ATLANTA -- Early this year, Clarke County and Athens, Ga., merged in the first -- and thus far the only -- consolidation of a city and county government to occur in the 1990s.

The consolidation was the result of more than two decades of effort and required four referendums before being approved by voters last August, outside this university however, outside this university community of 85,000 people 70 miles northeast of Atlanta.

That is too bad, says Parris Glendening, chief county executive of Prince Georges County in Maryland, because other local governments could learn a great deal from it. To Mr. Glendening, also a professor of government at the University of Maryland, the most interesting aspect of the merger is the challenge its poses to the conventional wisdom about consolidations.

The conventional wisdom holds that mergers are brought about by crisis. Because of the attention given to the merger between Nashville and Davidson County in Tennessee in 1962, and Jacksonville and Duvall County in Florida in 1967, he said, it is usually assumed consolidations are most often approved by voters fed up with the leadership of financially distressed big cities.

Many people, he added, also assume consolidations can only occur if voters are convinced a large financial gain will result.

No Crisis Here

With Athens and Clarke County, he points out, there was no overwhelming fiscal or political crisis to bring the two governments together, as had been the case in Nashville and Jacksonville. Plus, officials did not place heavy emphasis on the monetary savings unification might provide.

"The prevailing thinking holds that there has to be impending doom and the promise of big savings before a merger will be approved -- but instances like Athens and Clarke County proves that patience also matters," said Mr. Glendening, noting that this year's successful referendum followed failures in 1969, 1972, and 1982. "A deteriorating financial condition may be one motivating factor, but I think voters are getting to the point where they recognize when a political structure must be streamlined, even if that streamlining doesn't lead to obvious and immediate windfall."

According to Bill Foster, public affairs director of the Government of Athens and Clarke County, as the new municipality is called, the consolidation became effective Jan. 14, after being approved last August in a 59.2% to 40.8% vote. The new form of government, he said, is a 10-member metropolitan commission in place of the former 10-member city council and the five-member county board of commissioners.

Mr. Foster said county residents will benefit from improved services, particularly water and sewer service.

The city, which he said has not kept pace with the growth of the county, benefits because consolidation broadens its tax base.

"Nobody expects immediate savings, but we anticipate efficiencies that will be very clear in several years," he said.

For Mr. Glendening, the success of the Athens-Clarke County merger reinforces his view that the dynamics of consolidation have changed over the past several decades -- and now favor a very different type of city-county combination for success in the 1990s. In particular, he said, larger cities will find it more difficult to consolidate with their surrounding counties.

The resistance will come partly because counties have become more politically formidable and will not now simply bend to the will of cities. But perhaps most important, Mr. Glendening said, simply the size of big cities is a disadvantage because they contain more people that can block a consolidation through legal action.

"The biggest difference between the 1960s and the 1970s is the complicating factor of legal review, particularly the given the tools now available to challenge consolidations on racial grounds," he said. "This can have a chilling effect, both preemptively and after the fact."

In particular, Mr. Glendening said, the Voting Rights Act of 1989 poses a tough hurdle from groups that want to challenge a consolidation on the grounds it dilutes voter strength.

Mergers are most likely to work out, he said, for counties and a single medium-sized city with between 100,000 and 500,000 people. That would make them large enough to benefit from streamlining the government, but small enough, not to include a critical mass of people who might feel threatened by consolidation.

Medium-sized communities are also more likely to have a single group of civic leaders which, he said, can be crucial in gaining public support for consolidation.

Such criteria, Mr. Glendening said, tend to describe the Southeast, the Southwest, and parts of the Far West.

Paul Hahn, deputy director of an unsuccessful consolidation commission in Sacramento, Calif. -- where voters in November 1991 rejected a merger between that city and Sacramento County -- also feels medium-sized communities are the wave of the future for consolidation.

"A court battle didn't do in our consolidation, but the political climate just wasn't favorable to approval of the big changes that would have been involved," Mr. Hahn said. "As in other big cities, voters are fed up with contention and complicated proposals, and are saying no to everything. Changes are easier to explain in smaller communities."

Warren J. Wicker, a professor of government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and assistant director of the university's Institute of Government, foresees a wave of consolidations throughout the South.

He says at least four cities and their surrounding counties in North Carolina -- Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, Wilmington and New Hanover County, Durham and Durham County, and Asheville and Buncome County -- stand a good change of eventually consolidating.

Even for medium-sized communities, warn Mr. Glendening and Mr. Wicker, ultimate approval of a consolidation is threatened by court challenges.

"Almost all the successful votes will automatically be subject to extensive legal review -- so from now there will likely be a subsequent stage," Mr. Glendening said.

So far the most conspicuous victim of a court challenge has been a medium-sized city in Georgia -- Augusta.

Legal Pitfalls

In 1988, after three defeats, Augusta and Richmond County approved a consolidation plan that abolished the city council and county's board of commissioners, replacing it with a 12-member unified board. However, after being challenged by a black church group on the grounds that it violated the voting rights act, the U.S. Justice Department withheld approval of the vote.

Charles DeVaney, Augusta's mayor, said he is so frustrated by the turn of events that he is ready to abandon the referendum if a solution is not found by late summer. "The Justice Department won't even tell us what it wants," he said. "The feeling right now is to give the process about two months and then try something else."

Justice Department officials have declined to comment on the proceedings.

For Mr. Glendening, careful planning can, to some extent, address the problem of legal challenges based on the prospect of vote dilution. He advocated governments working with black citizens groups to allay concerns brought about by merger proceedings and suggested that municipalities apply to the Justice Department for prior approval. Whatever steps are taken, however, cannot guarantee there will not be a legal challenge, he said.

Faced with the political and judicial difficulties of consolidation, many public officials are opting for less sweeping solutions to the overlap and fragmentation caused by separate county and city governments.

One of the most popular solutions is a functional consolidation, where city and county governments find ways to combine services while maintaining their separate identities.

"The obvious advantage to this approach is that you do not usually need voter approval," says Fred Zeldow, senior research associate at the National Association of Counties. "Functional consolidation can slo help pave the way for eventual overall consolidation," he added.

One example of this approach is Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, N.C., Mr. Zeldow said. A promising momentum that had been building toward a merger bogged down in February 1991. After the consolidation commission was disbanded in March, city and county officials in May approved combining the police departments under the city's authority and the parks and cultural affairs under the county's.

According to William Guerrant, Charlotte's director of public service and information, staffers for the city are now working out the details of this functional consolidation to allow the plan to become effective by July 1, 1992.

"The thinking is that these two areas [police and parks] were the most serious obstacles to consolidation, so if they are combined, maybe resistance to it would break down."

Although no study exists of overall success ratios of consolidations, Mr. Glendening estimates that, overall, less than 20% of the mergers put before voters are successful. He bases this figure on a study of attempts between 1970 and 1976, the heyday of the consolidation movement, in which only seven of 38 referendums were approved.

"The problem with consolidation votes is that it is a vote on all details of a new charter -- so if somebody doesn't like one of those details, the charter is doomed," he said.

"On the other hand," Mr. Glendening concluded, "although I don't believe the ratio of successful votes on consolidation is likely to rise much, we are likely to get a lot more attempts in the 1990s because the leadership of local governments will feel it is the right thing to do to help out highly-stressed central cities. And with more attempts, you will also get more overall successes."

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