Shallow Analysis from the Public Policy Research Center

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At a forum called Will We Be Better Together? hosted by Senator Jill Schupp at the Frontenac city hall, Professor Emeritus E Terrence Jones, author of Fragmented by Design, handed out a scatter plot titled Per Capita Local Government Spending by Municipal Density which appeared in More Municipalties= Less Municipal $pending? by Jones and James Brasfield, both members of the executive committee at Cities Strong, under the banner of UMSL’s Public Policy Research Center.

The data come from Where We Stand: The Strategic Assessment of the St. Louis Region periodically produced by East-West Gateway Council of Governments (EWG), our region’s metropolitan planning organization (MPO).

Jones and Brasfield divide the plot into four quadrants without justification (the lines bisect the range of the axes) and conclude:

The evidence is clear and convincing. For major U.S. metropolitan areas, having more municipalities does not create higher local government spending. It produces less. Conversely, more often than not, having more government consolidation does not lower spending. It often generates more.

If one chooses to divide the plot by the median of the two data sets, the spending amount is about the $5,000 chosen, but the median number of municipalities per 100,000 is 2.25 (the average is 3.1 if you prefer). Using the median as the vertical separator, 25 metros are to the left and 25 to the right. Then there would be plenty of metros in the upper-right quadrant. Not much clear or convincing then.

Something else I noticed was that San Francisco and New York were very expensive outliers. Aren’t those very expensive places? Does this take into account cost of living? It doesn’t.

Factoring the cost of living index from the 2010 census for the metro areas into the local government spending amount produces:

Which doesn’t seem to say much. Splitting into four quadrants at the medians ($4,863 and 2.25) places metros in all four again.

I notice, and this may be where I’m choosing things without justification, that there seems to be two groups. Splitting them up reveals a trend in each group where more munis tends towards more spending.

The red group members are Louisville, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Kansas City, Birmingham, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, and Oklahoma City. How this came to be and why are subjects of much deeper analysis. Is the entire metro area the proper catchment area when counting municipalities for answering this question? OKC has large rural counties in its metro area, and Oklahoma County has 2.6 municipalities per 100k versus 5.9 in the metro area for instance.

As for the expenditure data here’s the kicker from Where We Stand:

Expenditures per capita by local governments range from about $3,000 per person in Oklahoma City to nearly $9,000 in San Francisco. Among the 50 peer regions St. Louis ranks 44th, with local governments spending the 7th lowest amount per capita. Nationwide, local governments spend the most on current operations for elementary and secondary schools (30.8 percent), followed by current operations for hospitals (5.1 percent) and police (4.9 percent).

The expenditure data include school districts and other local government entities, not just municipalities. I could say that the low fragmentation metros spend less on municipalities and put that into schools and these data wouldn’t support or refute that claim. These data also don’t inform whether metros are getting good value for money or how much state aid to local governments is a factor.

One simply cannot answer the question to what extent municipal density effects local government expenditures from these data. The data do reveal one thing for sure: municipal density on the order of St. Louis’ is not popular among the nation’s 50 largest metropolitan areas.

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  • Pat-Rice Kramlove

    Does this answer any questions relating to what the money is being spent on? Is there a cost of administration outlined anywhere. We may have lower spending per capita, but that doesn’t mean that money is being used efficiently. That same money being spent on admin costs could easily go towards education, public safety, public welfare. Better Together put the cost of administration at $213 per capita. Does this account for that?

    • rgbose

      The local gov’t expenditures per capita is meant to include everything, so no it doesn’t shed light on how effectively it’s being spent. That’s one reason why using these data is the wrong way to try to answer the question.

  • Oklahoma City is an odd metro to lump with St. Louis to make the case that consolidation leads to higher cost. I grew up in Oklahoma, and OKC cast its city boundaries far out into fields and pastures in the 1960s — out past and around existing municipalities into multiple counties. It is one of the largest cities in the nation in square miles. They wanted to be sure they owned their suburbs up front. And you still see nothing but trees on the plains when you pass the OKC city limit signs on I-44 20 miles from downtown. (Right after the OKC City limit sign on the highway, the state DOT put up a sign that read: OKC 19 miles.)

    OKC city is 10 times the size of St. Louis City in land area — 620 sq mi, vs 66. And OKC city population is 580K of the 1.36M metro area, or 43%, vs 11% for St Louis City. So OKC city already contains nearly as much of its metro area as combined St. Louis City and County would here. And their costs are very low as a result. OKC city land area is 1/10 of its metro land area. St. Louis City land area is 1/125th of its metro land area.

    OKC’s very large inclusion of its suburbs, and very low cost per resident, makes the case FOR merging — not against as these charts imply.

  • Jason Fossella

    The data has to be wrong. Greater Boston has upwards of 100 municipalities- depending on where you draw the lines, it has several hundred. So their underlying data set is very fishy.

    • rgbose

      The 2012 Census of Governments says
      Norfolk County, MA 4
      Plymouth County, MA 1
      Suffolk County, MA 4
      Middlesex County, MA 12
      Essex County, MA 10
      Rockingham County, NH 1
      Strafford County, NH 3
      = 35
      35 / 47 = 0.74 close
      They are only counting municipalities, not “town or township” of which there are many.

      • Jason Fossella

        That is straight up wrong. They appear to be counting “cities,” which in New England means municipalities with a mayor and council instead of a town meeting (and in Massachusetts specifically, a municipality that has also chosen to call itself a “city”- the difference is literally just cosmetic.) But municipalities with town meetings have the same set of powers (zoning, taxation, ordinances, etc.), the difference is whether the local legislature is direct democracy or representative. So Plymouth county has 27 municipalities, full stop. They all have the same powers to zone and tax, they all have school departments, they all have municipal libraries, fire departments, police departments, health departments, etc.

        So whoever wrote that report doesn’t understand how things actually work in at least six states, and probably shouldn’t be trusted to understand anything else.

        • rgbose

          Another reason why using these data to try to answer this question is a bad idea.
          EW Gateway compiled the numbers and should be made aware.
          Simple adding “towns and townships” to the municipalities number would cause problems elsewhere. Illinois has townships that certainly aren’t akin to municipalities.

          • Jason Fossella

            You need a political scientist with an expertise in local government, because every state does this differently and you have to be careful about drawing equivalencies.

            Greater Boston is waaaaay more divided than St. Louis. It doesn’t have the same dysfunction because the state encourages cooperation with sticks and carrots. That actually may be a better way for Missouri to go, rather than merging into a mega government that no one wants.

          • rgbose

            The irony!

            E. Terrence Jones, Ph.D.

            Internship Coordinator and Professor Emeritus

            Ph.D., Georgetown University

            He is the author of three books (The Metropolitan Chase: Politics and Policies in Urban America, Fragmented by Design: Why St. Louis Has So Many Governments and Conducting Political Research) as well as dozens of scholarly articles, book chapters, and technical reports. He been a consultant to more than seventy governmental and non-profit organizations and has held office in many professional and community organizations. His current research focuses on metropolitan governance, urban public policy, state government, and public opinion.

            James Brasfield, Professor of Management at the George Herbert Walker School of Business and Technology at Webster University, has been on the Webster faculty since 1976. He chaired the Department of Management for nineteen years. Jim has a Doctorate in Political Science from Case Western Reserve University and a Master of Arts in Political Science from St. Louis University.

          • Jason Fossella

            they should know better. pretty clear they did it on purpose, and their report should go straight in the garbage. very poor form.

          • Amy

            Agreed Jason. If County had stepped forward decades ago to offer advice/assistance to North County when they saw Jobs leaving the areas, St Louis would not be in the shape its in today. Decades of only thinking about their unincorporated areas is part of the problem as those of us in the munis pay County Taxes as well and expect them to lead but not only if they takeover our revenue in the county region. True leadership in the county would have never let such devastation happen in one sector of its reign. And they need to find a way to listen to their constituents right now those in charge make their decisions and citizen outrage be darned

  • Nat76

    There are too many confounding factors that are excluded: quality of services, whether (or not) they are addressing state/local/fed funding mix, demographic adjustments that reflect types of services (age being a big one with schools), cost differences (some of which are wage driven, some of which are producer/material driven).

    Another big one: spatial orientation of poverty between/among munis. Illustrative example: #1 large muni with poor and wealthy areas->wealthy subsidize the poor and spend at higher levels to maintain baseline uniform standards within the muni. #2 two munis (one rich, one poor). Rich muni doesn’t subsidize the poor in the other muni, so spending is lower to maintain the standard in scenario 1 above. Meanwhile the poor muni spends less due to lack of funds and it can’t even meet the standard in scenario 1. Aggregate spending is less in example two, but it is strictly the result of fiscal imbalances that result in lower service standards for poor munis.

  • Jakeb

    Thanks for taking the time for a thoughtful analysis, Richard. The lack of intellectual rigor in the Jones and Brasfield analysis is really disappointing. Controlling for cost of living seems pretty basic.

  • WikiWild

    “The Strategic Assessment of the St. Louis Region” – the only strategy from this camp is to muddy the waters as the support for city/county unification increases. The holes in this “study” are flagrant. UMSL shouldn’t put their name on this.

    • rgbose

      To be clear The Strategic Assessment of the St. Louis Region comes from East-West Gateway. More Municipalties= Less Municipal $pending? is the document produced by Jones and Brasfield.

      Agreed on the point about UMSL’s name being on it. I wonder how much of this is peer reviewed. I guess that only happens if something is submitted to a scholarly journal.

      • WikiWild

        Thanks for pointing that out! I got them mixed up.

  • joe

    itsnt the cost of living very high in san fran??? and the cost of live low in stl, so did these cost factor into this???

  • Eddie in NorCal

    It’s an interesting set of data. I don’t think the study authors made a convincing case that more municipalities per metro area = higher per capita spending. The numbers are all over the graph. Even your adjusted (for cost of living) data is inconclusive, as the R-squared values of ,20-to-.30 suggest that the number off municipalities explains less than 13% of the standard deviation in per capita spending. Other elements are in play here, possibly including population density, political affiliation, and tax structures (earnings tax vs. property taxes vs. sales taxes).

    You’re certainly correct in one respect, that St. Louis’ fragmented municipalities are somewhat unique.