A Merger between Baltimore City and County?

Note: As this article was going through the editing phase, the Abell Foundation released a report examining Municipal consolidations across the Country. We encourage our readers to take a look at it.

Citylab reports that an influential group of St. Louis business and civic leaders is calling on the City of St. Louis and the surrounding St. Louis County to merge into one unified metropolitan government.

Citylab reports that an influential group of St. Louis business and civic leaders is calling on the City of St. Louis and the surrounding St. Louis County to merge into one unified metropolitan government.

Given that Baltimore City and St. Louis are the only cities in the country not part of a surrounding county and not counties in and of themselves, are older rust belt cities that have suffered population loss, and have large African-American populations with a history of racial tension, this proposal is relevant for Baltimore to say the least.

Better Together, the organization pushing for reunification, consists of major business and civic leaders in the St. Louis region. In their report advocating for unification, they present some startling facts about local governance in St. Louis City and County:

  • There are 90 different municipalities
  • 57 Police Departments (many of which are unacredited)
  • 81 Municipal Courts
  • 52,000 pages of ordinances

This fragmentation results in some stunning inefficiencies that have had a profoundly negative impact on the quality of life for residents in the St. Louis region. For example, not only do St. Louis County and City compete against each other for economic development, so do the 90 different municipalities. This results in massive corporate subsidies as municipalities try to outdo each other in order to attract businesses.

Public safety and the administration of justice is another area in need of improvement. Within St. Louis County, some police departments are well paid, well trained, and well equipped. Others pay some part-time police officers less than $12 an hour and in at least one department, officers are only provided with a badge and name identification!

But perhaps the most disturbing impact on public safety within the St. Louis area has been the use of fines in some small municipalities to pay for basic government services. The Better Together report found that while fines in St. Louis City and unincorporated St. Louis County are proportionate to their share of Missouri’s population, municipalities in St. Louis County make up 11% of the state’s population, but account for 34% of all fines collected. The municipalities most reliant on these taxes have disproportionately large African-American populations.

Better Together recommends the consolidation of St. Louis City and County into a unified”Metro City” government. This responsibilities of this entity would include control of the Courts, policing, economic development, and planning and zoning. Under the plan, school and fire protection districts would remain intact. Better Together plans to put this issue to a statewide referendum in 2020.

So what does this all mean for Baltimore?

There are many ways Baltimore City and County governments suffer from fragmentation — even if the challenges of fragamentation may not be as severe as in St Louis.

However it is important to note there is no organized movement pushing for this change and a merger of Baltimore City and County any time soon seems unlikely.

But there are examples from other regions, most notably the Twin Cities and Portland that could serve as blueprints for regional governance in the Baltimore area.

In the Portland region there is an elected regional government known as Metro. Led by a Council President elected regionwide and six council members elected by district, Metro performs the following functions:

  • Metro manages Portland’s much-lauded urban growth boundary and assists local governments with planning and development. This includes managing affordable housing.
  • Runs and provides funding for the Oregon Zoo, Oregon Convention Center, Portland Expo Center, and Portland Center as well as a regional parks system
  • Oversees and assists local communities with waste management functions through promoting recycling and composting, development of a Regional Waste Plan and management of recycling and garbage transfer stations
  • Serving as the federally mandated Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Portland region, through development of a long-range regional transportation plan

The St. Paul-Minneapolis area has a similar organization known as the Metropolitan Council. The Council is governed by 17 members who serve at the pleasure of the Governor. Included among those members are a Council Chair and representatives from 16 different districts in the Twin Cities region.

Anyone can nominate themselves to serve as a district representative. Nominees are then reviewed by a nominating committee consisting of elected officials and other prominent community members. The nominating committee then submits their recommendations to the Governor who has the final say over appointments.

The Metropolitan Council manages the regional transit system, ensures affordable housing is equitably distributed throughout the region, provides wastewater services and develops a long range water plan, and oversees regional parks planning.

The Baltimore Metropolitan Council (BMC) is similar to the above organizations in that it consists of all local governments in the Baltimore region and has a mission of encouraging regional cooperation. In addition to serving as the Baltimore region’s federally mandated Metropolitan Planning Organization, the BMC oversees a regional housing voucher program and was the driving force behind the Opportunity Collaborative.

However, the BMC does not have the amount of power and ability to make policy-making decisions as those of the organizations listed above. This is because the BMC’s board consists of the Mayor of Baltimore, one County Commissioner each from Queen Anne’s and Caroll Counties, as well as the County Executives for Baltimore, Howard, Anne Arundel, and Harford Counties. There is also a private sector representative appointed by the Governor along with one legislator each from the State Senate and House of Delegates.

With the BMC board representing such a diverse set of interests, it is difficult for members of the BMC to reach consensus on most issues. Furthermore, since each jurisdiction is represented equally, smaller counties receive a disproportionate amount of representation.

Give the history of strained relationships between Baltimore City and County, it may appear that a form of regional governance, be it through a stronger Baltimore Metropolitan Council or some other mechanism, is a pipe dream. However, if one looks at the regional arrangements already in place, it is not that far fetched.

Baltimore City currently manages Baltimore County’s water system and both governments are parties to EPA water system consent decrees that have resulted in skyrocketing water and sewer rates in both jurisdictions. Baltimore County also sends some of its trash to be burnt at the Wheelabrator garbage incinerator, making waste disposal a regional issue that requires regional solutions.

Most likely unbeknownst to most City and County residents the Baltimore County Commission on Arts and Sciences provides funding for a number of arts and cultural institutions in Baltimore City. These include the Baltimore Museum of Art, Walters Art Gallery, and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

As mentioned above, the Baltimore Metropolitan Council runs a regional voucher program in recognition of the fact that all jurisdictions in the region must play a part in providing homes for low to moderate income households.

Baltimore City and some of its suburban neighbors are already,working together on some issues of regional importance. Yet we lack a strong, formal, regional policy-making body that can coordinate cooperation between all regional jurisdictions.

Baltimore City and its suburbs are interconnected and the boundaries between our jurisdictions are at times little more than lines on a map. Everyone benefits when we work across municipal lines to work for the betterment of the Baltimore region. Even if a city-county merger may not happen tomorrow, steps towards regional cooperation should be taken today.

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Gregory Friedman

Gregory Friedman

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