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!

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.

Christie Approves "Mix and Match" to Speed MuniCon

Edward Colimer at the Inquirer reports that Chris Christie has signed the “mix and match” bill that makes it easier for citizens to approve a municipal consolidation study, even if their legislators don’t want to:

Legislation that will make it easier for towns to merge was signed into law by Gov. Christie on Wednesday, clearing the way for Cherry Hill Township officials and a Merchantville citizens group to study consolidation.

The new law permits the combination of voter petitions and applications by elected governing bodies to create municipal consolidation study commissions, the first step in a possible merger.

There’s a really naive view out there that says “if consolidations were a good idea on the merits, they’d pass.”

The political economy problems with this way of thinking should be obvious. It ignores the self-preservation instincts of politicians and redundant administrators, and severely underestimates the effectiveness of lying about what will happen in a consolidation, and the willingness of opponents to do so. I think lots of consolidation proposals would win in a fair fight based on the hard facts. But I think too many will be voted down if the facts have to compete with crazy lies.

That’s why the citizen-focused system in NJ is a decent remedy, since it gives voters the option to bypass legislators who oppose consolidation.

MuniCon in NJ, Cont’d.

Chris Christie’s cutting funding for LUARC, but here’s how New Jersey is navigating the tough politics and vested interests preventing municipal consolidation:

The LUARC Commission was modeled on a federal program, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment (BRAC) Commission, which was instituted in 1989 to close unnecessary military basis. Prior to BRAC, Congress had found it very difficult to close military bases, even when they were no longer useful, because a military base can bring millions of dollars to a district, and politicians that represented such districts often objected.

BRAC circumvented these challenges by creating a list of bases that should be closed and then providing that list to Congress. Congress then had to vote “up or down” — meaning it had to approve the entire list or none of it — which made it easier for individual politicians to close bases in their own districts. To date, the BRAC process has resulted in the closure of nearly 100 bases.

“LUARCC was the same idea,” said Andrew Bruck, research director for Courage to Connect. “Since there are a lot of vested interests in each municipality, you need to insulate politicians from the process.”