the Pennsylvania Legislature for investment in strategic initiatives for the Pittsburgh region.

The strategic plan identified four goals:

  • Build on existing strengths as a metal manufacturing and corporate headquarters hub
  • Convert former industrial sites into locations for new technology and biosciences businesses
  • Enhance quality of life and tourism
  • Expand opportunities for displaced workers

The investments requested from the state Legislature included:

  • Expansion of the airport and highway connections
  • Investments in new technology development at universities related to the metals and manufacturing base, including robotics and software engineering, as well as biotechnology. Several of these investments made use of vacant industrial land.
  • The rehabilitation of the cultural districts and the riverfront to increase tourism
  • Evaluation of surviving industrial businesses with aid for enhancing the competitiveness of survivors with long-term potential and aid for conversion of faltering businesses to new purposes.

In the early 1990s, Strategy 21 was revisited in a second report, led by Carnegie Mellon University President Robert Mehrabian. Mehrabian’s 1993 report, known as the “White Paper,” along with his 1994 follow-up report, The Greater Pittsburgh Region: Working Together to Compete Globally, identified lingering weaknesses in Pittsburgh’s efforts to transform its economy.

The two reports expanded on the Strategy 21’s focus on Pittsburgh and Allegheny County to include a 10-county region in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Working Together laid out a multipronged plan to attack weaknesses and build on existing strengths. This reframing of the conversation to include outlying counties eventually resulted in the formation of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Growth Alliance, a coalition of businesses and governmental representatives from the 10-county region. The Alliance served as a consensus-building mechanism and a vehicle for making unified requests to the state Legislature for each county and for the region as a whole.

In 1996, another report, ComPAC 21,2 produced under the leadership of Duquesne University President John Murray, took on the governmental fragmentation shortcomings identified in previous reports. ComPAC 21 advanced the case that Allegheny County’s governmental structure was interfering with the county’s efforts to compete economically. ComPAC 21 recommended doing away with the county commission form and replacing it with an elected county executive and a county council.

In arguing for the governmental reform, ComPAC 21 researched competing metro areas and found that, “Counties that are experiencing significant economic growth have developed targeted and coordinated economic development programs. These same counties have streamlined their governmental organizations and functions to support their roles as major players in economic development.”3

ComPAC 21 identified multiple reasons for the modernization of county government. It argued that the county needed a single executive to serve as the chief representative and spokesperson for the entire region. A reformed county government could eliminate governmental fragmentation by combining county departments and eliminating a host of elected officials who were simply carrying out administrative functions. A reformed county government, ComPAC 21 argued, could serve as the vehicle for reducing the duplication of services by pursuing efforts to consolidate or cooperatively provide solid waste disposal, emergency management, specialized police services, public safety dispatch, fleet management, public works, provision of low-income housing, purchasing, property tax collection, computer systems and park maintenance. Finally, a reformed county government could coordinate the provision of services for citizens living in a small city, should that city decide to disincorporate.

“We cannot afford nor do taxpayers expect to pay for unnecessary and duplicative public services,” the report concluded.

The ComPAC 21 report served as a blueprint for county government reform.

County Government Reform 

Historically, three commissioners, elected at large, governed Allegheny County. Reformers argued that the three-commissioner system often led to feuds between commissioners and a lack of unified leadership in dealing with Pittsburgh or the other municipalities.

Reformers proposed a new government that would replace the three commissioners with a high-profile executive, charged with driving toward a more efficient and effective county government. In creating the executive office, the county would have a single voice and point of contact for recruiting business and industry, and for forging cooperation with the mayor of Pittsburgh, other municipal leaders and with lawmakers in the state capital. Under the chief executive would be a county manager, a governmental management professional in charge of running the day-to-day operations of government.

A 15-member county council was proposed as a legislative branch to check the power of the executive and provide representation to smaller geographies that had lacked representation in the at-large commission elected system. While ComPAC 21 criticized the internal fragmentation of county government, the initial change of government proposal did not eliminate any of those row officers (officials elected independently to head certain departments) over concerns that eliminating the row officers would create additional opposition to the change in government form. The change in government proposal also included a measure of “home rule,” giving the county government greater latitude and less interference from the state Legislature.

The campaign for the change in government form was hard fought. Key to its success was the support of both Republican and Democratic county commissioners. The region’s business community through the Allegheny Conference on Community Development championed the effort, along with the leadership from university presidents and foundations. Allegheny County is predominantly Democratic, and much of the Democratic establishment opposed the change. However, in 1998, the new home rule charter4 squeaked by for approval with a slim 564-vote margin.

After Allegheny County voters had approved the charter, civic leaders recognized that there was much work to be done before the transition to the new form in 2000. Reform leaders enlisted nearly 500 people for a transition team. They brainstormed about how to refine the new government, examined every department, broke the government into 32 distinct functions and came up with some 800 recommendations for procedures, rules, cuts, and consolidations.5

The first elected county executive was Republican Jim Roddey, a former county commissioner. Roddey and the two succeeding county executives, both Democrats, have built the Allegheny County Executive position into what is widely considered the third most powerful elected official in the state, after the governor of Pennsylvania and the mayor of Philadelphia.

The county executive provides strategic direction to county operations and appoints members of boards and authorities, including the county public transit system and the Airport Authority. He also appoints the county manager, with the consent of the county council. The manager oversees budget and finance operations, the health department, the office of economic development, the jail, emergency services, public works, the county police department, and the county’s 12,000-acre regional park system.


Improvements under the New Government 

  • The Allegheny County Executive is considered the third most powerful elected official in the state of Pennsylvania.
  • A single individual is accountable for the performance of county government.
  • The executive serves as the chief economic development officer and advocate for the region.
  • The county fund balances and bond rating have improved; outstanding debt has been reduced.
  • Through consolidation of departments, attrition and careful management the county’s workforce has been reduced over the time.
  • Initiated Review Commission that thoroughly evaluates county operations every five years.
  • Cooperation with other governments, including the City of Pittsburgh, has increased.
  • Allegheny County and the City signed an intergovernmental agreement to share financial management software and services. Additionally, the County and City share use of document management and imaging software that reduces reliance on paper and improves efficiency. Sharing resources saves taxpayers money, improves accountability and reduces redundancy.

Criticism of the New Government 

  • The County Executive is considered by some to be too powerful.
  • The County Council, with 15 part-time counselors, doesn’t serve as an effective check on the county CEO.


An examination of the accomplishments listed by the current county executive, Rich Fitzgerald, gives a feel for the scope of the job. Fitzgerald, now in his second term, lists among his accomplishments sound budget management and growth in the county reserves, upgrades to the county bond ratings, improvements and service additions to both the airport and county transit system, the reorganization of the Health Department, new wellness initiatives, improvements to parks and the completion of long-distance bike trails.

Fitzgerald has forged a close working relationship with the mayor of Pittsburgh, facilitating cooperation between the city and county governments.

Voters signaled their approval with the new government arrangement by voting in 2005 to eliminate six of the 10 remaining row offices, leaving only the treasurer, who collects taxes, the controller, an auditor and watchdog, and the district attorney and sheriff as elected officials. The move further consolidated government functions under the single county executive.

The original home rule legislation also created a built-in review process for the improvement of county government. Every five years, The Allegheny County Government Review Commission conducts a top-to-bottom review of county government, its most recent published in 2016. In 2016, the commission recommended 22 changes in a public report to the citizens of Allegheny County. The county council reviews the recommendations and considers them for adoption. Among the suggestions were to allow the county ethics commission to launch investigations independently and to create a County Bond Board to ensure transparency and fairness in the issuing of bonds.

While there seems to be a general consensus that the new governmental form has been an improvement, it does have its critics. Some members of the 15-member, part-time county council have expressed concern that the size of the council means that its individual members don’t have enough influence, and consequently, the council is not an effective check on the county executive, vesting too much power in that office. With a firm Democratic majority on the council, Republican representatives complain of a lack of influence.

Providing Regional Support for Entertainment, Parks, Art and Culture 

Another innovation made by Pittsburgh to increase regional cooperation was the formation and voter-approved funding for the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD).

Prior to the 1993 creation of RAD, the City of Pittsburgh was the main entity depended on to support libraries, arts, culture, museums, and regional attractions such as sports venues. However, with the decades-long flight to the suburbs, the City of Pittsburgh’s tax base had dramatically eroded. By the early 1990s, a “quiet crisis” had emerged. Parks were overgrown. The National Aviary, a nationally known indoor zoo dedicated to education and conservation of birds, was on the verge of closing. The deteriorating condition of Three Rivers Stadium, home to both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates, had spawned a lawsuit by the Pirates. The Carnegie Library System, long the pride of Pittsburgh, was in dire financial straits.

The local legislative delegation, working with governmental and civic leaders, crafted legislation to create a regional support system for these regional assets. The law imposed a one-cent sales tax in Allegheny County. Half the revenue of that sales tax would go to the county and municipal governments in the area with the stipulation that the revenue would be used to provide property tax relief. The other half would go to the Regional Asset District, which in turn would distribute it to local entities. In 2014, the sales tax generated $184 million, with $92 million going to the Regional Asset District.

An unpaid board, whose members are appointed by the county and city, was created to oversee the distribution. A small staff was hired to support the board and evaluate the entities applying for funding. The legislation stipulates that total administrative costs for the district cannot exceed 1 percent of revenue.

RAD funding supports museums, including Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum.

Under the legislation, entities that have been supported by the city and the county were guaranteed the same amount they’d been receiving from the governments. The district established an application process that requires the submission of a wide range of information, including audited financial data. The distributions are voted on after a yearlong process that includes public meetings, hearings, and site visits to applicants. Six members of the seven-member board have to approve a distribution for it to be made. The legislation identified as assets recreational facilities, libraries, cultural entities, and sports facilities. The RAD Board may consider other entities as regional assets as times change and funds are available. The law specifically prohibits funding health care, educational institutions or small parks (under 200 acres).

In general, the grants do not provide more than 10 percent of operating expenses for an institution. A separate pool of money is made available for capital improvement grants. Over 20 years of operation, RAD has distributed more than $3 billion. RAD pays the debt service on $176 million in bonds issued for the construction of the new baseball and football stadiums, PNC Park and Heinz Field. It is also helping pay for a new arena built for the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team.

District funds support 15,287 acres of parkland, including five large city parks, and nine county-operated regional parks. They’ve also been used to create or improve 91 miles of trails. RAD funding has provided $500 million for libraries, supporting new libraries and technology investments. RAD funding helped make possible the Senator John Heinz History Center, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Military Museum, and the Andy Warhol Museum.

RAD funding has helped expand a network of pedestrian and bike paths.

Countywide Support for Mass Transit 

Pittsburgh was early in recognizing that it needed a coordinated system of mass transit, launching a countywide system in 1964. But in recent years, with a fresh infusion of state and local support, the system has made substantial improvements. Most notably, transit is being used as a tool for neighborhood revitalization. Establishing express busways (bus-only expressways that allow rapid, uncongested travel between centers of employment and outlying neighborhoods) has sparked new transit-oriented housing developments.

It’s clear that in Pittsburgh, with its more dense population base, there is a much heavier user of mass transit than Birmingham. In downtown Pittsburgh, all walks of life from blue-collar workers to urban professionals cluster at bus stops. Pittsburgh’s transit system operates within the 745-square miles of the county, serving a population base of 1.4 million people. The Transit Authority operates 722 buses, a 25.4-mile light rail system, and three exclusive busways. The Authority also provides ACCESS service, a coordinated, shared-ride paratransit system offering door-to-door, advanced reservation transportation for elderly and handicapped persons.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County was established in 1958 and began operating in 1964, consolidating 33 private transportation carriers. In the early 2000s, as the service was struggling financially, the state Legislature authorized a special sales tax, now at 7 percent, on alcoholic drinks served in Allegheny County, which provides the county’s share of funding, about $36 million for operations and $10 million for capital improvements.

The Port Authority of Allegheny County’s Board of Directors has 11 members who are appointed by the governor, two caucuses of the General Assembly, the County Executive, and County Council. The board structure provides representation from the funding stakeholders.

Unlike Alabama, which does not provide state support for public transit, Pennsylvania provides 55 percent of the agency’s operating revenue, with the federal funding contributing 11 percent, county funding 8 percent, and passenger revenue 26 percent.

Pittsburgh, like many other urban centers nationwide, has come to see public transit as something more than a mechanism for moving riders from place to place. When transit systems create fixed line routes, like light rail, streetcars, or bus rapid transit corridors, private developers can invest with confidence in inner-city housing and commercial developments along those fixed routes.

An example in Pittsburgh is the East Liberty Transit Center project, which opened in 2015, built on six acres of underutilized public and private land. In the early 20th century, East Liberty was one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the nation, home to Pittsburgh industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie, H.J. Heinz, and George Westinghouse. It included a commercial hub that served residents and those of the neighboring Shadyside neighborhood, still one of Pittsburgh’s most prosperous sections. However, suburbanization and urban renewal took its toll, and East Liberty declined into a depopulated and blighted neighborhood.

But beginning in the 1990s, a concerted effort to revive the neighborhood began. East Liberty is located five miles from downtown, between the city center near the Pittsburgh Zoo, the Carnegie museums of art and natural history, and the university district of Oakland, which includes the campuses of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. A private nonprofit, East Liberty

Development Inc. began strategically buying and rehabilitating housing in the neighborhood. The City enticed Home Depot to open a location in 1998.

With momentum in the neighborhood gathering, the Port Authority and multiple partners began a reconstruction of the East Liberty Transit Station, which is located on the Martin Luther King Jr. East rapid bus transit system. The reconfigured transit station includes 3,000 square feet of mixed commercial space, 360 units of market-rate housing, a 554- space shared-use parking facility, a new pedestrian bridge, a 120-space bike garage, lighting, streetscape improvements, landscaping and plaza facilities. A wave of redevelopment drew Target, Trader Joe’s, a Whole Foods Market and Google’s new Pittsburgh offices, which are located in a former Nabisco factory remodeled into an office-retail complex named Bakery Square.

Non-Governmental Efforts To Encourage Regional Cooperation 

At the same time that governments were taking steps to bring more coherence to a fragmented region, leaders of non-governmental organizations in Greater Pittsburgh were promoting greater regional cooperation.

Since the 1940s, The Allegheny Conference on Community Development has served to bring together the interests of civic leaders in Allegheny County. In 1998, in response to the growing appreciation that the 10-county surrounding region would benefit from greater cooperation, the Conference created and staffed the Southwestern Pennsylvania Growth Alliance. The Alliance brought together government and business leaders from the 10 counties to streamline and focus economic development-related priorities. By combining the lobbying efforts of the 10 counties, the region saw a rise in its clout in the state capital.

During the same period, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance was formed, creating a joint marketing and business recruitment platform for the 10-county region.

In 2000, the Conference entered into a “joint venture” with the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, and the Pennsylvania Economy League of Greater Pittsburgh, a public policy research organization. The joint venture united the four organizations under a common CEO, with a consolidated membership structure. Under the leadership of the Allegheny Conference board of directors, the organizations pursue their individual missions: The Chamber advocates for the region, the Economy League provides research and analysis, and the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance markets the region. Every three years, the Conference engages in an agenda-setting process, soliciting input from members and key stakeholders from across the region. The process involves listening sessions in each of the 10 counties, ultimately resulting in the crafting of a three-year agenda that focuses on specific strategies designed to move the region forward.

Over the long term, Pittsburgh has continued to diversify its economy and has scored some major wins in recent years. The largest project is the recently announced natural gas petrochemical plant being developed in Beaver County by Shell Chemicals. The project is expected to create 6,000 construction jobs and 600 permanent jobs when complete.

Pittsburgh has also become a regional technology mecca. Drawn by the talent and technology generated by Carnegie Mellon software and robotics programs, Pittsburgh landed Uber Technologies Inc.’s New Advanced Technology Center, which is pioneering the development of driverless Uber vehicles. Apple has expanded its Pittsburgh operation into a 20,000 square-foot building in Pittsburgh’s Strip District. Facebook has an established a research center for its Oculus virtual reality division. And Google now has 400 employees at its Bakery Square office.

Pittsburgh’s growth in employment is still not as robust as some other faster-growing metros. But it experienced less job loss than Birmingham during the Great Recession and rebounded to higher levels.

The Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT) 

A final example of how Pittsburgh is working to overcome municipal fragmentation can be found in the Congress of Neighboring Communities, a nonprofit headquartered at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. The Congress brings together the leaders of 40 local governments to identify common issues and work collaboratively to determine solutions.

Over the years, civic leaders have continued to discuss ways to cut down on the number of local governments in Pittsburgh. In 2008, then-chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, Mark Nordenberg, led the production of Government for Growth: Forging a Bright Future—Built on Unity, Equity and Equality—for the People of Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh.6 The study process began in 2006 when the Allegheny Chief Executive and the Mayor of Pittsburgh came together to form an advisory committee to look at improving the efficiency and cooperation between the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. In studying the issue, the Commission explored the potential for consolidating the city government with the county’s. Along the way, the commission visited Louisville, Kentucky, the most recent city to pursue such a consolidation. They also paid for a study of city-county consolidation,7 performed by the Rand Corporation. The Rand study gathered considerable evidence that indicated that city and county consolidation had the potential to improve economic development in the Pittsburgh region by creating unity of leadership, streamlining the regulatory processes faced by businesses, and decreasing unnecessary duplication of services. However, the study also candidly admitted conclusive proof that city-county consolidation would produce those results was not available. City-county consolidations have been relatively rare, and the specifics and timing of those consolidations vary greatly, making evaluations of their impact difficult to compare.

Based on the Rand study and information gathered locally, the Government for Growth report recommended advancing toward a city-county consolidation model for Pittsburgh. However, by the time the study was published, the initial coalition interested in pursuing that approach had become splintered. The release of the report prompted some civic conversation about city-county consolidation, but no real movement resulted.

With consolidation off the table for the time being, the nonprofit Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT) was formed in 2009 to continue the conversation around how local governments can cooperate. CONNECT is primarily grant-funded, with approximately 75 percent of annual funding coming from foundations, such as the Heinz Endowments and the Richard King Mellon Foundation, and 25 percent from municipal contributors, including Allegheny County. CONNECT started with the 36 municipalities sharing borders with Pittsburgh and has since grown to 40 municipalities. Meetings are primarily attended by city managers but are also open to other elected officials of the municipalities.

Examples of the issues being approached cooperatively through CONNECT are sewer and storm water infrastructure problems, community blight, and coordination of street-paving efforts.

Sewers: When it comes to sewers, Pittsburgh faces greater fragmentation problems than Jefferson County. The Allegheny County Sanitary District (ALCOSAN), a countywide agency, operates the main lines and treatment facilities, while municipalities are responsible for the feeder system. Problems with the aging feeder systems in dozens of discrete municipalities led to sewer overflows and capacity problems with the main collection system. In 2013, CONNECT helped establish the Sewer Regionalization Implementation Committee (SRIC). This committee is working toward sewer regionalization through the transfer of ownership of multiple municipal sewer lines and wet weather facilities from the municipalities to ALCOSAN. To date, more than 250 miles of pipe have been identified for transfer.

Blight: CONNECT has helped arrange legal advice and representation to communities on matters regarding blighted, vacant and abandoned housing, an acute problem in communities that have lost population due to suburban migration. CONNECT municipalities convened for a workshop where they shared tools and resources for combating blight and collaborated on developing action plans to address specific sample properties. The continuing collaborative work and projects in individual jurisdictions are being compiled into a collection of “best practices” to tackling these issues.

Infrastructure: In a region carved up into multiple municipalities, the paving of streets often happens in a fashion that isn’t coordinated with adjacent municipalities or utility providers. Often fresh repaving projects are shortly thereafter torn up again due to projects carried out by other agencies. In 2015, CONNECT hosted two utilities summits with municipalities and the major utility companies in hopes of reducing duplication of road repair. As a result, CONNECT has been charged with leading the development of a common data platform that allows municipalities and utilities to electronically track paving plans to identify opportunities for collaboration.

Shared Services: The City of Pittsburgh now provides some city services by contract for neighboring municipalities. Pittsburgh began trash collection for the borough of Wilkinsburg in 2007 and started fire protection services in 2011. In 2016, Pittsburgh began providing fire protection in another small community, Ingram.8 Despite the modest moves toward shared services, local communities remain resistant to giving up community-based operations to the bigger city.

1 Downtown Pittsburgh: Renaissance and Renewal, Edward K. Muller.

2 Preparing Allegheny County for the 21st Century: A Report to the Allegheny County Board of Commissioners, 1996.

3 Ibid

4 Home Rule Charter for Allegheny County: Approved by the Voters of Allegheny County at the election held on May 19, 1998 Effective January 1, 2000.

5 Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County offers Cuyahoga some lessons in reform, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Jim Nichols.

6 Government for Growth, The Report of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of City-County Government

7 Government Consolidation and Economic Development in Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh, Rand Corporation

8 Suburbs wary of Pittsburgh’s attempts to share public services, Tribune-Review


Denver, Colorado

Approach: Cooperation Through Regional Entities


Denver is nationally recognized as a leader in regional cooperation, using both governmental and public-private partnerships to tie together seven counties surrounding the central city. Through cooperative ventures, Denver has developed a regional approach to supporting the arts, a nationally recognized transit system, a regional model for cooperative economic development and regional organizations that bring together elected leaders to tackle issues that are regional in nature.


The current state of cooperation in Denver results from decades of effort to counter the effects of fragmentation and duplication. Unlike Charlotte, which was able to expand to capture suburban growth, and unlike Louisville, which was able to achieve consolidation, Greater Denver experienced a proliferation of independent suburban communities surrounding the central city. Recognizing the futility of forcing combinations of those governments, Denver devised a regional approach that united Greater Denver in cooperative ventures.

Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD) 

An early step in regional cooperation, the SCFD was created in 1988, funded by a voter-approved 0.01 percent sales tax in seven counties, including and surrounding Denver. The tax proceeds, now amounting to about $50 million a year, are distributed to the region’s five largest cultural attractions, to 28 regional attractions, and 242 cultural organizations throughout the seven-county district.

Regional Transportation District (RTD) 

An eight-county district supporting a regional transit system, RTD is governed by a board elected by district and oversees the operation and expansion of a transit system that combines buses, light rail and commuter rail. Funded by a voter-approved, 0.4 percent sales tax increase, RTD is in the midst of a $5 billion multi-modal expansion linking the entire region.

Regional Cooperation Bodies 

Denver’s approach to economic development is held out as a national model of regionalism. The Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, an affiliate of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, brings together more than 70 cities, counties and economic development agencies in the nine-county Metro Denver and Northern Colorado area. Participating member governments are bound by a pledge to pursue a cooperative approach to economic development rather than engaging in intra-regional competition for prospects.

The elected mayors of the region cooperate through the Metro Mayor’s Caucus, a group of 40 mayors in the region who meet regularly to address regional problems not effectively dealt with jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction.

Many of the same elected officials are involved in the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG), the area’s regional planning commission. DRCOG is one of the oldest and most extensive organizations of its kind. Through DRCOG, Denver communities have developed the Mile High Compact, a set of voluntary growth management guidelines, agreed to by 45 communities in the region. The guidelines encourage resource conservation and community planning to guide compact and sustainable development.


Denver currently enjoys a reputation as a hot city, a destination for job creation and innovation. The region’s current prosperity has been built on the work of more than three decades of regional cooperation. And this carefully and incrementally built regional cooperation came in response to what had been a prevailing trend toward Balkanization and central city decline.

In the 1970s, Denver was facing a plight familiar to American cities of that era: racial turmoil and suburban flight. Early in the 20th century, Denver had taken the then very unusual step of consolidating its city and county governments. The merged entity prospered as a center of mining supply and industry, situated at the far western end of the Great Plains in the shadows of the rising Rocky Mountains. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, as suburban development gathered steam outside Denver’s borders, Denver lost population, leaving the region’s blacks and Hispanics increasingly concentrated in the city and in its schools. Under federal court orders to desegregate the schools through busing, Denver saw increasing rates of flight to predominately white and more affluent communities outside the city.

Denver’s population was declining until 1990. It’s rapid growth since then coincided with movement for greater regional cooperation.

In response, the city attempted to capture suburban growth through annexation, maneuvers that sparked resentment in surrounding counties. The resistance to annexation became so strong that in 1974, the surrounding counties gained support for an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that effectively ended the city’s ability to expand through annexation. Under the Poundstone Amendment, if Denver wanted to annex territory, it had to obtain a majority vote of the area being annexed and a majority vote of the county in which the territory was located.

In the 1980s, the national recession and a bust in the energy sector on which Denver had come to rely threw the city into an even worse situation, with compounding population loss, high unemployment and downtown office vacancy rates of nearly 40 percent.

The corporate leadership in Denver came together behind a plan to reverse Denver’s declining fortunes. The first prong of that strategy was to replace Denver’s existing and inadequate airport with a state-of-the-art international airport to tie Denver to the national and international economy. The second, aided by the first, was to put Denver on the map as a global city, competitive nationally and internationally. And underlying all of that was the third prong in the strategy, bringing the region together to cooperatively pursue a cohesive economic development strategy.

Under the leadership of Denver Mayor Federico Peña, the airport plan began to take shape. Finding the ideal location and open land for the new facility would require going beyond the city and county limits of Denver into adjacent Adams County. Instead of the heavy-handed tactics employed by Denver in the past, Peña employed humility and persuasion to gain the support of skeptical Adams County. In exchange for allowing the annexation that would make the airport possible, Denver agreed to finance the airport construction, build the access roads, and share the development gains with Adams County.

In 1988, Adams County voters approved the annexation into Denver of the land for the new airport. Though initially plagued with cost overruns and technical problems, the $5 billion project to build Denver International Airport (DIA) has paid off. Denver International Airport, opened in 1995, is now the sixth busiest airport in the U.S. In 2013, the Colorado Department of Transportation calculated DIA’s annual economic impact for the region at $26.3 billion.1

The vote for regional cooperation around the project helped launch a new era in Denver. The city’s population began to rebound, and the region at large awakened to the benefits of working together.

In Denver, there is no distinction between the central city and the central county on social and economic performance measures since the city and the county merged at the turn of the 20th century. While there is some disparity on those performance measures between the City and County of Denver and its surrounding metro area, both are prosperous in comparison to Birmingham.


The cultivated awareness of Denver as a region rather than a collection of cities and suburbs grew on multiple fronts and blossomed with the formation of bodies and initiatives to knit the region together.

Regional Support for Art and Culture 

In the 1980s, cultural institutions in Denver were hurting. During the recession and the energy bust of that era, the largest cultural institutions in Denver lost all state funding. Local leaders came together to support the formation of a seven-county district surrounding Denver to create a regional base of support not only for major museums, performance venues, and arts organizations but also for community-based cultural attractions and groups. In 1988, a one-tenth of 1 percent tax on all sales in the seven-county Scientific and Cultural District was proposed and won approval from 75 percent of voters.

That tax has now been extended three times, most recently in November 2016.

The proceeds of that tax, which now produces approximately $50 million a year, is distributed to three tiers of organizations. The distribution to the region’s five largest cultural attractions—The Denver Zoo, the Denver Center for Performing Arts, The Denver Botanic Gardens, The Denver Museum of Art, and The Denver Museum of Nature and Science—are based on public access and operating costs. These organizations receive about 65 percent of the total.

Distributions to 28 second-tier regional attractions, which include the symphony, ballet, opera, contemporary art museums and a variety of other groups, are based on income and paid attendance. These organizations receive about 22 percent of the total.

Grant awards for 242 tier three organizations, ranging from dance, stage, music, and film to folk art groups, are decided by county cultural councils, which receive a proportional allocation of the tax, about 14 percent of the total.

The District is governed by an 11-member volunteer board of directors appointed by the governor and the county commissions or councils of participating counties. The District has a small paid staff; only 0.75 percent of the revenue collected is allocated for administrative costs. The staff is tasked with reviewing the applications from organizations. The grant review process includes site visits and submitted financial documentation to demonstrate compliance and financial viability.

The regional investment in art and culture seems to be paying off. A 2015 study by the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts estimated that Denver-area arts and culture spending had a $1.8 billion economic impact on the region. Denver’s major institutions enjoy high national ranks for visitation, attendance, and membership. A 2015 study by the National Endowment for the Arts ranked Colorado No. 2 among states in the percentage of adults who attend live music, theater, and dance performance and in the percentage of adults visiting art museums.2


Alongside the growth with the airport expansion, Denver has been simultaneously building one of the country’s newest and most advanced transit systems, combining bus, light rail and commuter rail in an integrated system to serve the region.

The Denver region had already come together to support a transit system, supported by a 1-cent sales tax covering eight counties, which is operated by the Denver-area Regional Transit District, (RTD). RTD is governed by a 15-member elected board representing the residents of the eight counties.

In the late 1990s, leaders of the region first launched a proposal for a $6 billion plan to revamp the transit system, but voters rejected the initial proposal in a 1997 ballot measure. Opposition was especially strong in suburbs, as the plan was viewed as too focused on the city of Denver. Subsequent to that, voters did approve a state bond issue that financed the construction of an initial 19-mile light rail connecting Denver to the suburbs southeast of the city.

In 2004, after riders had begun to see the success of light rail, regional leaders again banded together behind a revamped proposal for expanded bus service, more light rail, and the addition of commuter rail lines. FasTracks, which added another 0.4 percent to the sales tax, was approved 58 to 42 percent.3

The FasTracks program, now a $5.3 billion program, will add 122 miles of new commuter rail and light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, and 21,000 new parking spaces at rail and bus stations, expanding and enhancing service across the eight-county district.

While some federal money has been secured for the project, most of the public funding is coming from the local tax.

So far, 42 miles of light rail service has been developed. In 2016, Denver opened the metro area’s first high-speed commuter rail line—the University of Colorado A Line, connecting downtown Denver, Denver International Airport, and communities along the Interstate 70 corridor. Also opened in 2016, the B-Line expanded commuter rail service from downtown Denver to Westminster. RTD anticipates opening two additional rail lines.

Denver’s establishment of mass transit has been reshaping surrounding communities. While suburban growth is ongoing, a major building boom is occurring in multi-family residential buildings close to train and bus lines. The most visible manifestation of the collateral growth and development from the expanded rail system can be seen at downtown Denver’s Union Station. The once-battered train terminal has been restored, and all around it, cranes tower above new office buildings and residential high-rises. It is estimated that the 19.5 acres of land around Union Station has drawn $1 billion in private investment.4

Building Organizations for Regional Cooperation 

Denver’s awakening to the benefits of regional cooperation didn’t appear out of nowhere. It was the product of a sustained drive by community leaders, particularly the business leadership, to support the concept.

Essential to that movement was the formation of what is now known as the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation (EDC). Funded with $8 million from the business community, the new regional economic development organization waged a campaign for the airport, but more broadly, united a collection of competing municipalities and far-flung counties into a globally competitive city. Metro Denver EDC emphasized the connection between the central city and the suburbs and emphasized the region’s shared economic fortunes and devised a system for diffusing local rivalries.

Relatively isolated from other major metropolitan areas, Denver area communities had a history of competition for new jobs and housing developments.

Metro Denver EDC founder Tom Clark devised a centralized system for collecting and sharing economic development leads among all the participating entities in nine counties.

The regional network offered a powerful tool to local communities to pull resources together for marketing and business intelligence. But to join the regional network, members had to agree to a Code of Ethics.5 The code of ethics forbade poaching of others’ economic development prospects. It required participants to share leads on potential projects interested in the region. Under the new system, information on a company looking to relocate was distributed simultaneously to all members. If a community believes it has a competitive site to offer, that proposal is submitted to the Metro Denver EDC. The central organization then presents all the proposed sites together to the interested party, bundled in a unified regional pitch.

As the regional approach gathered momentum, Denver became a bigger and more successful player. And as the economic development successes mounted, the participating communities became more and more convinced that a win for the region translated into a benefit for the local community.

Metro Denver EDC took on a role greater than a marketing and recruitment organization. It was an organizer and proponent of regional advancement, particularly when it came to transit and revitalization of downtown Denver, both of which were considered essential to recruiting and retaining new business.

As the region developed a more cohesive economic development approach, it was apparent that an organization was needed to draw the region’s political leadership together, as well.

In 1993, the Metro Mayor’s Caucus was formed. The new organization pulled together the dozens of mayors from 40 cities, ranging in size from Denver to small towns of 500.

The mayors convene on a regular basis in a noncompetitive forum to discuss issues of common concern from drought and youth violence to transportation, growth management, affordable housing and homelessness, air quality, energy conservation, wellness, and hunger. Every mayor has an equal voice at the table, regardless of the size of the community they represent. The organization takes positions on issues of regional importance but only through a consensus model, rather than majority vote.

The Metro Mayors Caucus has been a vital tool in coalescing political support around Denver’s transit initiatives and has supported measures to encourage water and energy conservation, affordable housing, and health and wellness initiatives.

The Metro Mayors Caucus also collaborated with Denver’s Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) to create the Mile High Compact. The Compact, signed in 2000, is a binding commitment (though participation is voluntary) by governments to adopt


comprehensive land use plans that include growth management tools to foster sustainable development. Those tools include setting community-specific boundaries for urban growth. Under the Compact, those boundaries and other growth management measures are established within the framework of Metro Vision, the regional plan developed by DRCOG.

With Denver facing rapid growth and limited resources, Metro Vision and the Mile High Compact encourage greater urban density so open space, air and water quality can be preserved and existing infrastructure can be used to its fullest potential.

DRCOG is itself a vehicle for regional collaboration and long-predates any of Denver’s current initiatives. Created in 1955 to foster regional collaboration and cooperation, it is one of the nation’s oldest councils of governments. Representatives of 56 governing bodies make up DRCOG’s board of directors. It’s mission to craft a collaborative plan for sustainable growth is more important than ever. By 2040, Denver’s population is forecasted to increase nearly 50 percent, from around 3 million to approximately 4.3 million people.


Improvements Through Regional Cooperation 

  • Unified approach to economic development
  • Better communication and cooperation between elected officials
  • Wider base of support for regional initiatives
  • Coordinated regional approach to land-use

Criticism of Regional Approaches 

  • Separate regional districts not always aligned with the priorities of individual towns
  • Questions can arise about the equitable distribution of resources and services across the participating region.


1 Colorado Airports Economic Impact Study

2 https://www.arts.gov/artistic-fields/research-analysis/arts-data-profiles/arts-data-profile-11/research-table

3 The Metropolitan Revolution, Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 2013.

4 Denver Union Station area draws $1 billion in private development, Denver Business Journal.

5 Denver Metropolitan Development Corp. Code of Ethics



Louisville, Kentucky

Approach: Political Consolidation


Louisville is the most recent major city to consolidate its central city government with its county government, creating a new metro government. Prior to consolidation, Jefferson County, Kentucky, had, including Louisville, 93 municipalities.

None of those municipalities were dissolved in the merger, but all agreed to unite under the umbrella of Greater Louisville, with the new city-county government providing county-level services throughout the county, as well as delivering city services within the footprint of the old city, designated as the urban service district. Under the new system, the Mayor of Louisville is elected in a countywide vote and a 26-member Metro Council is elected by districts.

The consolidation shrank government by eliminating duplication. It also created a single executive for the county charged with managing the government and serving as a singular voice in economic development and civic agenda setting.


The current state of cooperation in Louisville results from decades of effort to overcome fragmentation and forge cooperative arrangements. Here are some pre-existing conditions and progressive steps Louisville made prior to city-county consolidation.

Pre-existing City-County Agencies 

During the era of court-ordered public school desegregation, a federal court ordered the merger of the Louisville City School system, which had a high concentration of black students, with the predominately white county system.

While the 1975 merger was extremely contentious at the time, the unified school district removed one of the strongest objections typically encountered in a consolidation campaign: the status of school systems under a merged government.

Prior to the merger, the city and county maintained joint agencies for parks and recreation, the library system, business services and purchasing, the Louisville/ Jefferson County Redevelopment Authority, and planning and zoning.

Louisville had tried proposed city-county consolidation before. Proposals for merger were rejected in 1956, 1982 and 1983.

Intergovernmental Compact 

After the second loss in the 1980s, city and county leaders agreed instead to an intergovernmental compact, which combined the proceeds of the city and county 1.25 percent occupational tax. Though the distribution formula was complicated, the aim of the combined countywide tax was to eliminate the intra-county competition for new businesses by sharing the revenue growth of the tax, regardless of where the business located. The compact also placed a moratorium on annexations by the City of Louisville. Through the compact, the city and the county also merged several departments, including planning and zoning. It also created a joint office for economic development.

Trusted Leadership 

A final key to preparing the ground for city-county consolidation was the popularity of Louisville’s long-serving mayor Jerry Abramson. Abramson was well regarded in both the city and the county at large and his support for consolidation, including the expectation that he would eventually lead the combined entity, set the stage for success.


Louisville was founded in 1778 at the Falls of the Ohio River, the northernmost point at which you could travel the river without obstruction to the Gulf of Mexico. Because of that, Louisville grew into an important inland port, making it a shipping and transportation hub. That river commerce was later reinforced with rail, interstate connections and air connections. It remains so today. UPS’s global air-freight hub is located at the Louisville International Airport.

Sometimes called the Northernmost Southern City or the Southernmost Northern City, Louisville mixes southern flavor, the home of the Kentucky Derby and a capital of bourbon production with an industrial base more characteristic of the Midwest or Northeast.

Louisville, like Birmingham, grew rapidly during the industrial rise of the United States and, like Birmingham, its population began to erode in the latter half of the 20th century with the growth of suburbia. By the mid-1970s, more Jefferson County, Kentucky, residents lived outside the city than in it.

Both cities saw their populations peak in 1960; Louisville at 390,636 and Birmingham at 340,887. Both saw their populations fall after that. By 1990, the two cities were roughly equal in population.

Before consolidation, Birmingham and Louisville experienced similar population trends. The 2010 Census was the first to reflect the population of Louisville’s new Metro Government.

Like Birmingham, Louisville also saw a shift in its socio-economic composition over that period. In 1960, 18 percent of Louisville’s population was black; by 2000, 33 percent of the city’s population was African-American. After 2000, when Louisville consolidated its city and county governments to create a unified Metro Government, the population mix was altered by adding the predominately white population in the unincorporated county to the city’s population total.1 Looking at the population base eligible to vote for the new Louisville Metro Government, approximately 20 percent of the population is black.

In terms of metropolitan populations, Louisville is larger than Birmingham by about 130,000 people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau population estimate, Louisville has grown at a slightly faster pace than Birmingham since 2010, 3 percent for Louisville compared to 1 percent for Birmingham.

Cooperation Through Compact 

Like Birmingham, Louisville pursued attempts at merger and consolidation in the 1950s, but voters rejected the proposal. Like Birmingham, Louisville attempted to use annexation to capture suburban growth, but both were ultimately thwarted by “annexation wars.”2 By the 1980s, there were more than 90 municipalities in the Jefferson County, Kentucky—each with its own government, mayor and city council, some with their own sewer systems. The central city’s tax base was eroding, and there was intra-county competition for jobs. Both the city and the county had occupational taxes. If a business located in the city, the central city would benefit from the revenue. If it located outside the city, the county would benefit.

Jerry Abramson, who served as mayor of the city from 1986–1999 and as the first mayor of the Metro Government from 2003–2011, explained that a visiting corporate executive might be welcomed by the mayor with a proposed site in the city and later meet with the county executive who’d offer a different site in the county. As Abramson described the situation, the business delegation would depart saying, “Call me when you’ve got your act together.”

By 1985, community leaders were working on a compromise solution to end this confusion and competition. These negotiations would lead to the city-county compact of 1986. Authorized by the Kentucky State Legislature, the compact called for the parties to create a cooperative framework for cohesive government operations.

New revenue from the occupational tax collections would be shared.

The City froze annexation efforts, and no new city could be incorporated during the period of the compact.

Existing joint city and county operations—such as the airport, the board of health, air pollution control, the library system, the zoo, and the park system—were divided up, with the city taking full responsibility for the management of some, the county of others. Both governments agreed to continue their current contribution levels to the services.

The Unity Campaign 

While the compact arrangement increased cooperation and decreased competition, by the 1990s, business and political leadership had revived calls for merger in the interest of streamlining government and economic development efforts.

The business community took its own step toward regionalism and consolidation in 1997 by forming Greater Louisville Inc. (GLI). GLI was the merger of the Greater Louisville Economic Development Partnership and the Louisville Area Chamber of Commerce. The city contracted with the regionally focused organization for marketing, business attraction, and expansion services.

In addition to the good government arguments made for city-county consolidation, a matter of civic pride was at stake. Louisville had been the 30th largest city in the U.S. in 1950 but had fallen out of the top 50 by 1990. Worse, nearby Lexington, which had merged its city and county in 1974, was on track to surpass Louisville’s population in the 2000 Census. Louisville, long the largest city in the state, would no longer be the largest city in Kentucky, eclipsed, at least in a statistical sense, by its nearby rival. The impending Census count (which did indeed record Lexington as larger by about 4,000) added impetus to the consolidation effort.

Another blow to civic pride during the period came in the form of a bobbled bid to bring an NBA team, the Houston Rockets, to Louisville. The effort’s failure was blamed on the disjointed bid put forth, undermined by division between the city and the county.

In 1998, a task force of 56 local elected officials in Louisville and Jefferson County was formed to study a potential merger. Supporters of consolidation looked back at the elections for city-county consolidation, which failed in 1982 by just over 1,000 votes and in 1983 by a heavier margin.

Polling was conducted. The decision was made by backers to stay away from the terms “consolidation” or “merger” and instead stress “unity.”

Over $1 million was raised for the Unity Campaign. Supporters, armed with carefully crafted talking points, fanned out across the community.

They stressed four main points: 

Unity: Consolidation would create one leader with one agenda for the community representing the city in relations with the state Legislature and Congress.

Efficiency: Unity would eliminate duplication and operate more efficiently in a modernized structure.

Representation: The merger would increase representation by replacing commissioners representing 200,000 people with council members representing 26,000 residents.

Visibility: The merger would allow Louisville to reclaim its rightful place among the Top 50 U.S. Cities, better positioned to attract jobs and major corporations.

Opponents rallied as well. Members of the Louisville Board of Aldermen and the current county commissioners voiced opposition, as did the NAACP, gay rights organizations such as the Fairness Campaign and PUSH/Rainbow Coalition, the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, Taxpayers Action Group, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Louisville firefighters’ union.

The African-American community feared their clout in city government would be diminished. Gay rights groups feared a new Metro Government would roll back protections enacted by the more liberal city when the more conservative suburban representatives were added to the council. Public sector unions were worried about their collective bargaining rights.

Opponents argued that taxes would go up and that the city residents would be left behind and suburban cities would eventually be absorbed. It was derided as a plot from the white corporate executives in office towers.3

As the campaign moved toward a more concrete proposal, some of the concerns were addressed. African-American representation on the new council was assured by a commissioning a University of Louisville demographer to draw districts for the new council that would assure five majority black districts, a similar level of representation as the existing city council.

To entice union members, the merger would leave in place collective bargaining agreements. There would be no mandated consolidation of services; decisions would be left up to the new government. The proposal was simplified. Existing cities and fire districts would be left intact under the proposal developed. There would be no change in taxes or services.

The ballot language simply asked: “Are you in favor of combining the City of Louisville and Jefferson County into a single government with a mayor and legislative council, keeping all other cities, fire protection districts and special districts in existence?”

The Winning Coalition Essential to the success of the campaign was the out-front leadership of the county’s most prominent politicians. Chief among them was Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, who’d reached a term limit after his third term in office. The charismatic mayor, respected in both the city and the county, was widely expected to win election as the mayor of the merged entity if the campaign succeeded.

Abramson, a Democrat, was joined in the campaign by the sitting Jefferson County Judge-Executive, a Republican. In fact, proponents managed to line up support from every living Louisville mayor and county judge-executive. That included Mitch McConnell, a former Judge-Executive, who had gone on to win a seat in the U.S. Senate representing Kentucky.

Added to that bipartisan support was a sophisticated and well-funded campaign that included phone banks, tracking polls and direct mail. The Unity Campaign eventually overwhelmed the opposition. The referendum passed on Nov. 7, 2000, with 54 percent of the county voting yes and 46 voting against.

Reinventing Government

Winning the referendum was just the beginning of the work. Perhaps even more challenging was the three-year window Louisville had to invent a new government that merged the functions of the city and the county.

Despite the challenges, those involved said the process of designing a new government was a powerful, energizing, once-in-a-lifetime experience that allowed the community to ask fundamental questions: Why were we organized like this? How can we better organize for the future?

The legacy governments appointed a legal task force to begin the process of reconciling and combining city and county ordinances. A Merger Transition Task Force began studying departments and organizational structures of the two governments to make recommendations about how to combine.

Without a major rival on the horizon, Jerry Abramson appeared to be assured of election as the first mayor of the merged Louisville. Regardless of the fact he hadn’t been officially elected, Abramson launched a series of listening sessions in each of the new council districts gathering citizen input. He visited corporate leaders whose companies had been involved in mergers and acquisitions to get their advice on how to bring together two governments.

The community aided the planning for the new government with contributions to pay for outside expertise to study Louisville’s current state and help map a plan for the future. The Community Foundation of Louisville and other foundations came together to hire the Brookings Institute to produce a major evaluation of the region, Beyond Merger: A Competitive Vision for the Regional City of Louisville.

National experts from the private sector, the National Academy of Public Administration, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Annie E. Casey Foundation were enlisted to consult with local officials on building the new government.

City- and county-owned property and equipment were inventoried. Work began on combining separate payroll and budgeting systems.

The first budget was built from the ground up on a zero-basis, with every expenditure, old and new, needing to be explained and justified.

Savings were identified through eliminating duplicative staff and getting rid of 600 funded-but-unfilled positions across departments. With the reshuffling and reductions, excess office space was identified. That allowed some agencies that had been leasing buildings to move into government-owned buildings, saving money.

Along with reductions in staff, the reorganization identified ways to use existing staff more efficiently. For example, prior to the merger, about a dozen Health Department employees oversaw mosquito control for the 386-square mile county. During the merger process, field employees in six departments, as well as water and sewer employees, were trained to add mosquito control activities to their duties, increasing service without increasing staff.

Another example could be found in the city and county police departments. Though it was not mandated by the merger, the city and county police forces worked toward combination. As an end result, the combined force was able to decrease administrative positions and put more officers on patrol.

Merging departments was by no means easy. There were contentious negotiations over seemingly minor details, such as the uniform design of the new police force.

And the merger was not without costs. As is typical in consolidations, when employees of two similar departments are merged the combined forces receive pay and benefits equal to the higher paid of the two departments. In total, the government faced millions in increased costs while at the same time, expected a $1.2 million drop in revenue.

Some of that shortfall was made up with staff and other expense reductions. The new government also imposed a short-term pay freeze and instituted a performance review evaluation of all grants to groups outside the government. As a result, those grants were trimmed from $10 million to $4 million.

In the end, the Metro Government managed a balanced budget without any new revenue, as was promised.

The new Metro Government also had to establish new relations with extant suburban governments. The mayor appointed a full-time liaison to cities who helped identify benefits to the cities from cooperation. The cities were offered participation in buying bulk asphalt and fuel in the same pool as the Metro Government. Some services that had previously only been offered to city residents were expanded countywide, such and weed abatement and removing junked cars.


The complex and ambitious merger attracted national attention to Louisville, and as predicted, the city’s profile rose as it was restored to large-city status. A 2011 poll found that 56 percent of people were satisfied with the city-county merger, though only 18 percent reported being highly to extremely satisfied. Satisfaction levels were lower in the African-American community, particularly when it came to police services. Most city services earned high satisfaction ratings, but only a slim majority, 51 percent, were satisfied with public transit. Ten years after the merger, contrary to fears from opponents, the size of government budgets and levels of taxation had remained level with the premerger governments, and government employment levels had decreased.4

After two terms in office, Abramson stepped aside to run for Kentucky Lieutenant Governor. Elected to replace him was Greg Fischer, a businessman whose family company developed the automated ice and beverage dispenser commonly used in convenience stores and restaurants. Fischer brought with him a data-driven business management style, prompting a new round of government reinvention. One of Fischer’s most high-profile initiatives has been LouieStat and Fischer’s Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation (OPI). City departments develop missions and goals and track performance for key metrics with up-to-date reporting of statistics on the LouieStat website. The Mayor and his senior leadership team meet with each department every six to eight weeks to discuss achievements and problems, looking for ways to improve efficiency and save money.

Across all departments, the Metro Government continuously tracks data on overtime pay, employee health, and workplace safety. OPI provides management-consulting services to departments, helping set up continuous improvement project management processes. The city has also put an emphasis on publicly sharing the data and publishing data sets, allowing both departments and citizens greater access to city data.

Louisville’s initial effort drew a $4.2 million grant from the philanthropies, and in 2015, the city received a second round of grant funding to advance the project. Louisville Metro has been ranked a top digital city, placing in the top 10 in the Center for Digital Government’s Digital Cities Survey.

Innovation in Economic Development

Around the country, there are different models for public-private collaboration for regional economic development and recruiting. As previously described, Louisville initially followed a model seen in Denver and elsewhere in which a private nonprofit, similar to our Birmingham Business Alliance, brings together business leadership in the region to market, recruit, and retain businesses and to lobby state and federal officials on economic development issues. In 2014, after Greater Louisville Inc. (GLI) went through a period of financial and leadership struggles, Louisville Metro Government significantly reduced its contractual relationship with GLI and created a governmental agency, Louisville Forward, to handle an array of business

5 Jeff Wachter, A 10-Year Perspective of the Merger of Louisville and Jefferson County, KY, 2013.

service and recruitment activities for the city. Because of the consolidation and the greater geographic coverage area, the Metro Government believed itself to be in a better position to perform the marketing, recruitment, and retention efforts, integrating those services with governmental programs such as zoning, permitting and incentives, financing programs, small business creation efforts, brownfield redevelopment, as well as neighborhood redevelopment. GLI continues to exist as an independent, regional, non-governmental voice for business advocacy.

Business executives and those involved in recruitment have reported that the post-merger environment has created a strategic advantage for Louisville in that a unified government team can be assembled to address questions and streamline the permitting and regulatory process.5

Since the Great Recession, job creation in the Louisville Metro Area has exceeded Birmingham’s. While Louisville’s MSA job additions don’t match those of hot cities like Charlotte, its performance appears to have made a change in course, exceeding those of more fragmented post-industrial cities.

Economic Comparison 

On other economic measures, Louisville also outperforms Birmingham to some degree. When comparing the central cities, the merged Louisville now includes a much wider base. Consequently median income is higher, and poverty and jobless rates are lower.

At the metropolitan level, Birmingham and Louisville are much closer cousins, though Louisville’s MSA posts better marks in all categories.

Unified Local Voice Pushes Along Big Projects 

Prior to the merger, Louisville, as a community, had difficulty coming together to pursue big-ticket projects. Observers note that since the merger took effect, the dueling priorities of different governmental bodies have been replaced by “a quicker pace of decision-making, conflict resolution, and priority setting.” As a result, Louisville has seen speedier action and more effective collaboration with both private and other government partners.6

One example can be found in a huge transportation project, now nearing completion. It was long recognized that Louisville needed to make improvements to its transportation connections with Southern Indiana across the Ohio River from the city.

There was a perceived need for improvements to the downtown bridge carrying Interstate 65 across the river, and there was also a desire to create a separate crossing upstream. The tension between the two needs kept either from gaining full support. In the end, it was decided two new bridges would be built, using tolls to help pay for the $2.6 billion project. The Downtown Bridge has been completed and is open to traffic. The East End Bridge opened in December 2016.

The unified government was also able to coalesce support around the construction of a new downtown arena, the KFC Yum! Center. The arena, which opened in 2010, now hosts basketball and other sporting events for the University of Louisville, along with concerts and other community events. The City partnered with the State of Kentucky to finance the $238 million arena.

Metro Government is also partnering with the State of Kentucky on the renovation of the Kentucky International Convention Center, a $207 million renovation of the facility, which originally opened in 1977.

Louisville’s Waterfront Park, a green space along the Ohio River, adjacent to downtown, began long before consolidation as a partnership between the city, the county, and the State of Kentucky and a private nonprofit formed to develop and operate the park.

Metro Government has continued that partnership and is supporting a planned expansion of the park, which now covers 85 acres. While the partnership to build and operate the park preceded the consolidation of the governments, the Metro Government has had positive effects when it comes to recognizing the centrality of downtown and its amenities. One fear prior to the merger was that suburban representatives would bring the narrow interest of their communities before the needs of downtown, whose needs would be neglected.

However, the merger may have had the opposite effect, according to proponents. With the suburban representatives serving on a governmental body that is based in downtown Louisville, the awareness of the critical importance of the city center has increased. At the same time, urban planning expertise that had been concentrated in downtown can be tapped to help manage the growth in the burgeoning suburban communities.

Parks for a New Century 

In addition to Waterfront Park, Louisville, under the new Metro Government is working with private partners and other governments to reinvigorate its traditional parks while at the same time ambitiously expanding new parks and amenities.

In 1891, Louisville commissioned Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of New York’s Central Park, to design a park system for Louisville. Olmsted and his sons laid the groundwork for 18 parks and six parkways connecting them. The parks became central to the city’s character and shaped its development. The city developed and maintained those large urban parks while the county developed its own system of parks in the outlying counties. In the 1960s the two park systems and their recreation programs were consolidated.

In the 1970s and 1980s, citizens of Louisville became concerned about the condition of the original Olmsted Park System, which had fallen into disrepair. Those citizens formed the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, a nonprofit, which has partnered with the city and unified park system to restore the Olmsted Parks. Since 1989, the Conservancy has raised $30 million to fund park improvements.

Expanding on that model, the new Metro Government, under the leadership of Mayor Abramson and Louisville philanthropist and Humana co-founder David A. Jones, unveiled an expansion and improvement plan, the City of Parks initiative. The initiative calls for the establishment of new parks in the developing outer county, expansion of existing parks, and connecting those parks with a 100-mile greenway trail system, the Louisville Loop. With the help of U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell in securing federal appropriations, the backing of the Metro Government and a major private fund-raising initiative, the City of Parks initiative has grown over the course of a decade into a $125 million project that has drawn more than $70 million in private donations, combined with almost $50 million from federal, state and local government sources.

The private nonprofit, 21st Century Parks, is developing one of the nation’s largest new metropolitan parks projects, The Parklands of Floyds Fork, in eastern and southeastern Louisville. The Parklands of Floyds Fork is a nearly 4,000-acre donor-supported public park system along Floyds Fork in eastern and southeastern Louisville. Operations and maintenance are funded solely through private donations and an endowment fund.

Meanwhile, the Metro Government is spearheading the development and interconnection of the Louisville Loop, greenways that pass through the new parks and connect to the existing park system. The additions are creating recreational resources on the outer periphery of the city’s housing development, putting a park system in place before development envelops the area and drives up land prices.

Metro Parks system includes 120 parks covering more than 13,000 acres, with nine golf courses, 12 community centers, two arts and cultural centers, an Adapted and Inclusive Recreation (AIR) center, five swimming pools (including an Aquatic Center), two historic homes, and the nation’s largest municipal urban forest.

Metro Council 

Much of the attention surrounding the Louisville’s consolidated city-county government is focused on the power of the executive branch of the new government, Louisville’s Metro Mayor. However, the metro council also bears examination, since it effectively replaced the Louisville City Council and Jefferson County’s County Commission. Before the merger, the city’s legislative branch consisted of a 12-member Board of Aldermen, while the county had a three-member commission. Aldermen represented about 21,00 people, and three county commissioners represented 230,000. The Metro Council created 26 districts, with each council member representing about 26,000 people.

Proponents of the merger argued that having more representatives allowed for greater representation, particularly for smaller communities. On the other hand, as individuals, each representative is now less powerful than they would have been in the former city and county arrangements. Before the merger, blacks held one-third of the seats on the city council and one-third of the seats on the county commission. Now, black representatives make up about 20 percent of the council.

Though they are part of a Democratic majority on the Metro Council and exercise influence over a wider geography and larger population, black council members say they have more difficulty forming majority coalitions to support their particular concerns. The mayor of the Metro Government is elected countywide and consequently owes allegiance to the county as a whole, not to what was the center city.

There are also some misgivings among other council members who represent districts in the old city. The boundaries of the old city exist in the form of an urban service district, which pays higher taxes and receives the full suite of city services. It was expected that after merger, some of the existing cities would fold and portions of what had been unincorporated county would join the urban services district so that they would receive additional city services, such as garbage and waste pickup and street lighting and maintenance. That has not occurred. Council members representing the urban services district sometimes take issue with city expenditures on services such as snow removal and road paving that are performed throughout the Metro by the unified government.


Improvements Under the New Government 

  • Statistical and psychological boost from being considered a larger city
  • Reinvented government, cutting duplication and improving the efficiency of services
  • Unified governmental and economic development operations
  • Single executive better able to lead a concerted agenda for regional improvement
  • Single executive able to represent the city in businesses recruitment and relations with other governments
  • Broke the logjam on the two bridges project and other civic initiatives

Criticism of the New Government 

  • Perception that the old City of Louisville essentially dissolved in the merger, diminishing the political power of African-Americans
  • Disagreements over the fairness of the allocations of taxes and services between old Louisville, suburbs and the old unincorporated areas, with the old city still paying higher taxes while some services have been extended countywide
  • Expectations that existing municipalities would fold into the merged city have not borne out, thus preserving some duplication and fragmentation
  • Unincorporated areas have not chosen to join the urban services district, which means the tax base for paying for services has remained unchanged


1 Louisville and the U.S. Census Bureau on Louisville’s population. Louisville counts the county population (around 751,000) as its population total. That would make Louisville the 18th largest US city. Census counts only the old city plus the former unincorporated area population (around 615,000). Counting population that way puts Louisville at 30th nationally.

2 A history of Louisville’s Municipal Sewer District

3 Lesson Learned from Merger: What other communities can learn from the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County, Kentucky governments, City of Louisville.

4 Jeff Wachter, A 10-Year Perspective of the Merger of Louisville and Jefferson County, KY, 2013.

5 Jeff Wachter, A 10-Year Perspective of the Merger of Louisville and Jefferson County, KY, 2013.

6 Edward Bennett and Carolyn Gatz, A Restoring Prosperity Case Study: Louisville Kentucky (Washington, DC: Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings).


In all four regions studied, the work to counter the forces of fragmentation and promote cooperation has been in progress for decades and continues.

In all four, this work was not left up to elected leaders. Though the degree of involvement of the various sectors differed, in each city, it took a combination of business, university, civic and foundation leadership to drive the process forward.

Through the work, these cities have been able to redefine themselves. They’ve made improvements through cooperation much greater than could have been accomplished with a fractured base of support or with an incoherent structure for leadership.

In a chapter in this series, we will look at how the lessons learned from these other cities might be applied in Birmingham, considering our current state and distinctive history.