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Consolidation - an idea whose time has come?

Original post made by peter carpenter, Atherton: Lindenwood, on Nov 7, 2010

There have been a number of Town Forum Threads on consolidation. Is now the time to act before our local agencies face bankruptcy? Should we be wise and courageous and proactive or should we simply wait until things actually fall apart?

here are the recent threads:

Web Link

Web Link

Here is a provocative OpEd from the SF Chronicle:


Service sharing essential in era of deep deficits

Paul Saffo

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Small-town living has long been part of the American dream, but amid California's fiscal crisis, it is becoming a nightmare. Cities like Vallejo have declared bankruptcy as municipal deficits deepen. Others, like Maywood in Southern California, have fired their city employees and outsourced everything from police and fire protection to pothole filling.

Cities all over the state are contemplating similar measures, but the Bay Area is particularly at risk of further municipal bankruptcies. Quite simply, the Bay Area has too many cities, and if serious steps aren't taken to consider all options - from sharing services, to merging municipalities and even disincorporation - the list of bankruptcies is certain to grow.

The nine counties of the Bay Area are home to 6.9 million residents, living in 101 cities. By contrast, Los Angeles County has nearly 10 million residents living in 88 cities, while Orange County's 34 cities represent 3 million residents. Over a third of Bay Area cities have populations of less than 20,000 residents, and nearly a quarter are smaller than 10,000 citizens. Among these are more than a few micro-cities like Belvedere, with just over 2,000 residents, and tiny Colma, whose population of just over 1,000 citizens is outnumbered 10-to-1 by a silent majority interred in the town's cemeteries.

Too many cities means wasteful duplication of services. Many Bay Area cities already share or outsource fire protection and are moving to share other services such as police and maintenance, but this still leaves plenty of pointless duplication. A hundred and one cities inevitably means too many mayors, city councils, city managers, administrators, town halls, maintenance yards and all the other costly trappings that make a city a city.

Too many cities also translate into more than just waste. City revenues are for the most part spent within city limits, and thus a proliferation of small cities translates into greater regional inequities when it comes to funding for schools and other services.

The result is an uneven landscape of municipal haves and have-nots, of well-off cities like Palo Alto and Menlo Park abutting a struggling East Palo Alto. Altruistic generosity is out of the question, but increased intercity service sharing could create a win-win situation where all cities involved realize cost savings and enhanced citizen benefits.

The current financial crisis thus has a silver lining: It is an opportunity to craft solutions that benefit the Bay Area as a whole.

The inefficiencies bedeviling Bay Area cities have been present for decades but ignored while cities were flush with revenue. Faced with historic budget deficits, our cities can't simply cost-cut their way out of this mess. We need new, creative solutions that rethink what a city is and how it serves its residents.

Boundary drops and shared services are a start. Fire services across the Bay Area have supported the idea of consolidation for years, but we need to think bigger. The Los Angeles County Fire Department serves 4 million residents in 58 cities and unincorporated areas. Why doesn't each of our Bay Area counties have a single fire department, or better, why isn't there a single Bay Area-wide fire department? The savings realized from consolidation could be spent on shared resources unaffordable to individual departments. For example, Los Angeles County Fire operates a fleet of nine life-and-property-saving multipurpose helicopters; the Bay Area has none. Such a fleet would be a godsend during fire season and when the Big One hits.

But fire is just a start. San Carlos is disbanding its police department and will rely instead on the San Mateo County sheriff's office for law enforcement. San Mateo is the second-smallest county in California; does each of its 20 HO-scale cities really need a police force?

If cities can share cops and firefighters, then surely they can also share just about any service a city provides. Our counties all have fine infrastructures, from road maintenance to legal services. If done with vision, outsourcing services to the county level can deliver real benefits at lower cost across the entire spectrum of governmental functions.

Municipal-service sharing is not just inevitable; it is also the path to a larger and equally inevitable result. One way or another, the Bay Area has fewer cities in its future. Gus Morrison, the former mayor of Fremont, is promoting the idea of merging Fremont, Newark and Union City in Alameda County to share services and costs. Half Moon Bay is already considering the once-unthinkable option of disincorporation, but our cities also need to begin serious consideration of merging with their neighbors. On the Peninsula, for example, Portola Valley should merge with Woodside, Hillsborough should join forces with Burlingame, and San Carlos really wants to be part of Belmont.

The obstacles to such unions seem insurmountable, but service sharing paves the way to this end by creating the habit of cooperation. As cities share more and more, they will rapidly reach a point where merger seems inevitable and obvious in its benefits. Eventually many of our cities will merge, and the toughest issue they will face in doing so will be one of merely trying to agree on what to call their newly conjoined municipality.
City mergers: Mixing it up

Bay Area cities that could merge - and what they could become:


Population: 206,241

Area: 92 square miles

Union City

Population: 67,207

Area: 19.3 square miles


Population: 42,215

Area: 14 square miles

-- Frewark City

Population: 315,663

Area: 125.3 square miles


Population: 8,666

Area: 13.2 square miles


Population: 2,125

Area: 2.4 square miles

-- Tiburdere

Population: 10,791

Area: 15.6 square miles

San Carlos

Population: 27,718

Area: 5.92 square miles


Population: 24,984

Area: 4.5 square miles

-- BelCarlos

Population: 52,702

Area: 10.42 square miles

Paul Saffo is managing director of foresight at Discern, an institutional investment research firm based in San Francisco. To comment, go to

Comments (7)

Like this comment
Posted by Michael G. Stogner
a resident of another community
on Nov 7, 2010 at 3:25 pm

I agree 100% It is Time for Consolidation before being forced.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 7, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Some more related threads:

Web Link

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 8, 2010 at 2:37 pm

On another thread this very pertinent comment was posted:
Posted by WhoRUpeople, a resident of another community, 31 minutes ago

Peter, with due respect and acknowledgment of your service in PA and the fire district, I have to ask you a question before we start a dialog regarding the merits/barriers to any consolidation initiatives between PA and MP. What do you see are the incentives for Palo Alto (not Menlo Park) to consolidate services with either Menlo Park or Menlo Park Fire? I fully realize that often consolidation of services between cities/agencies bring financial incentives, but I'm thinking also about quality of services. Menlo Park Fire has an excellent reputation, but so does PA Fire. I don't know whether PA's HR department is good or bad, but from what I've heard/read, I would guess they have to be better than Menlo Park's HR. Where do you see the quid pro quo lying? As the old song went, it takes two to tango.

My response - Both MPFPD and PA have excellent fire departments but bewteen them they have two chiefs, two deputies, many battalion chiefs and numerous other overhead positions - in a merged department half of these would go away. The two departments have a very long common border which leads to suboptimal station location and staffing on the two sides of that border. For example PA's SLAC station is much better positioned to serve Sand Hill Road than is MPFPD's Station 4 on the Alameda. For the sam amount of total expenditure all of the covered citizens could get much better coverage or they could get the same coverage as they currently have for significantly less money.

In my corporate and government experience things like finance and HR are fungible and a good finance office or HR office could serve both communities with fewer people that the combined current staffs and, I suspect, do a better job given the economies of scale.

Like this comment
Posted by R.Gordon
a resident of another community
on Nov 8, 2010 at 7:00 pm

R.Gordon is a registered user.

Eventually, it took someone with Peter's years of service to realize that the entire Bay Area is actually hanging by a thread.
Rich people will not enjoy seeing poverty around them..or crime, or released criminals from jails we can no longer afford.
It is time to think more like Bill and Melinda and I hate saying this, but I knew from running casual discussions in Sacramento and San Francisco, with the likes of Newsom, and especially our governor, that it was just too plain to see what Peter is describing.
It is a new world for Americans and especially those of us who deem any kind of superiority. Education and Humanity are also involved; or are actually the motivating factors all have chosen to ignore.

Like this comment
Posted by James
a resident of Menlo Park: Menlo Oaks
on Nov 8, 2010 at 11:04 pm

It's time that government look for more efficient ways to operate and save taxpayer dollars. We should look at many more options than fire services; how about law enforcement and schools to name a couple. Do you realize that there are at least 25 public school districts in San Mateo Co. each with its own superintendent? And how many police chiefs are there?

With these municipalities looking at tightening their budgets and services, why aren't leaders willing to consider consolidation instead of raising taxes?

Like this comment
Posted by WhoRUpeople
a resident of another community
on Nov 9, 2010 at 9:18 am

James, "...why aren't leaders willing to consider consolidation instead of raising taxes".
I am a big supporter of consolidating services. The hard part isn't doing analysis that would show that savings are possible without sacrificing services. The hard part is getting people to be willing to share control. It is true that if two police departments merged, you would only need one chief. It is true that if two cities or school districts merged their entire administrative function, you would only need one superintendent/manager. Etc, etc. etc. However, how do you get the people in those positions motivated to do anything other than look for barriers when their livelyhood is directly affected? The same thing holds true at the political level. City/County councils/boards won't readily embrace such initiatives; unless or until, of course, the wolf is at the door. Multiply all the perocial issues existing between two cities like Menlo Park and Palo Alto, by the fact that each are in different counties, and the barriers become even more exacerbated.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 9, 2010 at 1:32 pm

WhoRUpeople states:"However, how do you get the people in those positions motivated to do anything other than look for barriers when their livelyhood is directly affected? The same thing holds true at the political level. City/County councils/boards won't readily embrace such initiatives; unless or until, of course, the wolf is at the door."

Guess what folks, the wolf is inside the house but the residents hear no wolf, see no wolf, speak no wolf.

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