Overcoming Governmental Fragmentation
Birmingham’s Opportunities and Obstacles
Once upon a time, singular onclusities were the primary organizing unit for community advancement. They served as the vehicle for pooling resources to provide for roads, water and sanitation, public safety, and schools. In some places, large singular cities still play this role. But in most places in 21st century America, residents are more dispersed across the landscape. They are divided into collections of cities and suburbs.
Despite this organizational separation, the residents of metropolitan areas are intimately linked in an economy and culture that flows freely across these boundaries. Their fortunes are linked. They share a collective pool of opportunities and challenges.
All communities are subject to forces of history and economics.
Dynamic communities respond with creative solutions. They play offense.
Static communities play defense. They focus on the fear of losing ground, rather than taking the risks necessary to make gains.
In the previous chapter, Options for Pursuing Cooperation, we profiled four dynamic cities that have reshaped their local governments to better respond to the interconnected nature of the modern metropolitan economy. The four cities present four different approaches to creating a framework for cooperation that transcends municipal boundaries.
1 | Charlotte, North Carolina
Approach: Functional Consolidation
Charlotte, North Carolina, chose to create alliances between governments through what’s known as functional consolidation. City and county governments there united common operations that can be better delivered at scale and across jurisdictional boundaries.
2 | Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Approach: Modernizing County Government
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, chose to reform its county government so that it could provide leadership in the effective and efficient delivery of services that are regional in nature.
3 | Denver, Colorado
Approach: Cooperation Through Regional Entities
Denver, Colorado, chose to unite its sprawling metropolitan region by forming regional organizations that address common causes: economic development and recruiting, support for arts, culture, transportation, and the management of growth and development.
4 | Louisville, Kentucky
Approach: Political Consolidation
Louisville, Kentucky, chose to meld its central city and central county, creating a consolidated city to take the initiative on issues of regional importance, while leaving its smaller suburban municipalities intact and independent.
These dynamic cities have actively reshaped themselves, and their actions appear to have paid dividends in the form of economic growth and more accountable and ambitious community advancement.
For decades, Greater Birmingham was more static than dynamic. Governmental forms and patterns of organizations have been taken as givens, inevitable results of the tide of history. Jefferson County descended into bankruptcy, thanks to mismanagement and corruption enabled by a poorly structured county government. Meanwhile, in comparison to its Sunbelt neighbors, Birmingham has lagged in growth and prosperity.
More recently, a spirit of optimism and ambition has returned to the area. In the wake of the bankruptcy, the local delegation of the State Legislature took initial steps to reform county government with the creation of a county manager position, a change that has led to an improvement in county operations and a return to solvency.
Cooperative investment by the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County and community partners made possible the development of Railroad Park and Red Mountain Park. The Railroad Park project helped spawn Regions Field, a new downtown ballpark for the Birmingham Barons. In turn, those projects have spurred further private commercial and residential investment in downtown.
Persistent advocacy by the local business community for state-level historic tax credits paid off and has catalyzed prominent projects, including the restoration of the historic Lyric Theatre, the Thomas Jefferson Tower, and the Pizitz Building.
Birmingham, in partnership with the Birmingham- Jefferson Civic Center Authority, sponsored the development of the Westin Hotel and the Uptown entertainment district. A new stadium is under consideration, which among other uses could serve as home to a revived University of Alabama at Birmingham football program.
At this moment of opportunity, it is worth asking whether our governmental institutions are optimally designed to capitalize on this momentum.
Could Greater Birmingham’s governmental organizations be restructured to improve leadership and cooperation around regional ambitions?
When exploring options for improvements, it is important to remember:
No one approach excludes the others. Often the various approaches are complementary. For example, improving the functional operation of county government could also improve the likelihood of success in functional consolidation or cooperation to deliver certain services.
No suggestions for improvement of government form or function should be construed as criticism of current office holders.
None of the possible approaches necessitate the dissolution of current municipalities or school systems.
Ultimately, cooperation is voluntary. No changes are possible without the support of a majority of residents or of their elected representatives.
However, it must also be said that change is hard. Any approach employed could lead to changes in roles and responsibilities of certain office holders or elected bodies. New arrangements would require trust. In some cases, current advantages might have to be traded for broader, long-term benefit.
COMMON STRAINS IN MOVEMENTS FOR GREATER REGIONAL COOPERATION
Before examining models of regional cooperation and how they might work in Birmingham, it is instructive to look at the commonalities of the four cities profiled in the previous chapter.
An Identity Crisis
In each city, the move toward regional cooperation was spurred by the recognition that the region as a whole needed to redefine itself. Facing economic changes, leaders in each region seized an opportunity to pursue a new aspirational destiny.
In Pittsburgh, it was the collapse of the steel industry in the early 1980s that spurred an emergency call for the region to work cooperatively to diversify its industrial base. The steel industry’s collapse exacerbated the outflow of the population and further undermined the City of Pittsburgh’s tax base, prompting state intervention. With the city in crisis, residents refashioned the county to lead regional economic development efforts.
In Denver, the oil bust of the 1980s hit Denver and the State of Colorado hard, spurring leaders there to look for regional solutions to diversify the economy and knit fragmented communities together into a globally competitive metropolis.
In Louisville, due to population loss, the central city was losing its claim to being a major American city. In the 2000 Census, its in-state rival, Lexington, temporarily edged out Louisville to become the largest city in Kentucky. By consolidating Louisville with the county, the merged Metro Louisville reclaimed its “big city” status and created a platform for the shared pursuit of prosperity.
In Charlotte, it was less a crisis than a swelling ambition and determination to be a global financial center that drove cooperation efforts. Business leaders there saw cooperation there as a way to enable the city and county governments to be an efficient and effective partner in growth.
In many regards, Birmingham is faced with similar crises. The region was rocked by the downturn in the steel industry. Suburban growth and urban flight took its toll on the city. Jefferson County filed for bankruptcy and saw several of its former leaders convicted for corruption. Birmingham once had six Fortune 500 companies headquartered in the region, but now has only one, Regions Financial Corp. By the end of 2015, Birmingham still had fewer total jobs in the MSA than it did prior to the Great Recession. In terms of population, Birmingham has fallen out of the top 100 cities in the U.S., with Huntsville, Montgomery, and Mobile approaching Birmingham in size. Jefferson County, as a whole, is growing only anemically, while population is surging in the central counties of other Sunbelt metro areas.
Despite repeated blows, Greater Birmingham has not engaged in the kind of civic soul-searching that prompted other cities to sound the civic alarm bells and rethink its organization to better compete.
Leadership and Vision
Though the composition of the leadership team varied from city to city, champions arose to campaign for regional unity.
In Pittsburgh, a succession of university presidents took the lead in calling for that region to refocus and reform. In Denver and Louisville, charismatic political leaders called on their cities and metro areas to think big. In Charlotte, the business leadership led the way.
Whatever the original source of the leadership, a broad chorus formed in each city and unified around
aspirational visions, building coalitions between political, governmental, business, education, and civic institutions. Proponents were sometimes vilified and opposed but pressed on.
For whatever reason, Birmingham has not yet found its champions for cooperation.
Common Obstacles Faced
Suzanne Leland, a University of North Carolina at Charlotte Political Science and Public Administration Professor, and her research partner, Kurt Thurmaier at Iowa State University, looked at the history of city-county consolidation attempts over the past 35 years for a paper published in the 2006 Municipal Yearbook.
While their research focused on city-county consolidation, the most aggressive form of cooperative reform, the lessons could apply to the various approaches.
Fears of Higher Taxes: Successful cooperative movements often include guarantees taxes won’t change or will be reduced.
Skepticism of Efficiency Claims: Eliminating duplication and increasing efficiency through cooperation may be a goal, but it is difficult to find clear evidence the approach works, and ultimately, voters don’t buy the idea that government can be efficient.
The Polarizing Nature of Calls for Equity: Arguments made on the basis of increasing regional equity and fair burden sharing may have merit, but they also tend to arouse hostility when presented to the general public.
Fears of Diluting Minority Representation: Proposals to changes to government structure can affect minority voting rights and representation. Successful efforts take pains to address and accommodate those concerns.
Threats to Municipal Independence: Existing independent municipalities and school districts are left intact in successful efforts. Forced cooperation doesn’t succeed.
Threats to Government Employment: Pains are taken to ensure job protections for existing employees. Otherwise, motivated opposition arises.
Antagonizing Current Political Leadership: Elected officials tangential to any governmental consolidation are left intact in their roles in successful campaigns.
Many of the compromises mentioned above sap the ability of reform efforts to deliver on cost and efficiency results in the short term. That may be why it’s hard to point to bottom line savings. The benefits of cooperation tend to be long-term and future oriented.
Leland and Thurmaier found that voters are receptive to arguments that cooperation will improve economic competitiveness.
“In all the cases where the argument for consolidation has been based on efficiency and economy, or economies of scale, the referenda have failed; where the argument has been based on economic development, however, the referenda have been successful.
The common element in successful consolidation cases appears to be the ability of civic elites to define the economic development vision for the community and then convince the average voter that the existing political structure is inadequate to support and implement that vision and that the solution lies in consolidation.”
Public Attitudes in Jefferson County Toward Cooperation
Direction of Local Community: A high percentage of residents (74 percent) said they felt their local community was headed in the right direction. Satisfaction with direction of their local community was highest in midsize suburbs (Hoover, Bessemer, Vestavia Hills, Trussville, Mountain Brook, and Homewood at 84 percent) and smaller communities in the county (83 percent) but lower in the City of Birmingham (65 percent) and in unincorporated areas (58 percent).
Direction of Jefferson County: Satisfaction with the direction of Jefferson County as a whole was lower at 54 percent overall. Residents of unincorporated parts of the county were most pessimistic about the direction of the county with only 46 percent saying they believed the county was on the right track.
Quality of Life: Better than 90 percent of residents of midsize and small cities rated the quality of life in their local communities as good or excellent, compared to 64 percent of Birmingham city residents.
Current Services: Generally, residents were satisfied with the services they were receiving except for transit. Only 40 percent of those polled were satisfied with their transit service. Fire protection received the highest rating with a 96 percent satisfaction rate, followed by police (88 percent), parks and recreation (77 percent), and roads (60 percent).
Efficiency: 76 percent of residents of midsize and 72 percent of residents in small communities said they felt services were being run efficiently in their local communities compared to 63 percent of Birmingham residents and 55 percent of residents in the unincorporated areas of the county.
Cooperation: There was strong support for the concept of communities cooperating to deliver services with 81 percent of those polled saying they would support cooperation. Support for cooperation was highest in the City of Birmingham (90 percent) and lower in midsize cities (74 percent).
CENTERS OF SUPPORT
Throughout the survey, blacks and females showed higher levels of support for cooperation than the population as a whole. But the strongest support came from young adults, voters between the ages of 18 and 34. The results suggest that this rising generation is more receptive to change and more oriented to thinking of Greater Birmingham as a united, interconnected region. In the poll, residents were asked about the cooperative delivery of services in a variety of areas.
Q | Would you support or oppose your local government working cooperatively with other governments in your region to provide services for all communities in the region?
All groups expressed appreciation for the area’s regional amenities centered in the City of Birmingham, but again young people were the most likely to see those amenities as being highly valuable.
Q | How important is the Birmingham Zoo, the Museum of Art, Railroad Park, and other amenities available in the City of Birmingham to you and other members of your household? Would you say these are very important, somewhat important, or not very important to you?
Beyond being supportive of intergovernmental cooperation, young adults were supportive of the most dramatic form of regional cooperation: consolidation or merger. They were the only age group supportive of the concept, and, overall, residents opposed the idea. However, residents of the City of Birmingham (64 percent) and blacks (67 percent) indicated support for city-county consolidation.
Q | As a way to provide services to their residents on a regional basis, some cities have merged with their counties. Would you support or oppose a merger between your city or town and Jefferson County?
The poll also did find some evidence of division and dissatisfaction. Just over half of residents had a favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of the City of Birmingham, while 60 percent countywide had a favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of county government.
But when broken down by race, opinions were divided along racial lines. Only 34 percent of whites had a favorable opinion of Birmingham city government, compared to 76 percent of blacks surveyed. In the case of Jefferson County government, the divide is present but less stark; 48 percent of whites have a favorable opinion of the county, while 77 percent of blacks do.
Focus Group Results
To further investigate the concepts explored in the poll, Southeast Research convened a demographically and geographically representative focus group with 11 participants.
Focus group participants had a positive perception of Jefferson County as a place to live. Participants described Birmingham as “up-and-coming,” “progressive,” affordable, and offering good choices when it came to schools, places to live, and entertainment options.
Some of the side effects of fragmentation, like the choice in local school systems, were appreciated as positive attributes, though there was concern about the inequities in performance and financial support between the systems.
There was an appreciation of the centrality of the City of Birmingham to the region and pleasure in seeing revitalization in the city. However, some participants expressed concerns about crime and safety in the central city. There was frustration with the poor performance of schools and a general distrust of and frustration with the political establishment of the city.
Participants wanted to see new and better leadership and more transparency in government. They also saw opportunities for cooperation, particularly in the areas of transit and law enforcement.
Overall, participants wanted to see more cooperation in growing the economy and meeting the needs of citizens and less intra-regional competition.
Communities position themselves to cooperate in a variety of ways. In the following sections, we look at four different approaches to cooperation and how they might work in Jefferson County.
Example Metro: Charlotte, North Carolina
Under functional consolidation, one government can provide a service for multiple jurisdictions, eliminating the need for several duplicative departments. Functional consolidation can also allow for joint ventures between governments, allowing them to share governance over an activity.
Adjacent municipalities may share a police force, for example. Or, by agreement, a county could deliver a service—the collection of taxes or business licenses, the provision of GIS services, a joint platform for technology—that is common to all municipalities throughout the county, saving cities the expense of maintaining independent departments.
Arrangements for cost-sharing and governance are worked out between the governments entering into the contracts.
Charlotte, North Carolina, and Mecklenburg County are known nationally for advancing regional cooperation through interlocal agreements.
For example, parks both in the city and in the county are operated by a county department. The same goes for libraries. Building inspections and storm water management are handled at the county level.
Meanwhile, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department covers both the city and the county. The Charlotte Area Transit System is a city department, but with a countywide representative board that develops transit plans and reviews the finances of the agency.
In some cases, the city and county jointly manage assets or services. In Charlotte, for example, the city and the county share municipal buildings, decreasing cost and more efficiently using space. A collection of copies of these interlocal agreements from Charlotte can be found in the project’s Resource Collection.1
PUBLIC ATTITUDES IN JEFFERSON COUNTY TOWARD FUNCTIONAL CONSOLIDATION
In Southeast Research’s December 2016 poll, Jefferson County residents expressed receptiveness for the concept of cooperation between governments in the delivery of services. Registered voters were asked:
Q | If your local government determined they could provide some services to residents more efficiently by participating in cooperative programs with all other governments in the region, would you support or oppose this initiative?
Support for cooperative service delivery was most strongly favored by City of Birmingham residents. But voters across the area expressed strong support for cooperative ventures if they increased efficiency.
When asked about individual areas of service, support for cooperative efforts to provide services was strongest for public transportation and road maintenance (83 percent expressed support in both these areas). Strong support was also expressed for cooperation in providing fire protection (82 percent), parks and recreation (80 percent), and police protection (78 percent). The weakest support for cooperation came from residents of midsize cities, particularly in terms of police protection. Still, 64 percent of midsize city residents expressed support for police cooperation with other governments in the region.
LEGAL CHANGES NEEDED TO IMPLEMENT
No legal changes would be needed to increase the use of functional consolidation in Jefferson County.
Alabama law2 allows cities, county governments, and other municipal bodies to enter into contracts with one another for the joint delivery of services.
In fact, there are already several examples of functional consolidation in Jefferson County.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office provides police patrol services by contract for cities that don’t want to pay for their own departments. Currently, Pinson, Clay, and Graysville contract with the sheriff’s department. In addition to not having to employ and equip a police department, those cities do not have to provide municipal courts, a judge, a prosecutor, or a jail. Contracting for the sheriff’s services also saves the cities on the cost of liability insurance.
Jefferson County’s consolidated 9-1-1 Center is another example. A call center in Center Point provides 9-1-1 call processing and dispatch services for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, 18 cities and towns, and 26 fire departments. This functional consolidation eliminates duplicate systems and equipment, improves operational efficiency, promotes better interagency information sharing, and produces overall cost savings.
Other examples of existing intergovernmental cooperation through agreement include the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency and the Purchasing Association of Central Alabama (PACA), joint purchasing organization staffed by Jefferson County’s purchasing department.
Efficiency: Functional consolidation offers advantages when a service is delivered more efficiently through economies of scale, where the cost of delivering a service is lowered when it serves more people. A water system or sewer system requires a large investment for basic operation. The more customers it has, the greater the utility’s ability to divide the cost over the wider base of ratepayers.
Expertise: Functional consolidation can also provide advantages when the service being delivered benefits from greater sophistication or expertise. Smaller units may not be able to afford the advanced hardware, software, or expertise that can be deployed by a consolidated operation.
Flexibility: Functional consolidation is flexible. Contracts between governments can be expanded to include additional governments, renegotiated, or terminated.
WHO IT WOULD INVOLVE
Functional consolidation involves only willing participants. Municipalities and counties can participate where an advantage is seen in the shared provision of a service.
However, functional consolidation needs a champion. Opportunities for shared services would need to be identified and publicized. Mayors, city council representatives, and county commissioners would need to be made more aware of potential benefits.
In effect, the community needs to create demand for functional consolidation in instances where it is appropriate and advantageous.
In Charlotte, it was the business community that consistently advocated for cooperation. The business community there saw an opportunity to decrease the overhead cost of government, streamline regulatory processes, and increase the responsiveness of government.
The business community found common ground with the professional managers who oversee day-to-day government operations in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. Since county and city managers are charged with driving toward the efficient functioning of governments, the professional managers in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County saw opportunity in pursuing interlocal agreements.
Certain existing conditions in Charlotte made the implementation of functional consolidation more likely to succeed.
A Professional Management Model
As mentioned above, the professional management of governments helps facilitate interlocal agreements. In North Carolina, almost all cities and counties are run by managers rather than elected officials. Elected officials determine policy and overall direction, but managers design and run the operations. In the case of Charlotte, both the city and the county hired managers who enjoyed relatively long terms in office. This allowed for long-term relationship building between the city and county professionals. A foundation of trust was established and built upon. And the relationship between the professional managers was somewhat removed from the disruptive forces of politics.
Unlike other Southeastern states, Alabama has been slow to adopt the professional management model for government.
In North Carolina, 98 percent of cities with a population over 10,000 employ a manager; in Virginia, 97 percent; Florida, 89 percent; South Carolina, 70 percent. Only 13 percent of Alabama cities over 10,000 operate under the council-manager form.3
In Jefferson County, Mountain Brook and Vestavia Hills use the council-manager form, while Hoover uses an adapted form with the mayor and a city administrator dividing up executive duties.
Prior to 2012 when it hired its first manager, Jefferson County was one of the few remaining large counties in the U.S. without one.
A History of Cooperation
A second helpful precondition for increased use of functional consolidation is a track record of cooperation. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have had a single countywide school system since the 1960s. Its water and sewer utilities have operated as a countywide entity since the 1970s.
A Simple Government Landscape
A final precondition that helped drive functional consolidation in Charlotte was the simplified government landscape in Charlotte. The population of the City of Charlotte represents 80 percent of the county’s population and well over half its land area. Thanks to liberal annexation laws, Charlotte continued to expand as growth occurred, leaving Mecklenburg County with less territory over which it was the sole authority. In cases like police patrol, the county had less and less territory to cover as Charlotte expanded.
Only a handful of other smaller cities exist in the county. Those smaller cities participate in some of the consolidated services, but, in many instances, still operate autonomously. Still, joint ventures and functional consolidation between Charlotte and the county cover most of the county.
Some of the appealing aspects of functional consolidation can also be viewed as disadvantages.
Functional consolidations are voluntary. They require champions. They require multiple parties to agree on terms of shared support and governance.
Since they are implemented on a case-by-case basis, they won’t produce the wide scope of reform achievable by other approaches like political consolidation.
When it comes to the delivery of government services, bigger is not always better. A small bureaucracy directly controlled by a city or county can sometimes be more responsive. A larger bureaucracy controlled by a separate government entity can be more difficult to involve in cross-departmental collaboration.
As an example, when the City of Charlotte wants to assemble a team to launch a revitalization effort in a neighborhood, improvements to parks and local libraries might well be a part of the equation. But in Mecklenburg County, both the parks and recreation department and the library system are operated by county departments. While city and county governments have good relationships in Charlotte, the city has to take an extra step by involving the departments from another government. And sometimes in those cases, the priorities of one governmental body may not match the agenda of the agencies that operates under a different governmental umbrella. That can slow down initiatives.
Other potential obstacles to implementing functional consolidation in Jefferson County include:
Unfamiliarity: By the nature of traditional organization and through habit, independently functional governments are the norm. Any decision to share responsibly carries risks and requires trust. At the same time, as mentioned, there are examples of
cooperative ventures between governments in Jefferson County. The climate of cooperation in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County was developed over decades.
Government Employee Protections: Any reorganization of government can be perceived as a threat to the employees of departments under consideration for functional consolidation. The governments seeking to functionally consolidate a service most often negotiate assurances of pay equity and preserve work rules, seniority, and chain of command. The trade-offs in these negotiations may mean that functional consolidation may not save money in the short run and might actually raise costs. However, in the long-term, the merged operation can increase efficiency by redeploying resources and, if well managed, can realize savings down the road.
Political Objections: Political leaders may also resist functional consolidation. Giving up control of a department or a group of employees can be viewed as a loss of power and influence. In Charlotte, some of the major moves toward consolidation were made strategically, balancing loss of control in one area with gains in responsibility elsewhere.
2 See Project Resource Collection for relevant Alabama Code sections.
3 Professional Management of Alabama Cities, Dr. Douglas J. Watson, ACCMA Conference January 28, 2016.
Modernizing County Government
Example Metro: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
County governments, originally set up as administrative arms of state government, today function more like a separate layer of local government.
This layer of government is in a position to take responsibility for governmental services that cross municipal boundaries.
Counties have a broader resource base, avoiding the inequities of wealth and poverty that tend to arise along municipal lines.
Counties are positioned to carry out those services that are most effectively delivered at a large scale or that benefit from coordination throughout the geographic area, regardless of boundaries. A trusted partner at the county level can take on roles that all cities have to perform, thereby decreasing duplication of effort and expense.
In exploring county government form, PARCA visited Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh has long struggled with high levels of fragmentation. Similar to Birmingham, Pittsburgh has lost population to the surrounding suburbs in the second half of the 20th century and consequently saw an erosion in its tax base. The decline endangered city finances and hampered the city’s ability to provide leadership and support arts, culture, and regional infrastructure and attractions. While some in Pittsburgh have advocated for the merger or consolidation of cities and the central county of Allegheny, those proposals have never found adequate support. Instead, advocates of government reform in Greater Pittsburgh took aim at the county government.
In 1998, voters in Allegheny County approved a new home rule charter that replaced three commissioners elected at-large with a single elected County Executive to lead the county. A 15-member County Council serves as the legislative branch. The chief executive appoints a county manager with approval from the county council. The manager is responsible for seeing that the government’s day-to-day operations run effectively and efficiently.
As a result of this structural shift toward unified executive leadership, the Allegheny County Executive gained influence and is now considered the third most powerful elected leader in Pennsylvania behind the governor and the Mayor of Philadelphia. He serves as the single voice and point of contact for recruiting business and industry. He is the chief negotiator in forging cooperation with the Mayor of Pittsburgh, other municipal leaders, and with lawmakers in the state capital.
Departments under the management of the executive branch include the county roads and public works departments, regional parks, health department, jails, budget and finance, and economic development. He also has significant influence in the operation of countywide services, such as the mass transit and the operation of the regional airport, since he is empowered to make appointments to those boards and authorities.
The expanded County Council, most of whom are elected by district, provide increased representation for communities that hadn’t had a voice in the former government.
Allegheny voters signaled their approval of the unified executive approach in subsequent elections that eliminated other independently elected county offices and replaced them with appointed positions, further consolidating government under the management of the chief executive. The county maintains a separately elected district attorney, sheriff, treasurer, and controller. The Treasurer collects and invests county funds. The Controller serves as a government watchdog through accounting and auditing responsibilities.
A separate move to regionalize came with the adoption of a 1-cent countywide sales tax. Half that tax is distributed to municipalities and is required to be used to reduce collection of other municipal taxes. The other half-cent in sales tax goes to support the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD). RAD funds are distributed by a nonpolitical appointed board for the support of libraries, regional parks, greenways, civic and cultural entities, and sports facilities.
PUBLIC ATTITUDES IN JEFFERSON COUNTY TOWARD MODERNIZING COUNTY GOVERNMENT
In a 2016 poll of 400 registered voters in Jefferson County, about 60 percent had a favorable opinion of current Jefferson County government. However, residents were even more supportive of a potential change: the election of a managing official for county government rather than leaving it to the County Commission to appoint a manager.
Q | In your opinion, should Jefferson County’s manager of government operations be appointed by the County Commission, or should he or she be elected by voters?
Support for electing a manager was strong across all geographic and demographic lines. The lowest level of support was from those households surveyed with incomes over $100,000 a year. Among those respondents, 67.3 percent favored electing the manager.
LEGAL CHANGES NEEDED TO IMPLEMENT
A Modern Organizational Model
For county governments to take that on a regional leadership role, they need to adopt an appropriate model of organization.
In both the American system of government and in the free-enterprise system, the most common governance model is an organizational structure that divides power between an executive and a legislative branch.
Executives, such as a president or CEO, manage the government operation. A legislative branch, such as Congress or a board of directors, provides oversight of the executive branch and sets a policy and direction that represents the interests or the people or the shareholders.
Such a system establishes rules for operation, clear lines of accountability, and checks and balances that orient the government toward efficiency and guard against mismanagement and corruption.
Around the state and around the country, county governments are undergoing reform and evolution that recognizes the altered role of a modern county government. It has been widely recognized that modern counties need a centralized management system, generally led by an appointed or elected manager.
Jefferson County has been slow to respond to this trend. In 1986, the county underwent a major change in form, transitioning from a system under which three commissioners were elected at-large to one under which five commissioners were elected by district. From 1986 until 2012, Jefferson County in effect functioned with five executives. Those same five commissioners also functioned as the county’s legislative branch.
This arrangement did not allow for a separation of powers.
While the potential for corruption and mismanagement exists in any government, the poor structure of Jefferson County government, with its lack of checks and balances and its absence of central executive management, likely contributed to the implosion of county government that followed.
Five different commissioners who served between 1986 and 2012 were subsequently convicted in public corruption cases. For a three-year period, finances were in such disarray that the county couldn’t produce an audit. As a result of mismanagement and corruption in the execution and financing of a massive sewer rebuilding program, Jefferson County declared bankruptcy in 2011.
Recognizing the problem, the Jefferson County Legislative Delegation required the county to hire a county manager. With the hiring of county manager in 2012, Jefferson County became the last county in the state to hire a manager or administrator. The county manager system is widely credited with significant improvements in the operation and financial health of Jefferson County. Still, with no elected executive and with county commissioners still exercising some executive functions, the current system does not conform with the classic arrangement of separated executive and legislative powers.
Of Alabama’s 67 counties, 29 have an official that is elected countywide who serves as chairman of the county commission.4 While their roles and responsibilities vary, those counties at least have a central elected individual who is accountable for how the
county operates. That official is answerable to the voters of the county at large rather than voters in an individual district.
Jefferson County is among 126 counties in the U.S. with a population over 500,000. According to the National Association of Counties, in those counties:
- + an appointed county administrator
- – no elected executive
56 have an elected executive: 27 have:
- + an elected county executive AND
- + an appointed county administrator
- + an elected county executive
- – no appointed county administrator
5 large counties have:
- – no appointed county administrator
- – no elected county executive
Arkansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee now mandate that counties in those states be headed by an elected executive.
Under the county manager system, Jefferson County can continue to improve and grow into a trusted provider and partner for regional cooperation. However, regions that have put an emphasis on the county government as a central player in providing regional services have increasingly turned to having a single elected executive as the head of government. A single executive, operating with checks and balances from the legislative branch, can more effectively serve as the county’s singular representative, negotiating contracts and managing services for efficiency and responsiveness.
House Bill 53
The creation of an elected executive for Jefferson County would require a local act of the Alabama Legislature. In fact, in 2010 a bill (House Bill 53) that would have created an elected county executive was introduced by former state Rep. Owen Drake.
Representative Drake, now deceased, had served as a department director in Jefferson County government prior to his election to the State Legislature. The structure created by House Bill 53 would be very similar to the organization of the government of Allegheny County. The text of that bill is included in this report’s Resource Collection.5
Drake’s bill would have created:
A county council of five members, reflecting the current county commission districts
Among the powers and responsibilities of the county council would be to:
- Adopt ordinances
- Craft budgets, make appropriations, authorize borrowing, and levy taxes under the limitations of state law
- Confirm or reject appointments made by the county executive
- Review, modify, or eliminate departments
- Override executive vetoes with a two-thirds majority
A chief executive
Among the powers and responsibilities of the executive would be to:
- Approve or reject ordinances
- Enforce ordinances
- Attend but not vote in meetings of the County Council
- Submit to the county council the comprehensive fiscal plan and budget
- Control and be accountable for the administration of all departments and agencies
- Represent the county in all meetings and negotiations involving economic development
- Negotiate and execute contracts
- Represent the county, or designate a county representative, in all meetings and negotiations with the heads of other governmental bodies
- Make appointments to boards and authorities
- Appoint, with the approval of the Council, the County Manager and the County Attorney
- An appointed professional county manager
Among the powers and responsibilities of the manager would be to:
- In consultation with the chief executive, appoint and remove the directors of all executive branch departments, except the law department.
- Supervise county business operations
- Hire, fire, and otherwise manage executive branch employees
- Prepare the budget and financial plan
A Question of Representation
While Drake’s bill mirrors Pittsburgh’s in most regards, his bill creates a County Council with only five county council members, mirroring the current Jefferson County Commission. Pittsburgh and other counties that have revamped their county governance structure have expanded the council in size, allowing for greater representation. They also chose to make the county council representatives part-time rather than full-time.
It is worth considering whether a larger, more representative and part-time council would be a more ideal structure than what Jefferson County has today. The current commission districts are large, with each commissioner representing over 100,000 people. That compares to a State Legislative district, which contains about only about 40,000 people.
The county’s current commission districts were set up to conform with a federal court consent decree stemming from a 1985 Voting Rights Act lawsuit. It is possible that any change to the county’s governing structure would require amendment of that consent decree. To make such a change, the county would need to file a motion with the federal court to gain approval.
Due to the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Shelby County v. Holder, states and localities no longer have to seek preclearance from the Department of Justice when making changes that have the potential to affect voting rights.
Considering that, nothing bars the Legislature from changing the structure of government and representation. However, the implementation of the change may require a return to the federal court for approval.
The county executive form could also be set up through a general act of the Legislature. In this case, the county executive-county council form would be created as an option for large counties to select as their organizational form. This route would need to involve a mechanism for triggering a public referendum on the choice of government form.
Even if the local delegation of the Legislature passed a local law creating the executive, that procedure could also include a stipulation that county residents vote on whether or not to accept or reject the model.
When Pittsburgh was considering changes to its governmental structure, civic leaders there commissioned a study to examine characteristics of benchmark communities that were experiencing better economic performance than the Pittsburgh region.
That study concluded 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.6
That report, which came to be known as ComPAC 21, recommended creating an elected executive, a county manager, and a county council. It laid the groundwork for the Home Rule charter that was adopted by Allegheny County voters in 1998.
ComPAC 21 recommended a single elected executive for Allegheny County because:
“The county urgently needs government modernization and focused economic development. These kinds of changes require central administrative and political authority. No major corporation is operationally led by a committee. In today’s world of aggressive regional competition, government needs a single strong and forward-thinking leader.
“In addition to being the chief policy maker of the county, this individual would be the chief representative and spokesperson for the entire region. Key responsibilities of this position would include representing the region at the state, federal, and international levels.”
The report also argued for a professional county manager in recognition of the complex and varied operational nature of county government. The report states that the political leadership (the County Council and the elected County Executive) “should focus on overall vision and policy, while the manager concentrates on the day-to-day management of the county.”
It is essential, the report argued, that the manager be a “professional and highly qualified individual,” considering the importance of management, strategic planning, and budgeting functions that should be included within the manager’s operation.
The current Jefferson County Commission, working in concert with the appointed county manager, has made impressive progress in improving the reputation of county government. County departments now run under the day-to-day direction of the county manager.
The Commission provides oversight and sets policy, and does not direct the management of employees.
However, under the current structure, Jefferson County still lacks a governmental leader who is elected countywide and charged with the welfare of the county at large, who is the chief spokesperson and lead negotiator for the county. The county manager owes his position to the elected commission. While the current commission and manager have forged an arrangement that seems to be working, a different manager or differently constituted commission might not be as successful, due to the persisting structural tensions.
WHO IT WOULD INVOLVE
In Pittsburgh, the proposal for a change in county government form grew out of a civic reform movement led by a succession of college presidents, including the president of Carnegie Melon University and the University of Pittsburgh. Business and civic leadership were also at the forefront.
Here, the support of the local delegation of the State Legislature would be needed if a change of government was made through local law. If the change in form was attempted through general law, the leadership of the State Legislature would need to be approached.
Most change-in-government-form initiatives succeed when there is broad support among current elected officials. Accordingly, county commissioners, as well as other elected officials in the county, such as the sheriff, the treasurer, tax collector, tax assessor, probate judge, and others who would be tangentially affected by the change, would need to be consulted and their support sought.
The mayors and city councils of Jefferson County municipalities would need to be persuaded that the change would not harm and would potentially improve relations between the county and municipalities.
Allegheny County’s home rule charter specified that the change in government would not affect municipal powers and prerogatives.
If the change in structure proposal were to go before voters, supporters would need to conduct a public relations campaign to make the case for the change.
In Pittsburgh, the change in government vote came after almost a decade of public conversation about the need for greater regional cooperation in tackling the Pittsburgh’s economic and demographic challenges.
In the decade prior to the vote, the mayor of the City of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County commissioners
had been persuaded by the business, educational, and civic leadership in Pittsburgh to forge a common agenda for the advancement of the region. Organizations such as the Allegheny Conference on Community Development had labored toward pulling the private and public sector together in the both the county and in the surrounding counties in Southwest Pennsylvania.
This persistent focus on the shared fortune of the region helped create the appetite for the change.
The creation of a county executive-county council form would lead to a change in role for the current county commission. The commission, when transformed into the county council, would retain its role in representing the voice of the people, in oversight, and policy setting.
However, it would shed the elements of executive function the commissioners still retain. Commissioners who prefer the status quo might oppose.
In Pittsburgh, complaints are sometimes voiced that individual county council members are diminished in power, and the county executive has powers and influence that are too robust.
This would likely be an objection raised in Jefferson County, as well. Adding fuel to that concern is the current political alignment of county voters. The current county commission is elected in partisan elections. The current commission consists of three Republicans and two Democrats.
If a partisan election were held for a county executive position, there is a reasonable likelihood that a Democrat would be elected as the County Executive.
In the 2016 General Election, every countywide race was won by a Democrat. Of all the ballots in that election, 65 percent of the ballots cast were as straight ticket ballots, a method of voting in a partisan election that allows voters to vote for one party’s nominees in all races, rather than picking and choosing between candidates. In 2016, far more Democrats cast straight party ballots than Republicans.
In an election with straight ticket voting, contests down the ballot, such as Jefferson County races, are heavily influenced by the national and statewide races at the top of the ticket. This phenomenon provided a built-in advantage for Democratic candidates running for countywide office.
In order to encourage voting on the basis of candidate qualifications rather than party affiliation, consideration should be given to holding nonpartisan elections for county government posts. This is not an unusual approach. After all, Alabama mayoral and city council races are nonpartisan.
4 Alabama Association of County Commissions, Comparative Data on Alabama Counties.
5 A copy of Drake’s bill can be found in this report’s Resource Collection.
6 Preparing Allegheny County for the 21st Century, 1996.
Cooperation Through Regional Entities
Example Metro: Denver, Colorado
These organizations, which can cover a county or even span multiple counties, come in the form of voluntary non-governmental associations or in the form of independent public entities created by law to achieve a particular purpose.
Both types exist locally. For example, in the realm of economic development, the private, nonprofit Birmingham Business Alliance serves as an economic development recruiting and marketing organization that represents seven counties in central Alabama.
On the governmental side, an example of a special purpose government can be found in the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA), which provides public transit across multiple municipal jurisdictions in Jefferson County. However, for reasons discussed below, Denver’s special purpose districts are set up differently than the BJCTA and are provided with dedicated revenue and direct accountability to voters.
Denver, Colorado, has both voluntary and governmental organizations that operate on a regional basis. Over the course of three decades, Denver has become a national model for regional cooperation through these organizations.
Voluntary Regional Associations
In the realm of voluntary regional organizations, Metro Denver’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) pioneered a regional approach to economic development that has been widely emulated. While similar to the Birmingham Business Alliance, Metro Denver EDC has key features that enhance its ability to lead economic development for the region.
Also showcased in the previous chapter were Denver’s Metro Mayor’s Caucus and the Denver Regional Council of Governments. In both cases, Birmingham has similar organizations in place. However, in both cases, our local organizations might benefit from features of Denver’s organization.
Special districts or special purpose governments are governmental entities created to carry out a particular mission. They come in a variety of forms with a variety of control structures. They can span multiple counties and communities.
In Denver’s case, the Regional Transportation District (RTD) is a governmental body that provides mass transit for eight counties, including all of Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, and Jefferson counties, parts of Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas Counties, and a portion of Weld County. The RTD is governed by a 15-member, publicly elected board of directors, with each member representing residents of a specific area. The RTD receives the proceeds of a 1-cent sales tax collected in the District. In total, the District includes 2.8 million people spread over 2,400 square miles and provides services such as bus, rail, shuttles, ADA paratransit services, and demand-responsive services in an integrated, interconnected system.
Another example of a special district is the Denver region’s Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). The District receives the proceeds of a one-tenth of one percent sales tax in a district that spans six counties and a portion of a seventh.
SCFD is governed by an appointed board and distributes the proceeds of the tax to museums, performing arts and cultural groups by formula. The SCFD is subject to periodic renewal, periodically giving voters the opportunity to decide whether or not to extend the tax and the organization.
PUBLIC ATTITUDES IN JEFFERSON COUNTY TOWARD COOPERATION THROUGH REGIONAL ENTITIES
As previously recounted, the 2016 poll conducted by Southeast Research found support for the concept of cooperative regional service delivery. More than 80 percent of respondents said they would be willing to support cooperative arrangements between governments. However, the poll didn’t specifically ask question about special districts.
LEGAL CHANGES NEEDED TO IMPLEMENT
Voluntary Regional Associations
Voluntary regional associations don’t require a legal framework. However, those organizations may need to adopt bylaws or rules that encourage more effective cooperation.
Special-purpose districts are established by law. They are generally created by the State Legislature through a local law, a general law, or through the Alabama Constitution. In some cases, the Legislature has given local governments the authorization to create special districts and authorities.
Special purpose districts are distinct from general-purpose governments because of their narrower function and because their boards are empowered to make policy independent of elected general-purpose governmental bodies. In situations of fragmentation, special purpose districts can be created to carry out a particular function in a district that spans several municipalities. The districts can even span multiple counties.
Through both voluntary regional associations and the creation of special districts, Denver was able to overcome a landscape of fragmentation and create a sense of regional identity.
Because both the voluntary organizations and the special districts spanned wide geographies, Denver has been able to draw on a wide base of support to pursue ambitious undertakings. Over time and thanks to successes, an appreciation of the shared fortunes of everyone in the region has replaced what had been an “us against them” attitude that pitted local interests against one another.
Voluntary Regional Associations
Through voluntary organizations, Denver was able to develop a regional approach to economic development and recruitment.
In the 1980s, after decades of growing apart, Denver began recognizing how interconnected its metropolitan economy was.
Leaders there concluded that a lack of cooperation and common vision was splintering the region’s resource base. Communities were competing against one another rather than banding together to compete with other metro areas in attracting new talent and new business.
Based on that realization, Denver developed the nation’s first regional economic development and recruitment organization. Denver and surrounding communities pooled their resources through the Metro Denver EDC to market their communities and recruit business and industry on a regional basis. Novel to that organization was a Code of Ethics,7 which bound the member organizations by rules of cooperation rather than competition. The code, signed by participating governments, forbids poaching economic development prospects from regional partners. It set up a system for information sharing that gave all participants equal access to information on potential economic development projects. Within that framework, each community had the opportunity to craft proposals for recruitment targets, all of which would be presented together to the prospect.
Through voluntary associations, Denver was able to develop a common approach to land use planning and resource conservation.
The budding awareness of their regional shared fortunes spurred greater energy and creativity in collaboration and communication. The cities and counties in the region came together through the Denver Regional Council of Governments to craft Metro Vision,8 an aspirational, long-range plan that identifies best practices in planning for growth and protecting natural resources. Fundamentals of that plan were the basis for the Mile High Compact, a set of guidelines for sustainable development and planning adopted by most of the governments in the region.
Through voluntary associations, Denver was able to increase cooperation and coordination between cities.
Another outgrowth of that regional awareness was the formation of the Metro Mayor’s Caucus, a regular meeting of the mayors in the region, which helps develop consensus and cooperation between cities on issues of regional importance. Through consensus, the mayors form a powerful and effective voice to lobby the state legislature and the federal government for solutions to regional and municipal problems.
Through the creation of special districts, Denver was able to build a broadly supported regional transit system.
The creation of special districts might also be a model for increasing regional cooperation in Greater Birmingham.
The two prominent special districts in Denver, the Regional Transportation District and the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, create a broad-based regional system of support in their respective fields. Taxes applied throughout the districts that are served support the targeted mission of the two districts.
Through the Regional Transportation District, Denver now has a nationally envied transit system that mixes commuter rail, light rail, buses, and other transportation modes. A 1-cent sales tax in the region generates more than $340 million annually to support the operation and expand the system.
Through the creation of a special district for the support of the arts, Denver was able to provide a broad-based foundation for regional arts and culture.
The Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), created in 1989 and most recently reauthorized by voters in November 2016, provides a regional base of support for museums, cultural attractions, and performing arts groups throughout the region. The SCFD distributes more than $50 million a year, generated by a tax of one penny on every $10 of retail spending. An economic impact study published in 2016 estimated that cultural arts spending in the Denver region generated an economic impact of $1.8 billion in 2015.
Both districts operate in cooperation with, but are independent from, the control of local governments. This allows them to carry out their respective missions using revenue streams that aren’t subject to the ups and downs and shifting priorities of the localities.
WHO IT WOULD INVOLVE
Voluntary Regional Associations
Birmingham already has a framework of voluntary associations. Using lessons from Denver, those organizations could further advance regional cooperation.
Birmingham Business Alliance (BBA): Denver’s model for coordinated regional economic development inspired the formation of our own BBA, through the 2009 merger of the Greater Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Metropolitan Development Board. The BBA developed a strategic plan for regional economic development, known as Blueprint Birmingham, and in December 2016, adopted an updated plan, Blueprint 2020. One aspect of Denver’s model that the BBA has not adopted is the operational rules, or code of ethics, which prevents intra-regional competition for economic development prospects.
Jefferson County Mayor’s Association: Mayors in Jefferson County meet periodically through the Jefferson County Mayor’s Association. Our Mayor’s Association could look at the Colorado Metro Mayor’s Caucus9 for ideas on how to organize in support of municipal goals. A similar model for municipal cooperation was created in Pittsburgh, the Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT), which also can offer lessons.
Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham: Birmingham’s counterpart to the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) is the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham (RPCGB). Like DRCOG, RPCGB provides staff support developing a plan for how federal and state transportation money is spent in the region. RPCGB also provides planning assistance to municipalities that request it. However, unlike DRCOG, RPCGB does not engage in planning on the regional scale.
The creation of a special district to carry out a particular mission over an area that transcends city and even county boundaries, such as the RTD or SCFD in Denver, would require the involvement of the local delegation of the State Legislature. Other parties involved would vary, depending on the role the special district would play.
A special district could be established to support and/ or operate a regional transit system. A special district could provide funding for the arts and culture. A special district could acquire and/or manage parks and greenways. While special districts could play a variety of roles, they must:
- meet an identified need
- be seen as the best vehicle for fulfilling that role
- gain the support of voters
- be set up to ensure accountability to the voters
A key feature of the special districts in Denver is that they are independent of other governmental bodies and have a dedicated source of revenue to support their mission. Both the RTD and the SCFD have provisions for direct public accountability to voters in the district they serve.
For the sake of clarity, it may be useful here to point out how the characteristics described above set Denver’s RTD apart from its Jefferson County, Alabama, counterpart, the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority (BJCTA).
While a small portion of BJCTA’s funding comes from a broad-based tax in Jefferson County, the City of Birmingham supplies the bulk of the Authority’s public funding. The Birmingham City Council appoints five members of the nine-member BJCTA board. Bessemer, Hoover, Jefferson County, and Vestavia Hills appoint other members. In the case of the BJCTA, Birmingham’s majority representation is justified in that Birmingham provides the lion’s share of the funding for the agency and receives 90 percent of the service.
However, BJCTA’s structure is an impediment to providing transit service throughout the region. Without regional funding and regional governance, the service remains predominantly an enterprise of the City of Birmingham.
Denver’s RTD, by contrast, is supported on a regional basis and is governed by an elected board representative of the wide multi-county district it serves. The table below contrasts the coverage area, the governance structure, and the revenue sources for the two entities. Denver’s independent RTD is able to make decisions about routes and operation based on the demand for its services, population concentrations, employment centers, and in the interest of traffic mitigation.
Thus, in Denver’s case, RTD is directly accountable to voters and is not dependent on contributions from cities.
Denver’s SCFD governing board is not elected but appointed by governments that cover the participating districts. However, it has built-in accountability measures, as well. Its enabling legislation sets formulas and rules for the distribution of the tax revenue it is charged with distributing. It is a pass-through organization and not a service provider.
It is also accountable to voters, since it must be periodically reauthorized by a vote of the people, allowing the electorate to decide whether or not to continue the tax and the organization.
If Greater Birmingham were to see special districts as a method of meeting regional needs, any district created would need the support of the Legislature and the support of the citizens. Special districts are flexible in their ability to span municipal and country boundaries. They can be created to provide a broad and equitable source of support for regional endeavors. But they should be carefully designed to provide the organizational and representative structure that ensures accountability.
A Cultivated Sense of Regionalism
Fostering regional cooperation through voluntary organizations or special districts requires a community to believe in the concept of shared interests.
Denver’s cooperation movement grew out of an economic crisis: The energy bust of the 1980s left the Denver economy in dire straits. Denver was an isolated city on the edge of the Great Plains with an economy that was overly dependent on mining and gas and oil extraction. The central city had seen a population outflow to the suburbs. The downturn in the economy also undermined state finances. The erosion of corporate support and state funding for the arts and cultural attraction left museums, zoos, and performing arts groups battered as well.
In response to the crisis, business, civic, and political leaders formulated a plan to redefine Denver as the business, cultural, and lifestyle capital of the Mountain West. And they recognized that the City of Denver alone could not provide the platform for that transformation. It required a regional vision.
Trusted Political Leaders
Denver was blessed to have charismatic political leaders come to the forefront and make the case for regional cooperation. Mayor Federico Peña, who would later become U.S. Transportation Secretary, built a regional coalition to build a new airport. His successors, Wellington Webb and John Hickenlooper, who went on to become Governor of Colorado, carried on his work. The business community maintained unified and persistent support for the ambitions of the region.
Identifiable Common Interests
After an initial crisis of economic challenge, Denver’s regionalism was also fueled by the ramifications of its success. Population growth spurred concerns for resource management and preservation of open space. This population pressure also helped bolster the appetite for transportation alternatives to automobiles and the pollution and congestion they caused.
Current controversies over the management of the Birmingham Water Works Board and the persistent difficulties of the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority may dampen public confidence in our ability to function cooperatively through special districts. At the same time, it should be clear that the flaws in those bodies can be traced in part to design flaws in those organizations that interfere with representation and accountability.
In its habits of operation and its pattern of fragmentation, Greater Birmingham tends to look for localized solutions rather than regional approaches.
A pertinent example was rejection in 1999 of the Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy (MAPS). In a sense, MAPS was proposed as a special district: an independent entity, which would receive a stream of tax revenue, including a 1-cent sales tax in Jefferson County, and distribute to a host of identified causes.
MAPS was rejected by 57 percent of voters. However, the rejection of MAPS may not have been a rejection of regionalism but may have had more to do with the complicated details of the proposal. Opposition centered on the wisdom of building a domed stadium, the composition and role of the appointed board that would manage the tax revenue, and the permanence of the tax. MAPS had a broad focus, not a targeted one, and lacked the accountability to voters built into Denver’s special districts.
There is evidence that Jefferson County residents do support regional initiatives. In 2004, the Jefferson County Commission enacted a 1-cent Jefferson County-wide sales tax for school construction. The funds generated were distributed to school systems throughout the county. The move, which had a clear cost benefit and a sunset provision attached, generated little opposition.
Finding a palatable tax revenue source to support a special district is always problematic. That’s particularly true in the case of Jefferson County. With a combined sales tax rate of 10 percent in many Jefferson County municipalities, the sales tax has effectively reached a ceiling. Repurposing an existing tax might be more feasible.
Finally, creating a new special district for a specific purpose adds a new layer of government. Arguably, a special district, unless it is replacing an existing governmental function, increases fragmentation.
Example Metro: Louisville, Kentucky
In a theoretical sense, this could involve dissolving all municipalities and school systems in Jefferson County and reconstituting one Birmingham throughout urban Jefferson County. But in a practical sense, that isn’t how consolidation works—at least in the modern era.
Around the turn of the 20th century, some of these mega-mergers occurred, the most famous being the formation of New York City in 1898. In fact, modern Birmingham was the product of a merger in the first decade of the 20th century, absorbing several smaller satellite cities, such as Woodlawn, Avondale, and Ensley to form the core of the modern city.
But those kinds of mass mergers haven’t occurred in the modern era. Instead, an alternative approach to merger developed in the second half of the 20th century: city-county consolidation.
City-county consolidation typically involves the merger of the central city with the central county, creating one government.
Jacksonville, Florida, and Nashville, Tennessee, employed this approach in the 1960s. In those cases, the central city essentially took over the unincorporated and undeveloped portions of the county. That move allowed the cities to capture the suburban growth that would subsequently occur, effectively heading off the formation of new suburban municipal governments. In so doing, those cities preserved economic diversity within the city boundaries.
In both cases, a small number of pre-existing municipalities continued to exist within the county. For those cities, the merged city-county government serves as the county government. In the modern history of city-county consolidations, no existing municipalities or school districts or other local governments have been dissolved as part of the consolidation.
City-county consolidations are rare. There have been only 33 successful consolidations since World War II. Since 1970, 110 consolidation attempts have reached the ballot, but only 19 (17 percent) have passed.10
In all but the rarest cases, city-consolidation has only been successful when the central city represents 60 percent or more of the county’s population. Birmingham’s population represents just 32 percent of Jefferson County’s.11
When considering the city-county consolidation model, Louisville, Kentucky, presents the most current and relevant example for Birmingham.
Louisville is the only major city-consolidation since 1970 to include more than 200,000 people. And prior to consolidation, Louisville’s population was 37 percent of the Jefferson County, Kentucky, population, an unusually low percentage for successful consolidation. Birmingham’s share of the county population, 32 percent, is somewhat lower.
If Birmingham were to follow Louisville’s model, the City of Birmingham and Jefferson County would merge. Under the Louisville model, the existing city of Birmingham would become what is known as an urban services district.
The existing city tax structure would stay in place, and the city would deliver the same level of service it currently provides in that area.
However, the mayor of the metro government would be elected by the entire voting population of Jefferson County. A Metro Council elected by districts throughout the county would replace the Birmingham City Council and the Jefferson County Commission.
The Metro Government would combine the operations and services of the city and the county. In Louisville, that meant a single police force would patrol both the city and the unincorporated portions of the county, a unified public works and roads department would service the entire county, though citizens of the urban services district would continue to receive city-type services and amenities, and the unincorporated county would receive a level of service equal to the level of service they currently paid to receive.
Meanwhile, if Birmingham followed Louisville’s model, existing municipalities would remain in place and continue to provide the same level of services. Their existing rates of taxation would remain intact. County-level services, overseen and administered by the Metro Government, would be delivered throughout the county. Because Louisville already had a single school district covering the county, school consolidation was not part of the debate. In virtually all consolidations, independent school districts are left out of the merger. In Birmingham’s case, if all other municipal systems were left independent, thought would need to be given to the status of the Birmingham City and Jefferson County Schools.
PUBLIC ATTITUDES IN JEFFERSON COUNTY TOWARD POLITICAL CONSOLIDATION
In the December 2016 survey, we asked voters about their attitudes toward the concept of city-county consolidation. The concept of consolidation is not particularly well known in Jefferson County. However, voters were generally willing to express an opinion on the matter.
Q | As a way to provide services to their residents on a regional basis, some cities have merged with their counties. Would you support or oppose a merger between your city or town and Jefferson County?
The strongest favorable results were generated in the City of Birmingham with 64 percent of residents expressing support for a merger. The strongest opposition came from midsize cities in the county, where 70 percent were opposed to having their city merged with Jefferson County.
Blacks were more supportive of the concept with 67 percent saying they’d be in favor of a merger. And young adults between the ages of 18 and 34 were far more receptive to the idea with 69 percent supporting merger, sharply higher than any other age group. In no other age bracket was there majority support for a merger.
LEGAL CHANGES NEEDED TO IMPLEMENT
City-county consolidation would be a new concept for Alabama. No consolidated city-county entities currently exist in the state.
That does not preclude the establishment of one. County government form varies in Alabama with much of the variation created by local acts, acts of the Legislature that apply to a single locality. While the Legislature arguably has the power to create a consolidated city-county by Act, the most likely route would be through an amendment to the Alabama Constitution. Such an amendment would require a vote of the people of Jefferson County. In fact, proposals for city-county consolidation are virtually always subject to a public vote.
In Louisville’s case, the State Legislature passed a general law applying to Class I municipalities. Louisville is the only Class I municipality in Kentucky. A copy of that legislation12 can be found online.
Consolidation proponents in Louisville made sure the ballot language was simple.
“The question to be submitted to the voters shall read as follows:
“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?”
A Unified Voice
Louisville now has a single elected official who speaks for the city and the county.
In cooperation with the Metro Government Council, the mayor of Louisville Metro can advance an agenda that is endorsed by the community at large, rather than reflecting the needs of the central city. When negotiating with the state or federal government or with business prospects, the mayor carries increased clout and can deliver on promises and keep commitments, rather than being one voice among a chorus of local interests.
The unified government simplifies and clarifies accountability. Citizens, at least those in the city and the unincorporated county area, have one government to look to on most issues. And when it comes to the management of that government, one executive gets credit or blame.
Though suburban communities in Jefferson County, Kentucky, maintained independence, they now have representation in the Metro Government. This involvement has eroded the silo mentality that once prevailed. The suburban representatives on the Metro Council meet in the center city and are involved in addressing the problems of the inner city.
The unified government has been able to move forward on major projects, such as the construction of new bridges across the Ohio River. Prior to consolidation, differing positions held by the city and the county on major initiatives often led to gridlock. In summary, the Metro Government recognizes the shared destiny of the metro area.
A Boost in Size
Thanks to the merger, Louisville is once again the largest city in Kentucky and one of the largest in the U.S. It is growing in population and jobs because it can lay claim to growth throughout the county rather than just in the former central city. While this claim may seem cosmetic, it has been important to the psychology of the city and helps to make it more visible as a potential relocation destination for major corporations.
In Birmingham’s case, the merged city-county would once again be unchallenged as the largest city in Alabama and among the largest in the United States. (If, like in Louisville, only the unincorporated area residents were counted as an addition to the city, the population would be around 320,000, which would put Birmingham just outside the top 50 among U.S. cities. If the entire county population were counted, the population of Birmingham would be around 650,000, which could land Birmingham in the top 25.)
The combined city-county would control the development of the massive area of unincorporated land in the county. A Birmingham Metro Government would have the financial wherewithal to foster development along the proposed Northern Beltline, much of which traverses unincorporated, sparsely populated, and undeveloped land in the northern half of the county. In the absence of such a government with the resources and expertise to plan and manage growth along that corridor, economic growth in that area will be more difficult to cultivate.
If such development were successful, the consolidated city would have a growing population and an enhanced tax base. That rising tide of resources could be used in support of the revitalization of areas of the city that have suffered from neglect and population outflow.
The consolidated city and county would have the pooled resources for public works and roads. If, as in Louisville, law enforcement agencies were merged, the combined department would combine the resources and coverage of the City of Birmingham and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. The jails of the city and county would be integrated. Technology services, building services, financial management systems, and tax collection systems could be combined.
More Voter Control
The consolidated city would eliminate the complaints about taxation without representation. Suburban voters would have a say in how the occupational, sales, and business licenses they now contribute to the City of Birmingham are spent. Presumably, the Metro Government would have the appointing powers now exercised by Birmingham and Jefferson County in regard to the Birmingham-Jefferson Transit Authority, the Birmingham Water Works Board, and the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex.
WHO IT WOULD INVOLVE
When communities consider city-consolidation, success requires an alignment of the stars, metaphorically speaking. Most city-county consolidations fail.
Most communities hold multiple consolidation votes before they are ultimately successful. Successful consolidations typically involve an unusual degree of unity involving the following players:
Civic Leadership: Successful movements for consolidation are almost always driven by a unified and engaged civic leadership. These are members of the business establishment, university leaders, newspapers, and civic groups. Without a united and energetic support from this sector, no movement gains traction.
The Local Delegation of the State Legislature: The road to obtaining a vote on consolidation runs through the State Legislature. The local legislative delegation must support holding a consolidation referendum if it is to make it to the ballot. Due to the typical procedures for local legislation in Alabama, the vote in the delegation itself doesn’t have to be unanimous. However, because of the rules in the Alabama Senate, the opposition of even one senator would likely derail the effort.
Current and Former Office Holders: In Louisville, the widely popular former Mayor of the City of Louisville, Jerry Abramson, was a vocal and visible proponent. The sitting chief executive of Jefferson County, Kentucky, also campaigned for the change. Former mayors and county-judge executives were also publicly supportive. In Birmingham, the mayor of the City of Birmingham and the leadership of Jefferson County would be key supporters if the case is to be made for consolidation.
Countywide Elected Officials: Successful consolidations most often have the support of elected officials who are elected countywide. This is particularly true in the case of the county sheriff. If a sheriff opposes consolidation because of the changes it would make to his office’s operation, he or she can be a powerful opponent.
Public Employee Support: Public employees often feel threatened by consolidation. Consolidations alter employee and employer relations. Often a stated aim of consolidation drives is to reduce duplication, which can be interpreted as reducing the number of public employees. In successful consolidations, there are typically built-in guarantees of job security. Differential pay and benefits for departments that are merged are generally leveled-up, meaning that employees potentially see a gain for them in the merger. This is one of the chief reasons that consolidations often don’t produce obvious and immediate cost savings.
Bipartisan Support: In Louisville, leaders from both parties supported the change. This would need to be true in Jefferson County, since the county is nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
Minority Support: Considering Birmingham’s history, the protection of minority representation would be a key concern both for the political viability of the proposal and because of the potential for federal court oversight.
Municipal Support: To avoid sparking opposition from suburban cities, consolidation proposals almost always leave existing municipalities intact. Having the blessing of leaders in municipalities is helpful, while active opposition from municipal officials can doom a referendum. In Birmingham’s case, consolidation would likely arouse significant opposition from existing communities north and west of the county along the proposed Northern Beltline corridor. Cities such as Gardendale, Hueytown, Clay, and Pinson may object to the Metro Government foreclosing their opportunities for expansion.
The successful consolidation in Louisville came after two failed attempts in the 1980s. Thus, the issue had been on the ballot before, and the public was familiar with the concept.
After the failed votes in the 1980s, the city and the county effectively laid the groundwork for future success by forming a compact between the two governments. Certain departments and functions were merged by agreement, so when the issue came up again, proponents could point to a track record of cooperative success. There were also pre-existing countywide departments, such as the Metro Parks and Recreation Department, which combined city and county park and recreation operations in 1968.
Another factor in Louisville’s success was the fact that Jefferson County, Kentucky, already had a single consolidated school district. Thus, the issue of schools didn’t become the flashpoint it has become in other communities. Schools are always left out of consolidation proposals, but that’s not always enough to allay fears that local school autonomy would be somehow compromised.
Louisville’s experience suggests that some points raised by the opposition there would be relevant here, and may be even more salient.
First is the question of who benefits. In Louisville’s experience, there remains tension over the status of the old City of Louisville in the under the new management of the new government.
Tax rates stayed the same throughout the county, whether in the old city, the still-existing independent suburbs, or in the unincorporated areas.
The residents of the old city continue to receive a higher level of government services than residents in unincorporated areas since residents of the old city still pay higher rates of taxes.
However, with the Metro Government providing all services in the city and the county, questions arise as to whether the higher taxes city residents are paying are helping to subsidize service delivery in unincorporated areas. There was a general expectation that after consolidation, some portions of the unincorporated areas would join the urban services district, but that hasn’t happened. Nor have small cities dissolved to join with the urban services district.
The same dynamics might play out here. Of particular interest here would be the fate of Birmingham’s occupational tax and business license taxes. Both those taxes are significant to the City of Birmingham’s budget. They are collected on businesses and employees working in the City of Birmingham to compensate for the fact that Birmingham provides services to those that work in the city yet live outside the city. Through the collection of these taxes, the City of Birmingham functions as regional government, supporting transit, the Civic Center, and regional assets such as the Birmingham Zoo, the Birmingham Museum of Art, and others. Would the occupational tax apply throughout the county under consolidation? If the base were broadened, could the rate be reduced? If a single business license was created for the consolidated city-county, how would its proceeds be distributed? Currently, other independent municipalities also depend on business license taxes for a portion of their budgets.
Another potential obstacle is that some city residents, particularly black residents of old Louisville, feel that their political power has been diminished—that the city essentially dissolved into the county.
Due to our civil rights history and our current composition, race and minority representation would be an issue. The city of Birmingham is 74 percent black. Birmingham has a black mayor and a majority black city council.
Jefferson County as a whole is 54 percent white. While race needn’t be the predominant factor in voting decisions, blacks in a consolidated city would not be assured of the strong majority they currently enjoy in the City of Birmingham.
Even now in the City of Birmingham, there are complaints that the concerns of residents living in distressed majority black neighborhood are not being addressed, while city investment continues to flow into the downtown business district.
If the consolidation is viewed as the takeover of the city by the county at-large, it would likely fail due to the opposition of city residents.
Meanwhile, the persistent climate of conflict at Birmingham City Hall and the current controversies over the management of city entities, such as the Birmingham Water Works Authority, has reinforced suburban mistrust of the political leadership of the City of Birmingham. If consolidation were perceived as a takeover of the county by the city government, it would likewise fail to attract support among suburbanites.
10 Leland, Susan and Thurmaier, Kurt, Lessons from 35 Years of City-County Consolidation Attempts, Municipal Yearbook 2006.
11 Rusk, David, Cities Without Suburbs: A Census 2010 Perspective, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.
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