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UniGov At 50 Years

Below is the Nowak Metro Finance Lab Newsletter shared biweekly by Bruce Katz.

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May 16, 2019

In 1969, the Indiana state legislature consolidated the city and county governments of Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County. In one act, “Unigov” increased Indianapolis’ population by about 250,000 and its land area by about 275 square miles, establishing it as one of the top U.S. cities (its population of 863,000 in 2017 made it the 16th most populous city in the United States).

Yesterday, I participated in a forum held by the University of Indianapolis to assess the implications of this major governmental restructuring and the business that is still unfinished. The forum was held on the same day as funeral of former Senator Richard Lugar. Before serving in the U.S. Senate, Lugar had been the highly effective mayor of Indianapolis from 1968 until 1976 and was the leading advocate of city and county consolidation. (I dealt often with Senator Lugar and his staff when I worked for Senator Alan Cranston from 1987-1993; Lugar was the personification of bipartisan comity and sanity).

Participants in yesterday’s forum concurred that the impact of Unigov on Indianapolis’ economic fortunes and fiscal capacity cannot be denied. As an Abell Foundation report concluded ten years (on Unigov’s 40th anniversary),

While Unigov impacted communities in Indianapolis differently, because of consolidation the city is in a better position going forward – the economy is stronger, the tax base is broader, and the city’s reputation is stronger.”

Jeremy Nowak and I fully agreed with this assessment when we wrote The New Localismand showcased Indianapolis’ Central Indiana Corporate Partnership, a networked leadership group which has raised hundreds of millions of private and civic resources for investment in companies and research institutes in the life sciences field, a competitive advantage of the metropolis and region. As Jeremy and I concluded, “[Unigov] gave private and civic leaders the space to grow an advanced economy rather than fixing fragmented government, a topic that has consumed private and civic leaders in other metropolitan areas.”

Unigov had other salutary benefits. It expanded the power of the mayor, and attracted strong candidates from both political parties. Some of Indiana’s (and the nation’s) best political talent, including Bill Hudnut, Steven Goldsmith and Bart Peterson, have sought and served in this office.

Unigov also expanded the mental map of the city held by leaders and residents alike, enabling connections to be drawn between the core and the periphery of the city (and every place in between) and ambitions to be set at the large scale. This contrasts sharply with the parochialism of small, fragmented jurisdictions, what David Rusk indelibly called “little boxes with limited horizons.”

Finally, the bold move of consolidation convinced other players, including the Lilly Endowment, to invest at scale in the new city, particularly around the regeneration of the core downtown and the CICP led sector strategies described above.

Yesterday’s conversation, however, described in frank but civil terms where Unigov fell short. Governmental consolidation did not include elementary and secondary schools, which resulted in the city school system remaining highly segregated, fiscally challenged and over-burdened. The African-American community also saw their voting power diluted and resources dispersed. As one panelist summarized yesterday, “[Consolidation was often seen] as the city expanding outward to incorporate the periphery. What it really did was allow outlying areas to grab a hold of Indianapolis.” As Unigov continues to evolve, more emphasis needs to be provided to regenerate neighborhoods in the urban core and build wealth among existing residents. A focused strategy around Opportunity Zones would be a good start.

The Indianapolis discussion was notable for its civility, honesty and pragmatic focus. In many respects, Unigov has given a major American city the platform to prosper in inclusive ways at a time when the federal government is mired in partisanship and state governments are often overtly hostile and constraining.

To put Unigov in a larger context, Ted Frantz, the main organizer of the forum, invited Dave Leipholtz from the Better Together organization in Saint Louis. Saint Louis, in many respects, is the polar opposite of Indianapolis. Saint Louis County is saddled with 88 municipalities, 81 municipal courts, 55 police districts, 43 fire districts, 24 school districts… and 571 alderman! As Dave observed, “Saint Louis has fragmentation within fragmentation!” And this has real human consequences. The fifth anniversary of Ferguson reminds us what happens when local policing becomes a system for municipal revenue-raising rather than fair law enforcement.

As many of you know, Better Together had proposed a sensible consolidation plan, which it was hoping to bring before Missouri voters. That referendum was pulled due to fallout from the recent resignation of the County Executive. (You can Read Alan Greenblatt’s excellent synopsis of the turn of events here)

Yesterday was a reminder of many things, including the basic fact that the way we structure our city, county and suburban governments – general purpose and special purpose entities alike – matters. For all its flaws, Unigov put Indianapolis on a path towards innovative growth, which now, 50 years later, can be fully harnessed for inclusive purposes.