There are decent reasons to consider consolidation of cities and towns in Rhode Island. We can talk about better delivery of services, cost-savings, greater efficiency, the whole lot. But when the idea for cities and towns to be reduced gets trotted out, sometimes supporters are reduced to the pathetic whine of “39 cities and towns is too many in Rhode Island!”
Simply put, this is a stupid reason. The number of cities and towns in Rhode Island is irrelevant to the conversation around regionalization. Whether we had 5 cities or 100, it wouldn’t matter too much to our well-being as a state. I think the reason this line of argument carries weight is a problem of insularity. For instance, here’s a list of counties in the country with more self-governing municipalities than Rhode Island but a population either roughly equal or less.
- Franklin County, Ohio: 42 cities, villages and townships
- Denton County, Texas: 44 cities and towns
- Hennepin County, Minnesota: 45 cities
- Erie County, New York: 46 cities, towns and villages
- Westchester County, New York: 47 cities, towns and villages
- DuPage County, Illinois: 47 cities, villages and townships
- Hamilton County, Ohio: 50 cities, villages and townships
- Monmouth County, New Jersey: 53 cities, townships and boroughs
- Bucks County, Pennsylvania: 54 boroughs and townships
- Worcester County, Massachusetts: 60 cities and towns
- Will County, Illinois: 61 cities, villages and townships
- Montgomery County, Pennsylvania: 66 cities, boroughs and townships
- Bergen County, New Jersey: 70 cities, boroughs and townships
- Lake County, Illinois: 71 cities, villages and townships
- St. Louis County, Missouri: 91 municipalities
Each of these counties have more layers of government than Rhode Island does, especially because they have a layer of county government between the municipality and the state governments. Rhode Island might be considered to be a consolidated county-state, especially as the counties do still maintain their judicial function. But the primary point shouldn’t be lost: the number of municipalities is neither a barrier nor a path to success. That list includes struggling counties and some of the richest places in America.
So while debates around the formation of “Westconnaug” or a Greater Providence are definitely worth having, merely stacking the number of Rhode Island’s municipalities up isn’t a productive way of doing it. When we talk about regionalization or consolidation of municipalities, we need to have a clearer reason than that it’s tough to navigate the demands of both the state and the 39 municipalities. Thousands of businesses have to navigate a much greater number of governments in this country.
Of course, having more layers of government could be a feature, not a bug. We may not be talking about additional communication problems but instead a hybrid regionalization that allows for local control of a small number of issues and shared costs structures and administration where there are savings and quality benefits. In New York, in particular, many of the roles played by cities and towns in RI are virtually unheard of. They don’t operate separate pension funds, only larger structures (towns that incorporate cities, hamlets, and villages, for example) bond for road work. Towns have zoning authority, but do not typically have any role in taxation. Even school districts are entirely independent from the municipal side and have their own taxing authority.
Having many towns and cities but a functioning county level of government is very much a path forward for regionalization.
Not to mention that any benefits of regionalization are not contingent upon whether they may or may not exist for other regions in the country. Most folks looking at regionalization questions are talking about the relative advantage of Southern and Western states that govern at larger country levels relative to the Northeast which has broadly held on to older boundaries.