The Wilkinsburgs of America ought to be valued for their distinctive identities, but meeting their daunting fiscal challenges necessitate major structural changes.
Consolidation of city and county governments has long been in vogue with good-government advocates. In Allegheny County, powerful civic leaders also have for decades urged mergers among the county’s 130 local governments. But while the cost/benefit of many “big box” city-county mergers is questionable, smaller-scale jurisdictional unions make a lot of sense for struggling inner-ring suburbs and their adjacent central cities.
The problems facing inner-ring suburbs, which contain as much as 20 percent of the American population, have been getting increasing attention. While many of these communities are doing well or even thriving, others have encountered serious challenges with population loss, declining household incomes, increasing poverty, retail vacancies and dead shopping malls. As their tax bases shrink, these communities can run into serious financial problems, leaving them struggling to provide basic services to their residents.
Troubles in an inner-ring suburb can be more difficult, in a sense, than in a bigger city.
Troubles in an inner-ring suburb can be more difficult, in a sense, than in a bigger city. These smaller communities are often off the public’s radar, so problems there seldom get media or state-level political attention until some crisis occurs, as with the turmoil following a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., or the pay scandal in Bell, Calif.
Inner-ring suburbs were often developed during a narrow window of time, and thus have a limited range of housing and retail building types. Some of these types, such as small ranch homes or simple strip malls, are now out of favor in the market. Central cities have a diversity of neighborhood ages and building types. If a more monolithic suburb has buildings for which there’s no market, attracting residents and businesses can be challenging.
Many suburbs were built as bedroom communities as well. They lack the regional assets of big cities, such as powerful office-based central business districts, seats of government, cultural institutions, universities or hospitals. They have fewer assets to redevelop around.
These governance challenges often overlap with racial ones. In many regions, black city residents, along with members of other minority or ethnic groups, have been moving to the suburbs in search of the American Dream of home ownership.
While this often goes well, some inner-ring suburbs have come to face the same types of problems that afflict the troubled city neighborhoods that people have fled, and have gone into decline. When public pension, bond debt and other bills from the past come due, suburban residents are unable to draw on the tax base of a larger, asset-rich central city.
Merger is not a panacea. No one should expect a merger to magically address poverty or segregation, for example. But when fiscal conditions make it impossible to fund basic public services, merging with an economically stronger municipality can help address that problem.
The other options for struggling municipalities all come with their own sets of downsides. A financial control board or even a bankruptcy can potentially address debt or pension problems, but they won’t help with a declining tax base that can’t fund basic services. Neglect or simply providing life support through subsidies might be viable politically in the short term—until a crisis strikes. Underlying problems continue to fester. And a state takeover comes with its own risks. Just ask Flint, Mich.
When fiscal conditions make it impossible to fund basic public services, merging with an economically stronger municipality can help address that problem.
I examined suburbs contiguous to several Midwestern and Northeastern post-industrial cities for my recent Manhattan Institute study, “Mergers May Rescue Declining Suburbs.” A large number of these suburbs are reflected in negative indicators, such as falling populations and rising poverty. Many are potential candidates for merger, and I highlight 10 of them as examples.
One was Wilkinsburg, next to Pittsburgh. In a very white region, this town is two-thirds black, with high poverty and fiscal distress. It is unable to tap into the tech and medical boom happening next door to help finance public services.
Wilkinsburg also illustrates the trade offs involved when considering a merger. There is legitimate value in its identity as a separate town and as a predominantly black one. This would be lost with a merger. But without merging with Pittsburgh, can it financially survive? There’s no easy answer.
Let’s not kid ourselves: Mergers are extremely challenging politically. East Cleveland provides an example. After starting to explore a merger, the mayor and city council president were recalled in a special election in December, albeit by tiny vote margins. The merger proposal is going nowhere at present.
Nevertheless, local and state leaders should keep mergers in mind and consider them when need and political reality align. Officials also can draw lessons from city battles to annex neighboring municipalities.
Annexations typically require cities to offer a carrot of some sort, such as investments in infrastructure. For more mergers to happen, states likely must step up to fund transition costs, potentially absorb excessive suburban fiscal liabilities and put a capital improvement plan on the table as a sweetener. Ohio’s state auditor had suggested a $10 million state infrastructure investment in East Cleveland contingent on a merger.
The challenges of helping economically declining and fiscally struggling inner-ring suburbs will not be easy ones to solve. There are no magic fixes, and the answers will vary by community. But merging with adjacent central cities is an option that needs to be on the table.
This piece originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette