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Originally published Tuesday, August 17, 2010 at 3:07 PM

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Guest columnist

Don't waste a good crisis for considering consolidation of municipal services

Dire economic circumstances have caused many organizations to rejigger their operations. Port of Seattle Commissioner John Creighton makes the case that local governments, including cities, school boards, fire districts and ports, should consider searching for ways to save taxpayers money and operate more effectively. Among the possibilities is consolidation or inter-municipal agreements.

Special to The Times

WITH large budget gaps haunting local municipalities for the foreseeable future, there has been a lot of talk about the need to not waste a good crisis.

Many have advocated for wholesale rethinking of local government, looking at how we can deliver critical public services in much more cost-effective and financially sustainable ways. Yet while there has been much lip service given the topic, actual proposals have so far been rather meager — usually consisting of a recommendation to abolish a board here or a commission there. While such changes may make sense, they have little impact on the overall budget of a locality.

Getting past the broad, sweeping political statements, what would actual government reform look like?

One area to consider is local government consolidation. Within King County there are 146 separate governments, including cities, towns, school, library and park districts, fire, utility and hospital districts, and port authorities. Do we need so many different and varied local governments or are there areas where we can cooperate or even consolidate in order to better and more cheaply deliver services to county residents?

Those generally in favor of municipal consolidation point to the potential for increased efficiency and effectiveness in governance and the bottom-line cost savings. Those opposed argue it would more likely result in tax dollars feeding larger bureaucracies than in any significant cost savings. The truth is that some types of local governments may be more suited for consolidation than others.

Moreover, even where there are efficiencies in consolidating, the local control of some government services may be a higher priority to citizens than cost savings (more true of services such as schools and less true of services such as sewer and water). Still, it is a public dialogue worth having, and between the two positions of consolidation or continued Balkanization of local governments is a wide array of other options, ranging from inter-municipal agreements to the regional provision of selected services.

Let's start with a world I have been involved in since being elected to the Seattle Port Commission in 2005: public ports in Puget Sound. Having separate ports in the same body of water may have made sense 100 years ago. In today's world of complex, interconnected economies, having localized ports using public tax dollars to undercut one another benefits no one.

Further, the lack of coordinated port operations impedes regional planning of critical freight infrastructure necessary to keep our local economy competitive. In 2008, three ports to the north of us in British Columbia combined to form Port Metro Vancouver. One of their main rationales was to wield greater market power to better compete with other West Coast ports.

Last year, the Port of Seattle was able to win back the business of a major shipping line from the Port of Tacoma. It is an open secret that the Port of Tacoma is now actively wooing one of the Port of Seattle's largest terminal operators, whose lease will be up in 2013.

Competition among local public ports costs taxpayers money — it forces ports to undercut one another and makes ports susceptible to pressure from shipping lines to use public funds to subsidize terminal lease rates in order to win jobs for our respective communities.

Puget Sound public ports have been cooperating more and more over the past several years on issues varying from environmental stewardship to port security. We should be looking at two additional areas of cooperation: infrastructure development and commercial planning and marketing.

There are infrastructure needs that local public ports have in common — such as off-dock intermodal rail-yard capacity — that we should be developing jointly instead of duplicating efforts. Greater commercial cooperation among local ports would give us increased market power and a better ability to resist the "race to the bottom" in which ports undercut each other with public dollars.

Greater commercial cooperation would not require actual port consolidation: Public ports have an exemption from federal antitrust laws that would allow us to cooperate on pricing and other commercial terms.

Local government reform through consolidation or inter-municipal agreements providing for the joint provision of services may or may not make sense depending on the unique situation of the municipality or service in question. Still, many of the same questions I've raised can and should be asked about other local governments.

Local elected leaders should not be wasting a good crisis — we need to take the opportunity to ask ourselves hard questions and think through new paradigms.

John Creighton has served on the Seattle Port Commission since 2005.

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