Local Governments in the United States

From an article in Stateline:

There are 89,476 local governments in the United States. They include counties, cities, villages, towns and townships, as well as special districts that handle utilities, fire, police and library services.

The authors of this article look at the number of local governments in each state relative to its population, finding that the average for the United States is 3,451 people per unit of local government. North Dakota (249), South Dakota (411), and Nebraska (687) were on low end of the spectrum whereas Hawaii (71,595), Maryland (22,553) and Virginia (15,658) where on the high end.

Illinois, in particular, finds itself in an interesting situation in this data. Although the state has only 1,835 people per unit of local government, its total number of local governments (6,944) is far greater than any other state. To put this into perspective, Pennsylvania (4,871) and Texas (4,835) rank second and third, respectively, for states with the highest number of local governments.

So what explains the proliferation of local governments in Illinois? One likely cause is a debt loophole in the state’s constitution. Specifically, the 1870 Illinois Constitution limited the amount of debt that a unit of local government could issue but allowed localities a dodge: the special district. In other words, each unit of local government was allowed to get around its legal debt limit via the creation of a special district. Since that time, the state has created 3,249 special districts. This phenomenon of special district creation as tool for expanded fiscal reach is investigated by Bennett and DiLorenzo in their book, Underground Government.

Does Illinois’s situation suggest the need for consolidation? If so, what is the optimal number of governments for a state to have and how is this determined? It’s not necessarily obvious at first glance: what are these governments, how did they arise, what do they do, and how do they finance their operations?

The concept of consolidating governments to increase efficiency has been the root of much debate in public policy. However, as Ostrom, Tiebout, and Warren argue,

It would be a mistake to conclude that public organizations are of an inappropriate size until the informal mechanisms, which might permit larger or smaller political communities, are investigated.

Thus, when debating over whether or not consolidation will increase efficiency, it’s necessary to understand the institutional environment in which the units of local government were created as well as the underlying informal mechanisms connecting them.

One thought on “Local Governments in the United States

  1. Stevesottl

    It makes one wonder how much could be saved through elimination of redundancy, scale purchasing and the like. We have this problem in NJ also.

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