July 30, 2009

Reasons to Be Skeptical About "Consolidation" As the Answer to Everything

Carroll Andrew Morse

This was the basic outline of former Providence's mayor Joseph Paolino's strong municipal consolidation proposal, published in a Projo op-ed in May…

In the interest of efficiency, economy and equity, Rhode Island should unify its 39 cities and towns into six county governments with full municipal powers.

There would be a Mayor of Kent County, Newport County, Washington County and Bristol County. Providence County, which extends from Cranston to Woonsocket, would be divided in two —Blackstone County to the north, and Providence County in the metropolitan area....

The Providence County I envision would include Providence, East Providence, North Providence, Cranston, Johnston, Foster and Scituate — 36 percent of the state’s population at present, hardly enough to take over the state.

The premise is that bigger units of government are inherently more efficient. However, looking at 2007-2008 data on the cost per-resident of the government we have now in the communities that would make up Mayor Paolino's Super-Providence, that assumption doesn't seem to hold true…

MunicipalityPopulationGov. Cost Per
Providence171,889 $2,620.31
East Providence48,604 $1,939.46
North Providence32,770$1,792.19

The community with 170,000+ residents is near the top of the list, closest in cost-per-resident to the community with about 4,500 residents, while a community of 30,000 is at the bottom, immediately below communities of about 50,000 and 80,000.

Before anyone takes the idea of "consolidation" seriously, shouldn't the unit of government that includes as least twice as many residents as any of the others show that it can run itself more efficiently than everyone else? If it can't, it seems just as likely that a Super-Providence would spread Current-Providence's high per-resident cost of government to other communities, rather than help to lower them.

And on a more nuts and bolts level, consider this issue: The town of Foster still uses a volunteer firefighting force; how will a consolidated Providence address this issue going forward? Will residents of Former-Foster pay the same taxes as everyone else, but receive no municipal fire-service in return? Or will some kind of sub-jurisdiction be created, where Former-Foster residents pay a different tax rate and receive a different mix or services? And if the answer is the latter, by the time you have created the administrative structure capable of dealing with the variations in the different communities that are merged together, is it realistic to believe that the result is going to be any more efficient -- and less expensive -- than separate municipal governments?

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I don't think anyone would consider consolidating Providence and Foster.
Like municipalites would be combined such as Foster,Glocester,Scituate and Burrillville where people get minimal services and urban areas like Providence ,Cranston,Pawtucket,East Providence,etc.

Posted by: Bob at July 30, 2009 5:28 PM


I'm using the plan propsed by Mayor Paolino in the Projo.

I think your point is very reasonable, and could be the basis of savings from consolidation in the abstract, but I also think that, in the real Rhode Island, the consolidation idea gets a significant share of its support from pols who see it as an opportunity to grab some "free" money and don't have any real ideas for making government more efficient.

Posted by: Andrew at July 31, 2009 10:26 AM
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