Police Merger Mania!

The option of regional police services appears to be attracting more interest from local lawmakers.

Last week we learned that Macungie wants to look at a merger with Lower Macungie, Upper Milford and Alburtis.

They should consider the option of getting in on the existing Berks Lehigh Regional police since Upper Macungie lawmakers aren’t really seeing an economy of scale by partnering with just smaller munis.

Hellertown and Lower Saucon Township want the state to conduct a study on merging their police departments. This is a very good idea, but I wonder if Bethlehem and Bethlehem Township shouldn’t get in on this study as well. Creating a Greater Bethlehem regional police service seems like it would make the most sense.

Ohio’s Kasich Supports MuniCon

Republican Governor John Kasich is one of a few speakers supporting municipal consolidation in this Bloomberg News segment. Loving this bit about the 29-resident PA town that exists solely to allow alcohol sales at a golf course. Oof!

Bernie O’Hare Is Not a Smart Man…

Bernie keeps saying that relatively high property taxes cause poverty. This is incorrect. He’s mistaking correlation for causation, and then drawing the causal lines the wrong way.

It’s especially frustrating to have to correct this, because he really does know better. A few months ago Bernie and I were at the same brown bag lunch discussion on municipal finance in Pennsylvania.

We I learned that city revenue comes primarily from real estate taxes, while Second Class township revenue comes mostly from Earned Income Taxes:

This trend has accelerated over the past 4 decades:

Bernie’s “analysis” strangely only looks at taxes on real estate, and ignores all other kinds of taxes.

This is a significant error, especially because we I also learned that all Pennsylvania municipalities follow a predictable path to fiscal decline:

Wealthier residents move toward the periphery chasing the mirage of lower taxes. City populations shrink and the people left behind are poorer on average. But services still need to be provided across the same geographical area, so each city household must pay more for the same services.

The actual problem here is that all the arbitrary political borders create perverse incentives to shuffle wealth around within the region, to the detriment of the cities and the regional economy. If taxes are too high in the cities, it’s because they’re artificially low in the townships. The solution is a regional tax base.

As a general rule of thumb, great skepticism is in order whenever you see Bernie wielding numbers.

Municipal Consolidation in Michigan

Kate Linebaugh as a very good article on municipal consolidation efforts in Michigan in the WSJ:

Michigan has 1,773 municipalities, 609 school districts, 1,071 fire departments and 608 police departments. Gov. Rick Snyder wants some of them to disappear.

The governor is taking steps to bring about the consolidation of municipal services, even whole municipalities, in order to cut budgets and eliminate redundant local bureaucracies. His blueprint, which relies on legal changes and financial incentives, calls for a “metropolitan model” of government that would combine resources across cities and their suburbs…

Around the country public officials are asking themselves similar questions. Plunging property-tax receipts and rising pension and health-care costs have pushed many municipalities to the brink of financial collapse. The idea is that local governments can operate with fewer workers and smaller budgets if they do things like combine fire departments, create regional waste authorities and fold towns and cities into counties…

Proponents of consolidation come from both ends of the political spectrum. Some conservatives argue that having fewer layers and divisions of government is cost-efficient and improves the economic climate by streamlining regulation and taxation. Some liberals support eliminating local-government boundaries that they say have cemented economic and racial disparities between cities and surrounding towns.

It’s great to see a Republican Governor embrace the livability agenda. This is not the only area where Governor Snyder is prioritizing metro-led economic growth. As I’ve argued previously, this is an obvious policy agenda for Tom Corbett to embrace, since he currently has nothing to say about what local governments ought to do in response to the massive state deficits he’s passing down to them. Chris Christie, and now Rick Snyder, understand that by pointing to the waste and duplication at the local level, they can muddy the lines of accountability for budget cuts.

Lower Macungie Enters Second Stage of the 5 Stages of Municipal Death

Patrick Lester says super rich Lower Macungie Township is getting ready to debate whether or not to stop mooching off the state police for their domestic policing needs:

Commissioners say they’ve begun researching the cost of police departments in neighboring municipalities and gathering crime statistics while they reconsider a long-standing debate: whether the township should have a law enforcement presence beyond what state police at Fogelsville provide.

They say they’ll put that data before the public, possibly by year’s end, before deciding whether it’s time to create a police force, join a regional department or hire a nearby municipality’s police department to patrol the township.

Township officials know any of those options could mean the imposition of a property tax that hasn’t been levied in the township for years. Previous studies have yielded the same result: Residents didn’t want to pay for the service.

This is totally nuts. A town needs local police. It’s not the job of the state police to do local policing. This is one of the richest most Republican areas in the Lehigh Valley. Apparently they think Going Galt means mooching off everyone else.

It’s also totally predictable. What we’re seeing is Lower Macungie entering Stage 2 of the 5 Stages of Municipal Death:

1. Low taxes with prosperity

2. Gradually rising tax rates and increasing demand for services.

3. Plateau of tax base with reductions in non-core services

4. Insufficient taxes or tax base with reductions in core services.

5. Loss of tax base and distress

First you start your new township on some farmland, and pretend like you don’t need any services and set tax rates way too low. Then the richest people flee higher tax places for the fake low tax rates. You get by for a few years and then Whoops! it turns out your township needs the same municipal services that every other town does.

Then people stop wanting to pay the increasing taxes, so David Jaindl builds yet another ring of suburbs on former farmland, forms a new government, and the new government Lower Macungies you with fake low tax rates and steals your residents and businesses.

But now your tax base has shrunk and you still need to provide the same services over the same territory, so you have to raise taxes again just to maintain the same service levels. More people don’t like the tax increases, so they abandon you for the new Lower Macungie, and on and on.

Every borough and township in PA is cycling through these stages, and they’ll all get to Stage 5 at some point. It’s a direct result of structural incentives built into PA’s crazyquilt system of local government.

On the practical question of what Lower Macungie ought to do about policing, I think it’s clear they should follow the lead of other forward-thinking munis and either join the Berks-Lehigh Regional Police who serve neighboring Upper Macungie, or partner with Allentown on a new regional police department. The ideal solution would be for Lehigh County to start their own county-wide police department and offer municipalities financial incentives to join. It doesn’t make any sense for policing to be the only part of the criminal justice system that’s not run at the county level.

Regional Policing Moves Forward in Nazareth

Pamela Sroka-Holzmann at the Express Times brings us some encouraging news on regional policing:

Borough council on Monday unanimously agreed to negotiate a contract for police coverage from the Colonial Regional Police Department.

Borough council wants to move forward on a three-year contract with Colonial Regional. A committee including councilmen Jack Herbst, William Matz, Daniel Chiavaroli and secretary Paul Kokolus will negotiate the deal.

Mayor Fred Daugherty Jr. recommended last week that the borough start negotiating with the force:

“I would like to thank council for acting on the recommendation I made,” Daugherty said. “This is not something I just jumped into. … “If it’s unpopular, with certain folks, so be it. I’m willing to live with that, I am doing the job I was elected to do.”

That’s exactly the right attitude for politicians to have. Not every good policy is going to be popular, and it’s no fun to cast votes that make a lot of people want to yell at you, but politicians can always choose to do the right thing and take the heat for it. Good on Fred Daugherty and Borough Council for taking the plunge together unanimously.

Municipal Consolidation Would Mean a Stronger Claim on Federal Money

Important point from Holly Edinger at the LVEDC blog:

LVSC submitted its application for a $5 million regional planning grant in August 2010. Although the LVSC did not receive a grant award, the Consortium did score high enough to be designated by HUD as having Preferred Sustainability Status, a major accomplishment. Out of 805 applicants for these regional grants, only 45 regions received the grant awards and another 114 obtaining Preferred Sustainability Status.

The Preferred Sustainability Status (PSS) allows applicants access to bonus points for selected federal grant programs, technical assistance, and other capacity building opportunities through HUD. Recently HUD released a list of grant program where applicants can get an additional two points if they are endorsed/ member of a PSS. It is very important to recognize that while LVEDC was the lead applicant for the PSS and these bonus points are available to others Lehigh Valley agencies and municipalities that may apply for these HUD grants.

The Lehigh Valley stands a better chance at receiving federal money for economic development projects if it’s applying as a region rather than individual municipalities. It’s about the leverage. For instance, there’s no reason the LV wouldn’t qualify for the Obama administration’s Innovation Accelerator Challenge:

Sixteen federal agencies are working together on this unprecedented initiative to drive job growth through public-private partnerships in at least 20 regions around the country. High-growth clusters from rural and urban regions across the nation will compete for award funds. Each Challenge investment will serve as a catalyst for leveraging additional private capital to the winning regions from sources including foundations, financial institutions, corporations and other private-sector partners.

The Innovation Accelerator Challenge represents the Obama Administration’s commitment to accelerate the development of strong industry clusters – like the Research Triangle in North Carolina – that promote robust economic ecosystems and the development of a skilled workforce, both of which are critical to long-term regional success. We’re looking to be a catalyst for regional clusters that can:

  • Promote sustainable economic growth in the region;
  • Support business formation, especially of small businesses, while leveraging existing businesses’ assets;
  • Advance commercialization of federal and private research;
  • Increase exports;
  • Develop a skilled workforce through outreach, training, and the creation of career pathways, and;
  • Integrate historically underserved businesses and communities into the economic activities of the cluster.

This cluster announcement reflects another important goal of the Obama Administration – to streamline government while maximizing resources. Applicants will submit ONE application, instead of multiple applications to several agencies, cutting down on costs and time. Awardees will receive funds in a coordinated, integrated manner that is more efficient and predictable. When President Obama was elected, he promised to change the way government does business. The Accelerator and 40 other innovation cluster projects that were awarded in FY 2010 reflect his commitment to deliver on his promise.

It would be a gross failure of local government leaders to get their act together if the Lehigh Valley didn’t get some of this money. The raw materials are there to accomplish all these goals. The human talent and productivity are there, the infrastructure is there. It’s the short-sighted fiefdom politics and the lack of imagination of too many political officials that’s the problem.