1 December 2002
The urge to merge, with a splurge
Louisville, Kentucky presently ranks sixty-sixth among the nation's cities. About five weeks from now, it will be sixteenth.
What's the deal? In a word: consolidation. In 2000, voters in Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County passed a measure which would merge the functions of city and county. On the fifth of January, the merger goes into effect.
This isn't the first time a city and a county have merged in the US; it isn't even the first time it's happened in Kentucky. (Lexington and Fayette County tied the knot back in the Seventies.) But it's an uncommon event, and in fact the Louisville/Jefferson merger had been proposed, and voted down, three times before.
The merger won't be as painful as it looks. Louisville and Jefferson County have shared some services schools, transit, purchasing for years. On the other hand, there are some divisive issues lurking. For one, the new Greater Louisville will have a population of just under 700,000, and with the inclusion of previously-unincorporated suburbs, that population will be distinctly whiter, which means there will likely be complaints that African-Americans are being disenfranchised, or at least having their political power diminished. And there are fears in the dozens of smaller municipalities in Jefferson County that the merger will eventually lead to their disappearance.
And what's the point of all this, anyway? It's the same old Louisville, isn't it? Well, yes and no. For most people in the combined city/county, life will likely go on much as it has. But there's a sensation that the newly-expanded Louisville will be able to "play in the big leagues", to come up for consideration when national businesses look to expand. The examples of Jacksonville, Florida and Indianapolis, fairly sleepy medium-sized metropolises before consolidation and now bustling big cities, indicate that there may be something to it after all. And it occurs to me that the city that might most benefit from it St. Louis, Missouri is probably the least likely to get it, since it's wholly separate from St. Louis County, and there is no indication that either city or county is even contemplating such a notion, or would want to.
I am reasonably certain that this sort of thing would never work in Oklahoma City (population 510,000). For one thing, the city already covers over 600 square miles; almost all the developed land (and most of the undeveloped land) in Oklahoma County has already been annexed, either by Oklahoma City or by another municipality. To further complicate matters, Oklahoma City extends into two other counties, Canadian and Cleveland, neither of which is likely to be receptive to any such ideas.