July 31, 2020

Economic development has been the most likely issue to generate support for local government consolidation in Indiana, according to a new report from Ball State University.

Indiana’s Government Modernization Act & Local Government Consolidation Experiences: Process and Politics,” is a joint project by Ball State’s Center for Business and Economic Research (CBER) and the Bowen Center for Public Affairs.

While consolidation advocates often promote local government mergers as a means to efficiency and cost savings, that message doesn’t necessarily resonate with voters, according to this new research.

“We find that the consolidation process can derive from consensus with two governments exploring ways to solve common problems,” said Charles Taylor, managing director of the Bowen Center and a political science professor. “We also find that economic development concerns are more likely to motivate voters to support consolidation than promises of greater efficiency.”

Over the past decade, Indiana has provided a fertile environment for studying local government consolidation. The Government Modernization Act (GMA), enacted by the Indiana General Assembly in 2006, gave local government units, including counties, cities, towns, and townships, broad authority to consolidate by referendum.

Prior to enactment of the GMA, local government consolidation was not codified, and it took a special act of the legislature for local government consolidation to occur. Indianapolis and Marion County were consolidated in 1970 through a 1969 Act of the General Assembly.

From 2008 to 2012, Indiana experienced seven local government consolidation attempts: two city-county, one city-township, and four town-township. The two city-county consolidation efforts were soundly rejected by voters (Muncie and Delaware County; Evansville and Vanderburgh County). Two of the town-township consolidation efforts were successful, with large majorities approving these referendums (Yorktown and Mount Pleasant Township; Zionsville, Eagle and Union Townships). The other town-township and city-township consolidation efforts were terminated before reaching a referendum (Avon and Washington Township; Brownsburg, Brown and Lincoln Townships; Greenwood and White River Township).

In the cases of the two successful consolidation referendums, local officials presented consolidation as the solution to development problems (specifically, annexation issues). The threat of annexation by a less desirable local government unit influenced successful town-township consolidations.

The two unsuccessful referendums promoted consolidation as a means to efficiency and cost savings, said Taylor, who noted that consolidation proponents had difficulty selling the efficiency argument.

The researchers also corroborated that taxation and public safety services are major issues in consolidation politics, regardless of the level of government. In the three consolidation efforts that were contentious in the charter development and/or referendum phases, the potential for shifting burdens among taxpayers was a primary point of controversy.

“The cases examined here highlight the role of consensus and conflict in consolidation outcomes, where consensual processes are more likely to lead to consolidation or halt before referendum if a solution advantageous to both parties can be developed,” said Dagney Faulk, CBER research director. “Consolidation may or may not be the appropriate solution to problems facing local governments within a county or region, but discussion and exploration of cooperative efforts among nearby local governments may lead to productive solutions.”

Local government in Indiana consists of counties, municipalities (cities and towns), townships, school districts, and special districts. The number of school districts have dwindled in Indiana over the last few decades while county, municipal, and township have remained stable.