Brokaw Says Big Counties Cheaper Than Small. They Aren’t

NBC's Tom Brokaw wrote recently that the recession was a good reason for states to consolidate local governments, schools and colleges into larger jurisdictions. It's not.

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NBC newsman Tom Brokaw wrote in the New York Times recently about how small towns are big spenders. (“Small-Town, Big Spending” can be found here.) There are too many bits and pieces of government floating around in rural America, Brokaw wrote, especially in parts of the country that were losing population. The demands of the recession required that businesses AND states get more efficient. Rural states and communities would do better if they consolidated councils, fire stations, police and counties. Government would be both cheaper and more efficient.

“Iowa proudly maintains its grid of 99 counties, each with its own distinctive courthouse, many on the National Register of Historic Places — and some as little as 40 miles away from one another,” Brokaw wrote. “Each one houses a full complement of clerks, auditors, sheriff’s deputies, jailers and commissioners. Is there any reason beyond local pride to maintain such duplication given the economic and population pressures of our time?”

Brokaw contends that consolidated governments, schools and universities are cheaper and more efficient than the dispersed, decentralized system we have now. He cites a New York State study from a year ago finding that consolidating government would save a billion dollars a year.

USDA/Economic Research Service
The counties marked in red lost population from 1980 to 1990 and from 1990 to 2000.

He’s not the first to claim consolidated government is cheaper and more efficient. The argument has been a staple of good government advocates since…well, since forever. (New Orleans city government merged with Orleans Parish in 1805.) But has consolidation made government more efficient and less expensive? Brokaw never tells us, presumably because he never looked for an answer. He assumed having fewer school districts and counties would save money, but, had he asked, he would have found that the evidence mostly runs to the contrary.

 Consolidation (of schools or governments) doesn’t usually save money or create a more efficient institution. People are more satisfied with small and local government than a larger, more centralized government. Small towns aren’t big spenders. And big government isn’t more efficient. That hasn’t stopped Brokaw’s “solution” from being tried, over and again. When researchers have gone back to examine what resulted from combining smaller governments into bigger ones, however, they find that consolidation doesn’t live up to the promises.

“Simply put, the ability of consolidated government to produce the benefits promised by its proponents has not been established,” Jered Carr wrote in a 2004 book, City-County Consolidation and Its Alternatives. “Claims that these benefits are plainly in evidence in existing consolidated governments are a staple of newspaper editorials, but systematic analyses of the political, economic, and fiscal effects of city-county consolidation are conspicuously absent.” 

Carr, a professor of public administration, was writing about merging city and county governments. But his findings are generally true in the literature about consolidating small pieces of government into bigger ones. 

The Rural School and Community Trust has been relentless in documenting the failed promises of school consolidation. For example, RSCT reports that West Virginia has spent more than $1 billion on closing over 300 small schools (one in every five in the state) since 1990. There are fewer schools now, but the number of local administrators has gone up even as the number of students has declined. The school closings have saved money in some places, but West Virginia now spends more of its education budget busing students than any other state. The state has saved no money overall and tens of thousands of students take excruciatingly long bus rides each day. (In 2002, 5,000 high school students had one-way bus rides of over an hour.) 

Webster, South Dakota, Tom Brokaw’s hometown.

There is simply no evidence that consolidation of government consistently saves money or makes government more efficient. A bill was proposed in the 1993 North Dakota legislature to do exactly what Brokaw proposes — consolidate the state’s 53 counties into 15 “super counties.” The state studied the proposal and found that there would be savings in some areas, but the cost of public safety would increase by 25 percent. You win some and you lose some, with no clear overall benefit.

Pat Hardy at the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service reviewed the literature on government consolidation a few years ago. Study after study found that consolidation cost more and did less than expected. People (like Brokaw) assume a larger government would provide better services to a more satisfied citizenry, but when the results of consolidation are measured, Hardy discovered, “the opposite was found….”

 There is little evidence that government gets more efficient as it grows larger. “(E)mpirical studies have consistently failed to find such an economy of scale,” Hardy wrote. “According to one estimate, economies of scale may exist for communities with populations of up to about 15,000, but beyond that point, costs either are constant or tend to rise as additional services are provided.” 

Hardy found studies showing that costs rise faster in consolidated governments than in decentralized jurisdictions. Another study found that consolidating governments in 164 Southern counties led to higher expenditures. The findings, over and again, are consistent: There is simply no consistent advantage in broad consolidations of government. Or, as Suzanne M. Leland and Kurt Thurmaier write in their book, Case Studies of City-County Consolidation, “(L)ocal government reformers have not been able to point to substantial evidence that consolidation increases accountability, equity, efficiency, and effectiveness of local government service delivery.”

Brokaw argues that the recession has increased budget deficits and that pressure on state finances demands change. But rural states are doing relatively well in keeping unemployment and budget deficits low. Brokaw mentions the inefficiencies of Iowa and the two Dakotas, but all three states have unemployment rates well below the national average. And states on average were 8.2% short of meeting their 2009 budget by midyear, the budget gap in Iowa was just 2.1%, in South Dakota it was 2.2% and North Dakota was running a budget surplus. Despite its larger size and population, California has about as many counties as North Dakota — and a budget gap of 13.6%.

(Similarly, it wasn’t regional and Main Street banks that got us in this mess. It’s the high flying, consolidated banks in New York that have almost all the troubled assets that have caused the world so many problems. You don’t hear of many locally-owned newspapers having financial trouble. It’s the companies that merged into ever bigger media conglomerates that are threatening to close long-standing community papers. Bigger isn’t necessarily better in government, news or finance.) 

Brokaw writes that North and South Dakota have too many colleges and universities. They should be consolidated. Here are South Dakota’s state colleges and universities.
Brokaw even argues that rural states could do with fewer institutions of higher learning. “North and South Dakota have a combined population of just under 1.5 million people, and in each state the rural areas are being depopulated at a rapid rate,” Brokaw wrote. “Yet between them the two Dakotas support 17 colleges and universities. They are a carry-over from the early 20th century when travel was more difficult and farm families wanted their children close by during harvest season. I know this is heresy, but couldn’t the two states get a bigger bang for their higher education buck if they consolidated their smaller institutions into, say, the Dakota Territory College System, with satellite campuses but a common administration and shared standards?”

Well, probably not. Again, there is no evidence that consolidating institutions saves money or makes them more efficient. Nor would it do communities much good to be even further separated from colleges and universities. Bo Beaulieu and Roberto Gallardo found in an earlier  Daily Yonder article that high unemployment counties are those with low levels of education.  The last thing any state should do to help small towns is to increase the distance between Main Street and campus. 

Brokaw is a good enough reporter that if he had had even an inkling his assumptions were wrong — that big wasn’t more efficient than small — he would have quickly found the evidence that he needed to rethink his column. (All he needed to do was look on the first page of a Google search.) But he was so sure that he was right, the former network anchor didn’t do the most basic background research.

The more insidious part of Brokaw’s article is that both he and his editors at the New York Times assumed that small schools, colleges and towns are at some early stage of becoming something big and therefore efficient and workable. Brokaw is a son of small town South Dakota (Webster) and he understands that small towns and rural counties are just fine as they stand. He should also know that small counties can be merged into larger counties and small schools can be consolidated into larger ones, but that’s not going to make them any cheaper. 

 

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