When consolidation creates a suburb without a city

Illustration: Two figures peeking under a giant rug-sized Lafayette Consolidated Government logo
Illustration by Peter DeHart

Political institutions are sticky; once established, they’re very resistant to change. But a proposal that will be considered by the Lafayette City-Parish Council next week could shake up the political consolidation approved by voters 26 years ago. Over the last 120 years, the United States saw just over 100 proposals to consolidate local governments, but only about 20 percent of those were approved by voters. Citizens are reluctant to give up local autonomy and ready access to their municipal governments. But once joined together, consolidated governments don’t separate; at least none have to date. Lafayette could be the first to inch in that direction.

To understand Lafayette’s predicament, it’s worth considering the consolidation movement from a national perspective. There are almost 90,000 local governments across America, with many facing budgetary pressures. Chambers of commerce across the country have been the most consistent advocates of consolidation, and the Greater Lafayette Chamber was no exception in the push to consolidate in 1992. By consolidating, chambers have argued that governments can increase bureaucratic efficiencies and hence increase economic development. The game here is geographic expansion unfettered by onerous, competing government. Former Albuquerque, N.M., Mayor David Rusk made precisely that case in his book Cities Without Suburbs, noting that regions that could easily expand geographically will outperform those that could not.

Proponents of consolidation are quick to herald the economic benefits, but studies of consolidated cities show mixed results at best.

This vision for an elastic government may be appealing, but it’s not often realized. Lafayette, of course, isn’t really fully consolidated. The other five municipalities (Broussard, Carencro, Duson, Scott, and Youngsville) maintained their independence. Moreover, the parish and city maintain separate budgets. In fact, this is fairly common in consolidation arrangements. Take for instance the consolidations in Indianapolis and Louisville. In both cases smaller municipalities within the counties retained their independence. Moreover, one of the thorniest issues, public safety, is often left in limbo. In both consolidations, fire departments remained unconsolidated, and in Louisville, the police department did as well. Lafayette is currently facing this problem. A proposed special fire district for the unincorporated areas of the parish will likely be put to voters in December, with the steep price tag of a 7.6-mill property tax.

Proponents of consolidation are quick to herald the economic benefits, but studies of consolidated cities show mixed results at best. The expectation is that consolidation will eliminate redundancies in government and create economies of scale that will increase efficiencies, lower taxes and encourage investment. This rarely happens. In fact, far more often costs increase following consolidation. This shouldn’t be surprising though. One of the main reasons to consolidate is to combine forces to improve infrastructure. Once consolidation happens, spending on building projects often ensues. In Lafayette, the Camellia Boulevard project shortly followed consolidation as part of a $229 million bond.

Even consolidated services often don’t result in savings. For instance, after first merging in 1969, Indianapolis eventually consolidated its police department in 2004. Though almost $9 million in reduced costs was expected, an audit revealed no savings. Other services, such as water, sewer and recycling, are often extended at increased costs as well.

The increased costs in infrastructure and services might be expected to be offset by economic development. Unfortunately, few studies have seen these results borne out. In fact, Lafayette is one of the very few areas that has seen an increase in economic development following consolidation. However, no study has conclusively shown that consolidation causes upticks in business.

The example of Louisville should give particular pause to the promise of economic development. A detailed study of that city pre- and post-merger led by H.V. Savitch and Ronald Vogel of the University of Louisville showed that the Louisville downtown suffered after consolidation. The downtown population decreased, unemployment rose, the number of establishments declined and annual payroll fell. Similar trends have also been seen in Indianapolis and Jacksonville, Fla., where declines in the urban core followed consolidation. Kansas City has offered a rare alternative to this narrative in the world of consolidation, but only by pursuing deliberate measures to revitalize its downtown.

There are times when consolidation makes sense. In cases of especially small cities, consolidation may be the only way to avoid un-incorporation. As an alternative to full merger, many cities have successfully sought cooperation through combining services and regional planning while leaving geographic and political boundaries unchanged. Examples include the city-county compact in Charlotte, N.C., and the multi-tiered government in Portland, Ore. Regional approaches to governance are also especially important when confronting environmental and infrastructure projects. However, cooperation rather than consolidation preserves flexibility.

That puts Lafayette on a path to become a suburb without a city.

When Lafayette first voted on consolidation in 1992, the central city held 62 percent of the population of the parish. By 2010 that had dropped to 54 percent, and as the 2020 census approaches, the city’s population could no longer constitute a majority of the parish. Investment in infrastructure after consolidation, which made development at and beyond the city boundaries affordable and attractive, has shifted the flow of population away from the urban core. Consolidations in Indianapolis, Louisville, Jacksonville and Nashville all had the same result. In 1992, when 60.3 percent of Lafayette voters approved consolidation, there was every reason to expect that the city would anchor the parish. But as populations shift, Lafayette will be a central city without the autonomy to control its own affairs. That puts Lafayette on a path to become a suburb without a city.