The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What happens when a metropolitan area has way too many governments

Image of the St. Louis skyline courtesy of Flickr user <a href="">Dave Herholz</a> under a Creative Commons license.

Since last summer, the St. Louis area has been a national poster child for the problem of fragmented government. In the 1870s, the city of St. Louis broke off from the surrounding county with the same name, in what's widely recognized now as an ill-fated decision. In the years since then, little municipalities within the county proliferated, too, with increasingly tiny communities trying to carve out control — or, rather, avoid sharing it — over their services, taxes, schools and housing.

By last summer, St. Louis County — an area not much larger than Nashville — contained 91 separate municipalities, most with their own police departments to fund and their own little elected governments that struggled to reflect rapid demographic change. Strapped for cash, many of these places resorted to the now-infamous tactic of relying on speed traps, traffic tickets and petty fines to fill city coffers.

This seemingly obscure history of municipal boundary-drawing led directly to the tension that exists today in places like Ferguson, where local residents feel antagonized by their officials and law enforcement, and where neighboring communities have tried to wall themselves off from shouldering regional problems.

The case of St. Louis quickly comes to mind as a good illustration of the phenomenon, examined in a big new report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, of what happens when otherwise intertwined metropolitan areas slice themselves up into tiny pieces. Fragmented government, in short, makes entire metros horribly inefficient. It hamstrings their ability to solve collective challenges. And it costs them economically, too.

When we compare the growth, productivity and even social mobility of different U.S. metros, this is one of the factors that separates thriving regions from stumbling ones: the fragmentation of government.

The OECD, in a report on the "Metropolitan Century" we've just entered, found across all of its member countries that when you double the number of municipalities per 100,000 residents within a single metropolitan area, regional labor productivity falls by 5 to 6 percent. In short: the more little governments you have, the less productive the entire local economy is.

How, exactly, does this play out? For one thing, it's not particularly efficient to deploy your police force to collect traffic tickets to fund a police force that collects traffic tickets, nor is it efficient for poor residents to spend what income they have on municipal fines rather than groceries or home improvements. It's not efficient for neighboring municipalities to each buy their own fire trucks when they might share one instead. It's definitely not efficient to devote civic attention to managing unrest rather than investing in schools or economic development.

The larger problem is that local economies — and, relatedly, commuting patterns — don't stop at municipal borders. And when we carve up services and public resources that way, we effectively undermine those economies.

"This is not just a theoretical possibility," the OECD writes, "there are numerous cities where certain transport modes — for no apparent economic reason — end at administrative borders."

The result, for example, when Atlanta's mass transit system doesn't extend far enough into the suburbs where workers live, is that those workers now waste a lot of time commuting instead of working.

This isn't an argument for cities to annex everything in arm's reach. It's an argument for regional cooperation — and that's a lot easier to get when you're not asking for agreement from 91 parties. The OECD also found that regions that have coordinating bodies, like metropolitan planning organizations, or the regional council of governments around D.C., seem to be doing better at some of the things we'd expect cooperating governments to achieve. Metropolitan areas with these governing bodies, the OECD found, have less sprawl and greater population growth. Metro areas without them, meanwhile, have on average higher levels of pollution.