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Consolidation was a boon for Jacksonville

May 12, 2003|by BOB MAGINNIS

The first time anyone raised the issue of consolidating the Hagerstown and Washington County governments was April 16, 1969, when the Hagerstown Area Chamber of Commerce celebrated its 50th anniversary.

More than 400 attended the chamber's annual meeting, in part because the speaker was Maryland's new governor, Marvin Mandel. The Sultan String Quartet provided the dinner music, but the night's most thought-provoking presentation came from John R. Hershey Jr., the chamber's president.

Inspired by the October 1968 merger of Jacksonville, Fla., and surrounding Duval County, Hershey proposed doing away with separate city and county governments and creating a new, more efficient governmental body.

"Everybody I talked to seemed to like it, but it didn't go anywhere because nobody wanted to lose their job," Hershey said.

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Hershey's plan proposed a 10-member county council, elected from districts based on population, with an executive acting as a check on the legislative body. All existing jobs would have been protected and the entire plan would have been put to referendum.

"I thought it would be more efficient and more economical, and you wouldn't have factions battling each other all the time," Hershey said.

How did Jacksonville accomplish its merger with Duval County? Not easily, according to Jim Rinaman, the city's former general counsel who's now an attorney in private practice.

Rinaman said efficiency was the original spur for the effort, since neither the city or the county had anything like home rule. In every session of the state legislature, Rinaman said, several hundred local bills would be filed to tweak this or that law.

The legislature provided the enabling law for a merger in the 1930s, but Rinaman said elected officials managed to defeat it.

"Hell hath no fury like a public official whose job is about to be abolished," Rinaman said.

Then in the 1960s, the consolidation effort got a boost from an unlikely source - elected officials themselves, many of whom were not only inept managers, but corrupt as well, according to Rinaman.

How bad was it? In a review of the merger done in the fall 2000 issue of State and Government Review, author Bert Swanson quotes a Cornell University study:

"Newcomers to (Jacksonville) were appalled by the lack of planning, low levels of public services, and the pretense, deceit and concealment of political leaders."

Swanson's article also notes that at the same time, local media ownership changed, bringing a new focus on "exposing waste, fraud and abuse."

State and local grand juries were impaneled, and many officials were indicted, Rinaman said. At the same time, he said, the Southern Council of Colleges and Schools pulled the accreditation of many local schools. The time was ripe for reform, he said.

Elected officials still resisted, offering hundreds of local bills to impede the effort. But in the end, 65 percent of the voters approved it.

According to Jacksonville officials, it's now northeast Florida's largest municipality, with 758 square miles and a population of 730,000 and a per capita income of $28,456.

A 25th anniversary piece on the consolidation effort in the Florida Times-Union had this to say about consolidation's effect on economic development:

"Major corporations looking for relocation sites liked the idea of dealing with a single government. The end result was 85,000 new jobs created by some 160 companies who came here and the expansion of may existing businesses."

The article added that more than $2 billion in new construction had taken place since 1968.

Rinaman is an unabashed booster of the idea of consolidation and has traveled all over the country talking to groups that want to do it. But he does not pretend it was easy.

The consolidation study was done by a 50-member committee with no elected officials on board. Working out things like each area's bonded debt required the consolidated city to set up service areas until those bonds could be paid off, he said.

And as a compromise, a number of previously existing offices, like sheriff and the clerk of courts, were retained.

The payoff has been greater flexibility to plan and attract new industry, while holding taxes down at the same time.

Of all major municipalities in the U.S., Rinaman said that only Houston and Oklahoma City have lower taxes, "and that's because they have oil wells on the grounds of their capital buildings."

Asked what advice he would give a smaller area looking at consolidation, Rinaman said that it should actually be easier in an area with 100,000 to 200,000 people.

"You need the chamber and some elected officials behind it. And whatever is done should be done for the benefit of the community, not for preserving some official's job."

"At your level, I would look at some consolidation of functions," Rinaman said, adding that an 11-member council and a county executive/mayor would probably suffice for Washington County.

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