What do organizations do when they face declining revenues and duplication in their operations?
Government answer: Raise taxes!
Private sector answer: Merge or consolidate!
As tax revenues continue to decline and funding sources shrink, state and local governments continue searching for cost saving solutions. In Texas, cities and counties are mired with costly bureaucracy and multiple layers of administrative duplication, with taxpayers footing the bill for unnecessary government expenses. Locally, the City of San Antonio is facing a budget shortfall of $41 to $68 million and Bexar County's projected shortfall could be upwards of $10 million. The best way to reduce costs, streamline operations and provide for more efficient delivery of services is to consolidate our city and county governments.
Though city-county consolidation has been discussed in Texas for decades, now is the perfect time to revisit the concept as we continue to face tough economic times. Having served in local government for 16 years, first as a San Antonio City Councilman and as a Bexar County Commissioner, my unique perspective and firsthand knowledge of the inner workings of both entities has shaped my belief that consolidation would be a change for the better. If elected, I will pursue legislation that will allow Texas voters to choose whether to give cities and counties the ability to merge. I will ask Senator Jeff Wentworth to carry companion legislation in the Senate, as he has during several previous legislative sessions. San Antonio-Bexar County could serve as a model for smaller, more efficient metropolitan government for the three other major metropolitan areas in Texas -- Houston, Dallas and Austin -- and for other counties and cities nationwide.
Throughout the last few decades, several major cities and counties have consolidated, including Nashville and Davidson County, Indianapolis and Marion County, Jacksonville and Duval County and Louisville and Jefferson County. All have realized significant savings, greater efficiency, and increased responsiveness to their constituents. For example, after consolidating in 2003, Louisville and Jefferson County, Kentucky were able to increase the effectiveness of economic development efforts, increase the number of law enforcement officers and achieve a better line of communication between the government and its constituents. Additionally, as a result of consolidation, Louisville-Jefferson County has saved millions by reducing expenditures on personnel and leases.
Layers of Duplication
Locally, residents of the City of San Antonio constitute more than 80% of Bexar County's population. Both entities have departments that provide the following services: law enforcement, fire, public works, planning/development services, budget/resource management, economic development, information technology, human resources, community initiatives, health and human services, purchasing and intergovernmental relations. If you live within the city limits, your taxes currently fund two departments for each of these functions. Additionally, municipal, county and justice of the peace courts, city and county clerks, city and county auditors each have the same function.
A Vision for San Antonio-Bexar County
Should voters chose consolidation, a new charter would subsequently be created and adopted, which would delineate the makeup of the council, sizes of the districts, etc. The charter committee will determine the governance structure, however, I envision San Antonio-Bexar County as a single entity with jurisdiction across the entire county. The council would consist of 15 members, 10 from single member districts, 4 at large and 1 mayor. Currently, county commissioners earn $103,674, while the county judge earns $121,318 annually. I propose instead that each council member receive $24,000 per year of service, while the mayor receives $36,000. This would achieve of $164,014 in savings annually. Each of the 23 suburban cities within Bexar County could choose to opt in, or remain independent jurisdictions. Each of the departments named above would be merged, saving taxpayers millions each year while increasing efficiency.
Seventeen years ago, when then Mayor Nelson Wolff and Bexar County Judge Cyndi Taylor Krier began the process to consolidate San Antonio and Bexar County, several issues arose that ultimately ended the effort. City-County Government Committee Chair Bill Sinkin indicated in 1999, "The counties that have done this in other states are saying, "We're saving money. We're getting better economic activity. We're never going back.'" While this may be true and we may see widespread support for consolidation today, three impediments must be addressed. These include debt restructuring, union contract reconciliation and the political will of state and local elected officials. Each of these can be overcome, however, for the benefit of taxpayers. To echo Senator Jeff Wentworth, we should let the voters decide.
It's time to consolidate our governments for efficiency, to shed layers of administrative duplication and to provide seamless accountability to constituents.