A new report released today by the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor suggests that local governments in Minnesota should give more consideration to consolidation.
There are more than 2,700 local units of government in the state. The study recommends the Legislature make it easier for them to collaborate or merge.
Government consolidation is a rare occurrence in Minnesota. It's happened only about 38 times since 1980. Most local elected officials prefer other ways to improve services and reduce costs, concluded the study commissioned last summer by the Legislature.
Project Manager Valerie Bombach said her research found that nationally, consolidation has had mixed results.
"We understand that consolidation can be costly. It can be controversial and it can be complicated," Bombach said. "But we still think that there are opportunities that exist out there among local jurisdictions, particularly among the smaller jurisdictions that provide capital-intensive services or equipment or have capital projects."
The study found that together, the cost of county, city and township government in Minnesota totaled about $11.5 billion in 2009. Some state lawmakers have suggested over the years that fewer layers of government would save money. But the new study found that is not always the case.
The report also notes that elected officials in small towns and rural townships don't have the time or the expertise to evaluate whether consolidation would save money.
The study suggests the Legislature should waive some of the procedural requirements and make it easier for local governments to explore consolidation. It also recommends the state provide grants for cities and townships to evaluate their consolidation options.
Jeff Spartz, executive director of the Association of Minnesota Counties, is pleased with the report but doesn't expect local governments will line up to consolidate.
"It's not going to proceed like an avalanche," he said "It will be more like a glacier."
Spartz said most counties are more interested in collaborations with their neighbors rather than merging with them. The average county in Minnesota already has more than 20 intergovernmental agreements in place.
Consolidation might make sense in areas where populations are shrinking, but Spartz said combining government functions has to be a local decision and cannot be forced on people.
"I think what the legislative auditor found and the conclusions go against what is often conventional line of thinking, which, we can solve all of our problems by consolidating local governments," he said. "Consolidation may be part of the answer, but it is not the easy solution that our society chronically looks for."
The study found that one of the biggest obstacles to consolidation efforts is opposition from local residents. The research shows such proposals in Minnesota and elsewhere are routinely shot down by voters.
Minnesota Association of Townships director Gary Pedersen said townships want to collaborate where it can save taxpayers money. But he said consolidations bring complications that many voters want to avoid.
"People for the most part do not want to change their governmental jurisdictions. That may be why they purchased their property where they did, or they've been there farming for a long time. And they don't want to see that kind of thing change," Pedersen said. "The problem with changing governmental jurisdictions many times is then you have zoning and planning changes, and that's usually where the people don't really care for it."
The economic climate may very well dictate whether voters and elected officials will warm to the idea of consolidation. For now, the Legislative Auditor's study suggests the state do more to develop consolidation as a tool to trim the cost of government.