Thursday, October 27, 2005

Why Care About Fragmentation?

Why Care About Fragmentation?

Over the past three days, I've discussed the relative level of local government fragmentation in the Metro East, St. Louis County, and St. Charles County.

I deliberately skipped over the City of St. Louis, partly because it is actually a simpler case - in some ways.

Most taxation bodies service the entire city, with the notable exception of the special business districts.

The St. Louis Public Library is an independent taxing district, yes, but it serves the entire city. Ditto for St. Louis Public Schools, the MR/DD Office, and the Mental Health Board. So, they don't really represent fragmentation, per se - just layering of special purpose government atop general purpose government.

The other special districts that service the city represent attempts at regional solutions - i.e., MSD, Bi-State, the Community College, Great Rivers Greenway, RAC, CVC, and the Zoo-Museum District.

However, even though all city residents pay their taxes at City Hall, they don't all have the same political allegiances nor identities, to be sure. With 28 wards and 79 neighborhoods, there is most definitely fragmentation in the urban core - it's just not as well-defined as in the 'burbs.

One of the many challenges in the city is that ward boundaries usually don't match up neatly with neighborhood boundaries. For example, Benton Park West is sliced up between three different wards. Ward 9 takes in basically the northern half, and some southern parts. Ward 20 takes in the remaining southern-central section; and Ward 15 has a little corner near Gravois and Cherokee.

So - back to my question - why should I care? Well, fragmentation of local government means many things.

1) Power is diffused rather than concentrated. This has pros and cons.
2) There are more points for the average citizen to access the government, so it could in theory be more responsive to the people.
3) Fixed overhead costs like payroll and office space are probably higher, which results in a larger tax burden for the average taxpayer (resident or business).
4) Service delivery is very, very inconsistent from one jurisdiction to the next. This is true even within the City of St. Louis - and indeed, even within any given neighborhood of the city.

A great example of this is leaf pickup.

In the City of St. Louis, leaf pickup is conducted in selected neighborhoods, and on selected blocks in other neighborhoods. Often, these are rather upscale areas.

For example, in the Shaw neighborhood, leaf pickup is conducted only on Flora Place - not on any of the other streets. In Tower Grove South, leaf pickup is conducted only on Utah Place. Arguably, this is because these streets have a lot of large trees - but so do surrounding blocks.

Ultimately, fragmentation is all about power and control. Whether the issue is zoning, eminent domain, or basic service delivery, when services are fragmented, it is complicated to do anything. What's interesting for me is the degree to which fragmentation may be a 'natural' phenomenon, versus something imposed by those with very specific vested interests at stake.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It could be worse. Multiple neighborhoods actually have three wards within their boundaries. But small (area not pop) Tower Grove East is actually in FOUR wards: 6, 8, 9 and 15.

It's really no surprise that neighborhoods where alderman actually live are generally not split by more than two wards or are even largely within one ward. Afterall, a handful of aldermen did push and the full board approve the redistricting plan.