Jurisdictional Overload

The Minneapolis-St. Paul region has many, many municipalities. Though I hear at international conferences that we have metropolitan government here, that seems a Viking marketing myth (much like the naming of Greenland).

In fact, depending on how you count, the region has 189 Minor Civil Divisions (MCD).


Each is a local unit of government, which may have police, fire, roads, schools, parks, libraries, and many other public services (the scope of services varies, and some jurisdictions share services, and school districts have other boundaries).

Is this too many or too few? In Maryland there are 23 counties (including Baltimore City), and very few incorporated cities. For most people, the county is the smallest unit of government. Thus there is one less layer of government, and the counties achieve economies of scale.

On the other hand, the Tiebout Hypothesis (wikipedia) says:

“[M]unicipalities within a region [offer] varying baskets of goods (government services) at a variety of prices (tax rates). Given that individuals have differing personal valuations on these services and varying ability to pay the attendant taxes, individuals will move from one local community to another until they find the one which maximizes their personal utility. The model states that through the choice process of individuals, jurisdictions and residents will determine an equilibrium provision of local public goods in accord with the tastes of residents, thereby sorting the population into optimum communities. The model has the benefit of solving two major problems with government provision of public goods: preference revelation and preference aggregation.”

Thus we can dial-up the mix of public services and taxes we want by “voting with our feet”.

I am mixed about this. While I am skeptical there are a lot of economies of scale to be had at larger units of government (and there are many diseconomies of scale to be had as well), there are some. But it doesn’t make sense to me that we need 3 layers of government in the roads operations business (state, county, and city), and a fourth (metropolitan) in the roads planning business, when many places get by with 2. We seem to get a lot of buck-passing, and remote governance. Now this isn’t inherently a flaw with minor civil divisions. It is an argument that either cities give up their roads to the county, or the county turns back its roads to the local jurisdictions within.

The difficulty with this is, as many Streets.MN readers know, that e.g. the Hennepin County public works agency is not very innovative or progressive, and tends to resist things like bike lanes and roundabouts, which the city sometimes supports. So why are there Hennepin County roads in Minneapolis, surely the City can manage things adequately? The evidence for this is that most counties are smaller (in population and tax base) than the City of Minneapolis. To do this the City would need to be given the funds the County would have spent in the City anyway. This comes back to highway finance formulas at the State level, and allocation of country property tax revenue. We should of course have a higher state gas tax to replace the local property tax for local roads. But even without that, allocation of funds is a political problem, not a law of nature, and can be overcome if people can agree we are over-governed.

Minneapolis is one thing, what about a smaller municipality, like Richfield, or Lauderdale? If an MCD is too small to manage its roads, it can join with neighbors, just as municipalities often join for libraries or schools, or police. Or there can be some cities which manage all their roads, and others which let the county manage all their roads.

10 thoughts on “Jurisdictional Overload

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Regarding county roads — I think there is still value in county-managed roads even in a municipality large enough to manage them themselves. Minneapolis actually does do a lot — they manage signage and signals, and participate actively in design decisions.

    The main difference is that the county road system needs to be designed to manage traffic on a more county scale, which is particularly valuable in the land of 10,000 municipalities. An example that comes is a City-led project on Portland Ave, where bike lanes were extended to 60th Street, and then just end. Since Minneapolis’s southern border is at Crosstown Hwy and it has an east-west route on 60th, that’s a logical terminus. For county and inter-municipal transportation purposes, it’s quite worthless. This happens to be a county road, but this was a city-led project — and I think if they had full management of county roadways, we’d see a lot more decisions like that.

  2. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    The Tiebout Hypothesis is completely invalid in our metro (and probably many others) since most of the costs of transportation are hidden. Your own work shows that you can get roughly from anywhere to anywhere in the metro in a similar amount of time. This is a mostly unwritten decision we’ve made about how transportation resources will be provisioned, and the costs are definitely not paid on a per-mile, per infrastructure, or per-minute-of-congestion-caused basis (see: drive-till-you-qualify). Often “economies of scale” at the county or state level end up being ways of provisioning services this way without explicitly saying so. Until that issue is addressed (and similar hidden cost issues) we can’t really have a good discussion about what types of consolidation or de-consolidation might be appropriate. Other points are valid, Centerville probably doesn’t need to exist.

  3. Alex

    Ha! I bet there’s a huge chunk of people in the Twin Cities who don’t even know what municipality they live in, let alone how to compare services, taxes, etc with other municipalities. We are far from Tiebout’s “complete information” on which (according to wikipedia) his theory relied.

    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Perhaps. However, 2 years ago we made a decision to move, with lack of safe pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure in our current city a very key reason for doing so. We purchased a house in a city with much better existing infrastructure and, as important, good plans and understanding for future infrastructure improvements. I know of others who have done this as well.

        1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

          No. Certainly not typical. 🙂 HOWEVER, … I do think most people pay a fair bit of attention to the neighborhood around any houses they’re considering and many, if not most, give points for quieter streets that are more walkable and bikeable and I think this will become even more important to people’s buying decisions in the future. We’re already seeing a bit of a trend towards valuing the ability to walk to local amenities instead of driving and I think this will increase.

  4. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

    Well to defend Tiebout somewhat … the accessibility is mostly irrelevant to his argument (people vote with their feet for a bundle of taxes and services, not just for a bundle of travel times and square footage) (also though accessibility is pretty good by car everywhere in the region, it is still better in the center than the edges, and hence there are higher rents).

    Clearly the central cities (Minneapolis, St. Paul) do have higher taxes and services than the edges, and get the concentration of people who prefer that (look at voting breakdown).

    While I agree information is far from complete, and people are merely “boundedly rational” at best, I think it is a reasonable argument that it has some affect on locational decisions.

    On to Sean’s point, if the southern neighbor (I guess Richfield in your example) wants bike lanes that connect with Minneapolis, they should stripe them. If they don’t, they don’t. We had roads connecting between states well before the Federal government intervened, and roads connecting between towns before the County intervened. Jurisdictions can negotiate with their peers without bucking up the decision to the higher level. As noted, this happens in lots of places.

  5. Froggie

    You can have an overabundence in the other direction, where the state has arguably too much say in it. I’ve seen this in Virginia, where, except for two counties and the independent cities, all public roads belong to the state. And the state’s interests don’t always line up with local interests, especially when it comes to multi-modal infrastructure.

  6. Morgan

    If St. Louis Park was in the CIty of Minneapolis a deal could be reached for SWLRT. One municipalities would broaden the set of issues under consideration and open up more room for vote trading in the municipal legislature. Instead, we are at an adversarial impasse.

  7. Steve Lawton

    Ah, the engineers. They’re so cute! They assume transaction costs to be zero, they approximate previous investments to be zero value, and give no weight to any of the governing conditions that cause people to make choices about where to live and work. Tax burden and infrastructure quality factors are way, way down the list in most everyone’s evaluation criteria.

    Also, there is absolutely no optimization method that determines the number and type of governance, financing and regulatory agencies. It’s all a product of history and seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time.

    In California, there are 11,000 units of government. Americans say they hate government… and then they make more of it!

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