Recently, the Olympian Editorial Board raised the idea of consolidating the cities of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater. The board concludes that consolidating the three cities would achieve “an economy of scale” that would lead to some perceived cost savings. The board implores us to “choose efficiency, simplicity and rationality over plainly outdated and dysfunctional divisions.”
If economy of scale were the logical choice to those ends, we should consolidate all 19,500 municipalities in the United States under one “efficient, simple and rational” government. In my lifetime, I have rarely seen “bigger” equate to “efficient, simple and rational.”
The Editorial Board claims that public funds could be saved by consolidating the departments of the three cities. History does not support that conclusion. The first cost that is always underestimated is the actual cost of consolidation. According to Justin Marlowe, Endowed Professor of Public Finance and Civic Engagement at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Washington, this is not the case. Based on Census Bureau data of the 20 city consolidations in the last 30 years, he writes, “In fact, for the majority of citizens directly affected in these cases, consolidation has meant higher taxes and spending.”
The board envisions a “bigger Home Fund” and “expanding parks, trails and other amenities,” all to be paid for by that elusive “economy of scale.” When those economies don’t pan out, the result is either greater taxes and spending or less effective programs.
Marlowe also identifies other consolidation costs including layoffs and the “legacy costs” of pension and health care costs related to those layoffs.
The board identified the unique differences in each of our cities. These differences play out in the respective city workforces as well. Employees, generally, take pride in the direction of a department or unit when they can influence that direction. A larger entity will not be as receptive to ideas emanating from the “boots on the ground,” leading to lower morale and commitment of the employees.
The board’s vision also fails to consider numerous other losses, not the least of which would be accountability of our elected officials. As a government grows and moves farther away from the people, accountability is always lost. Many years ago, this community came together in creating the LOTT system to manage our regional sewage waste problems. It was a messy and difficult merger, but it has left the people of each of the cities with no accountability at the polls.
A larger government is less nimble and would lead to lost opportunities, particularly in economic development. Currently, the cities can decide the manner in which they grow and seek the economic development that fits. Can you imagine significant economic opportunities being lost as the many factions of the “Grand Council” argue over the location, incentives, development fees and regulations of economic growth?
Our county enjoys a good reputation for winning state and federal grants. All our cities are good at this. The cities are successful at different grants because of the differences in the three cities. That advantage would be lost by a consolidation.
The Editorial Board concludes that “the name of the city is the least important question.” Each city would have a claim to the name. Olympia would argue the name must be Olympia because it is the capital of the state. Lacey would argue that, as the largest city of the three (as of the next census) the name should certainly be Lacey. Tumwater, as the first of the cities, has the historical claim to the name. But, if in fact, a name is the least important question, I believe The Olympian could show the way forward and rename the publication “The LOTT Tribune.” After all, “a rose is a rose is a rose” – and it smells the same.