As detailed in this report, Birmingham, since 1950, has developed in a fragmented pattern. While the center city has declined in population, a constellation of suburban cities surrounding it has grown.
That’s put stress on the center city, but it also has had implications for surrounding metro area. In metros where the city center is struggling, the economic growth of the entire MSA is hampered.
Research indicates that this pattern of governmental fragmentation creates a competitive disadvantage for such metropolitan areas, diffusing resources and decision making, amplifying inequities, and hampering economic growth in the region as a whole. Such fragmentation makes it more difficult to generate consensus, craft a collective vision for improvement, and implement change.
By contrast, in metro areas where there is a unified voice and vision for the future, the population and the economy expand, creating greater opportunity for all. As documented in this report, dynamic cities and regions look for ways to pull together to pursue progress, seeking consensus around ambitious goals. They are self-critical, constantly looking for ways to improve their performance.
For Birmingham, it seems a prime moment to adopt a more dynamic vision for the future. A string of revitalization victories has inspired a revived sense of confidence in Metro Birmingham. Public opinion, especially among a rising younger generation, provides evidence of a willingness to embrace innovation and change.
Other regions have faced the same forces of fragmentation that Birmingham faces. The regions profiled in this report crafted responses that suited their circumstances and pursued them. In all cases, it took sustained energy, often in the face of opposition, over the course of decades.
Greater Birmingham has grappled with this issue throughout its history. From the 1940s through the 1960s, a succession of votes on city-suburban merger proposals were held and failed. In the late 1990s, a regional cooperation proposal, the Metropolitan Area Projects Strategy, also went down in defeat. But past failures afford opportunities for learning from mistakes and working toward creative alternatives, as dynamic cities profiled in this report can attest. This report does not prescribe a particular course of action. However, it does point to the clear need to address the problems caused by fragmentation and presents multiple options for pursuing enhanced cooperation.
In the interest of identifying next steps, the following are suggestions are offered for advancing regional cooperation.
Encouraging Intergovernmental Cooperation
Immediate action can be taken to encourage further cooperation through interlocal agreements between local governments. Either through the Jefferson County Mayor’s Association, the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham, or under the auspices of Jefferson County, elected officials and community representatives could:
Develop a catalog of existing cooperative arrangements in the area.
- Evaluate those arrangements for effectiveness and needed improvements.
- Promote and expand those arrangements to cities and other governments not currently participating.
Identify additional areas for intergovernmental cooperation.
- Find appropriate models from other cities for the establishment of new shared services.
- Study the potential benefits of new joint service delivery ventures.
- Pursue those that show promise.
Establish continuing organizational support for research and implementation of shared services. In cities and regions where intergovernmental cooperation is encouraged, often a supporting organization is involved in promoting and maintaining a working relationship between local governments.
- The Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT), a non-profit supported by the University of Pittsburgh, which provides ongoing support and promotion for municipal cooperation.
- The Denver area mayor’s caucus which receives staff support from Civic Results, a Denver-based nonprofit firm. Civic Results provide strategic advice and organizational and policy support for the mayors.
Reviewing County Government
As county government can play a leadership role in providing regional services, increased attention should be paid to improving county government.
Jefferson County has made notable progress in improving the county’s management and operations. It has now been five years since the creation of the manager’s position. The county’s financial situation should be further stabilized with the settlement of the lawsuit over a replacement sales tax, providing additional revenue for the county.
Whether through the county itself or through an outside commission, a study should be performed on the performance of the county under the county manager form.
The study should evaluate the success of the new manager form and suggest any improvements to the function of the manager’s office, the department’s under the manager’s charge, and management’s relation to the County Commission.
Such a study could also explore whether the creation of elected county executive would be advantageous. The study could also consider whether the other county-level elected offices are appropriately aligned and functional.
When Allegheny County reformed and modernized its county government, a regular process of review through its Governmental Review Commission was established to periodically review county operations and report to the public its findings.
Encouraging Cooperation through Regional Organizations and Special Purpose Governments
The cities profiled often employ regional organizations and special purpose governments to address needs that are regional in nature and transcend the bounds of existing local governments.
In the profiled cities, regional organizations spearheaded economic development, provided public transportation services, and supported cultural entities, regional attractions, and parks and greenways.
Birmingham has existing regional organizations such as the Birmingham Business Alliance, the central economic development agency for seven counties in the Birmingham region, and the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority, and the Birmingham- Jefferson Civic Center Authority.
There are a constellation of other private groups working to unite around regional goals for the economic growth in particular sectors, for the development of parks and greenways and support of arts and regional attractions.
In all these areas and others, the effectiveness of current arrangements for regional cooperation should be analyzed. Where the need for greater regional coordination and support is found to exist, models for such cooperation should be identified, and a solution that fits Birmingham’s needs should be pursued.
City-County Consolidation: an Unlikely Option
City-county consolidation has been a solution to preventing and overcoming fragmentation in metropolitan areas. Nashville, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Florida, and Louisville, Kentucky can all point to advantages created by consolidation.
However, successful consolidation efforts are rare and occur only after years of civic conversation, incremental cooperative ventures between governments, and an accumulation of public trust. Polling conducted for this research project found a majority of respondents to be opposed to the idea.
The city-county consolidation model offers some unique advantages over other approaches. It is the only option that offers a quick turnaround of Birmingham’s population decline. A model of consolidation unique to Birmingham, one that protects the independence of existing cities and school systems, could be developed over time. Consolidation would give all the residents of Jefferson County a stake in and a say in the government of the central city.
However, considering how unfamiliar the concept is currently, and considering the potentially polarizing nature of this approach, a campaign for consolidation would likely be unproductive.
It is up to the citizens of Jefferson County to design governments that are effective, efficient, and equitable. Governmental forms are not handed down from on-high. They are created by citizens banding together in enlightened self-interest to pursue a more perfect union. Democratic governmental forms come in a tremendous variety and are shaped by local preferences and circumstances. In cities and regions that are dynamic and bold, governments are constantly scrutinized and tinkered with in the interest of improving equitable representation and effective delivery of services.
Greater Birmingham finds itself at a moment of great potential. At the same time, our recent history suggests, our current institutions have not positioned the community to perform at the level of peer cities.
These observations beg a final question: who will step up to lead?
Considering the experience of other cities, community civic leadership is not left to politicians. It does not fall as a sole burden on the business community, on university leaders, on civic organizations, or grassroots groups.
It takes leaders emerging from a variety of sources to build the coalition necessary to drive toward a better collective destiny.
In This Report
Together We Can…