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Thread: Local Government Consolidation

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Plus Whose Yur Planner's avatar
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    Local Government Consolidation

    The Push to Consolidate
    posted by Zach Patton

    "Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate." If there was one overarching theme of the first day of Governing's Outlook on the States and Localities conference (being held this week here in Washington, D.C.), it was the idea that cities and counties must work together if they're going to survive the current economic downturn. Everyone who spoke agreed on one thing: The key to reducing costs is consolidation.

    "Perhaps now more than ever, cities and counties have got to get together," said Memphis mayor A C Wharton, Jr. "There's really no room for division between our cities and our counties, given what we're up against. We need to pursue with as much vigor as we can the functional consolidation of services."

    But don't expect any full-out city-county mergers coming anytime soon (although that is something Wharton is pursuing for Memphis and Shelby County). Rather, look for more and more cooperation between cities and counties in information technology and procurement, as well as in providing services such as health care, education and public safety. "I think it's highly unlikely there will be more consolidations" of governments into a metropolitan city-county unit, said Don Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities. "People identify with the city where they live, and that's not going to change."

    Of course, what's driving this push for shared services is the current economic recession. And if anyone at the Governing conference has been hoping for good news on that front, they must have been roundly disappointed. The economy as a whole may have flattened out and may even be starting to recover, but for cities and counties, the worst is still to come. "It's fairly bleak," said Chris Hoene, research director for the National League of Cities. "We're really right now just heading into the eye of the storm."

    Because city and county revenues lag the general economy by 18 months to two years, the revenue stream for governments is only going to get worse. "Over the next two to two-and-a-half years, we're going to see a significant decline in property tax revenues for cities ans counties," Hoene said.

    To put this in context, Hoene pointed out that the recession in the early 1990s hit its low-point in 1991. Local government revenues, however, didn't bottom out until 1993. That's why, according to Hoene, cities are looking at a $50 billion - $85 billion budget gap for 2010-2012.

    As cities and counties struggle with epic deficits like that, the functional consolidation of services is increasingly going to become a necessity.


    So what says the throbbing brain. Since most of us work in local government, is this a good idea or bad?
    When did I go from Luke Skywalker to Obi-Wan Kenobi?

  2. #2
    Cyburbian MacheteJames's avatar
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    It's discussed around here all the time but never seems to go anywhere. There are numerous up-front costs associated with consolidation that make it a lot less attractive when you run the numbers. Like recodification, for example, or various obligations that must be met for the unions (i.e. if X number of DPW workers now have to work Y additional hours to meet the needs of the new, larger municipality, you now have to shell out the additional overtime and possible double overtime to cover their hours).

    There's also the snob factor, which is perhaps the biggest barrier of all. I think it would take extensive layoffs of police and fire personnel before the residents would be feeling enough pain to allow that particular barrier to be surmounted.

    What you will probably see more of in the mean time are additional inter-municipal agreements and such in order to utilize economies of scale as much as possible.

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    Super Moderator kjel's avatar
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    If ever there were a poster child for consolidation it would be New Jersey:

    21 Counties
    566 Municipalities
    605 School Districts-591 operate schools, 14 do not operate schools
    "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" Jeremiah 22:16

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    Cyburbian dandy_warhol's avatar
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    The Town Next Door recently voted down consolidation - by 1 vote.

    The sad part was a lot of the commentary by voters the night of the election involved statements such as, "I voted against consolidation. Anyone know what would happen to schools if this passed?" Uhhhh, how about researching the issues PRIOR to voting?
    In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. -Martin Luther King Jr.

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    Cyburbian The One's avatar
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    Politics

    Consolidation would create a political problem, not to mention all the mixing of various city/county state laws. There could be some savings in technical areas of government, not directly driven by specific state laws....like parks, engineering services, public works (funding issues with federal $ though). Annexation issues in areas with fierce competition for the all important sales tax would kill this idea, unless there was some kind of cost sharing involved.
    Skilled Adoxographer

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    Cyburbian Emeritus Chet's avatar
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    A few years ago I project managed a city-town consolidation study. I was hired by the CITY to do it, so the TOWN was naturally skeptical. The fiscal analysis showed little impact / slight savings to CITY residents, but an average $200 annual cost to TOWN residents. We *independently* recommended against further action unless the TOWN was compelled to proceed. Raised alot of eyebrows from people at the CITY with an agenda.

  7. #7
    Super Moderator kjel's avatar
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    NJ is interesting in that there are no unincorporated areas. Yes you read that correctly-there are none. What happens often is that there is a "borough" and a "township" of the same name-case in point Princeton. The "borough" is generally completely surrounded by the township and the borough is the denser, more commercial area and the township can be and often is lower density and rural in nature. Because they are two distinct government entities they each have their own governing council, mayor, and municipal services such as police, fire, sanitation and the like. Princeton for example follows this model and the offices of each are located 1.2 miles apart from one another.

    Example of Mercer County, NJ Doughnut Hole Towns
    "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" Jeremiah 22:16

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    If ever there were a poster child for consolidation it would be New Jersey
    Pennsylvania fits that bill as well. 2,567 municipalities in the 67 counties, no unincorporated land. In Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh, we have 130 municipalities in a county of 1.2 million, some of which are less than 0.2 square miles in size. 130, most of which have their own police, VFD, public works depts, etc.

    The planning department I used to work in (county in NW PA) tried to push for a consolidation of 5 municipalities into 1 while I was there. It got voted down in 3 of the 5 municipalities. Up-front costs of consolidation without any commitment from state/federal sources is a big hurdle. So is territorialism - nobody wants to lose their identity or their school district (the 5 municipalities in this case belonged to 4 different school districts).

    Pittsburgh & Allegheny County have talked about City/County consolidation, but no one wants to touch Pittsburgh's pension debt, and understandably so. Some push may be to consolidate to mirror school district boundaries, as the school district tax is the largest of the property taxes here, and all munis have the same interests there. Of course, for the central cities like Pittsburgh, it doesn't help, as they'd only get Mt. Oliver borough (whose kids go to City schools), a muni arguably in similar or worse shape than Pittsburgh, and it would solidify that the surrounding areas would never merge / consolidate with Pittsburgh.

    I agree that it's too much of a hot issue for munis to push on their own. The officials and paid staff are supposed to push for something that will possibly cause them to lose their positions? Not going to happen, even if it is best. I see inter-municipal agreements consolidating services being the more likely outcome.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    The State of Wisconsin leads the USA in the ratio of number of units of local government with taxing authority to population - a PRIME place to do some ratrionalizing - and the Appleton area is the state's 'poster child' for the need for such rationalization. In the urbanized Appleton/Fox Cities area are four incorporated cities (Appleton, Kaukauna, Menasha and Neenah), four or five incorporated villages (Combined Locks, Kimberly, Little Chute, Sherwood and some might include Hortonville) and several major unincorporated townships (Buchanon Twp, Clayton Twp, Grand Chute Twp - the most populous township in the state, Greenville Twp, Harrison Twp, Menasha Twp, Neenah Twp, Van den Broek Twp plus a few others that some may or may not include.

    There are also separate School Districts (Appleton, Hortonville, Kaukauna, Little Chute, Menasha, Neenah) and township sanitary districts (numerous).

    ALL of these governments have governing bodies, either elected or appointed, they all have governing bureaucracies and ALL of those people MUST be PAID - and this all covers an area with fewer total people than live inside of the present corporate limits of two of the state's existing cities (Madison and Milwaukee).

    There is similar balkanization in most of the state's other metros, too.

    It is highly inefficient, makes for real hard feelings in many parts of the area, creates senseless development rivalries and so forth. It even makes it hard to find many addresses due to the very small areas covered by many of those munis and their disparate 'grids' and the difficulty of being able to tell when one passes from one muni to another. There are at least ten different address numbering grids in the Fox Cities metro area with MANY duplicating street names and even some completely duplicating addresses.

    It's a total mess.



    Mike

  10. #10
    Contrary to the image most people hold of our state, Indiana is a place where the taxpayers support lots and lots of governments. We maintain literally thousands of local governments, and we pay for more than 10,000 officeholders.
    How bad is it?

    There are 92 counties; 1,008 townships; 117 cities; 451 towns; 293 school corporations; 239 libraries; 886 special purpose districts (flood control and so forth); for a grand total of 3,086 local governments in Indiana!

    Of course, these governments have their supporters in Indianapolis, so we Hoosiers hold little hope for reform. The state did allow those cities with township assessors to conduct local referenda on switching the duties to the county assessor, but I have little hope for any more opportunities to streamline this horse-and-buggy form of government.

    Access the .pdf report: Kernan-Shepard Report

  11. #11
    Cyburbian WSU MUP Student's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by kjelsadek View post
    NJ is interesting in that there are no unincorporated areas. Yes you read that correctly-there are none. What happens often is that there is a "borough" and a "township" of the same name-case in point Princeton. The "borough" is generally completely surrounded by the township and the borough is the denser, more commercial area and the township can be and often is lower density and rural in nature.
    It's the same way here in Michigan. If you don't live in a city, you live in a township. And villages exist concurrently within the township that they are located. So the village of Beverly Hills is made up of a chunk of Southfield Township and both the township and the village have the ability to impose taxes (not to mention the school districts and the county).

    The most extreme example of too many government entities in one small region that I can think of would be the 36 square miles that make up the original boundaries of Southfield Township. Within that relatively small area, there are the cities of Southfield and Lathrup Village (it's a city but with "Village" in the name), three villages: Beverly Hills, Bingham Farms, Franklin, and Southfield Twp which has taxing authority over the three previously mentioned villages AND has two separate non-contiguous pieces of land probably totaling no more than two square miles (one of the pieces of land is entirely a cemetery and the other piece is made up of about 5 or 6 very large, old farm houses). Somehow, these two pieces of land never got absorbed into the City of Southfield or the Villages of Beverly Hills or Franlin (the two villages they border). Those 36 square miles are also served and taxed by three public school districts, the county, and the road commission (and possibly the water resource commission, but I'm not sure if they have any taxing authority but I believe the head of the WRC is elected as well).

    I've seen various lists and Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Wisconsin are always at the tops of the lists for the total number of units of government. I always thought there had to be some major overkill going on. I know now communities have at least begun to band together when they do purchasing of everything from staples and printer paper to computers to official vehicles in order to achieve some savings by purchasing in greater quantities from the suppliers. It's a start. Some of the townships, especially in the rural areas, have so few employees and offer so few specialized services, that I often wonder why nobody has pushed forward any legislation to dissolve the townships and just have the county take over.

    The city I live in funded a study a couple of years ago regarding consolidating services with a neighboring city and the surrounding township and they have already started moving forward with implementing it - I think by the end of this year or next, police, fire, and ambulance services will be combined. I don't think there are any plans to move beyond that for the time being. My particular hometown is holding things up a bit because we have about 7 different residential waste haulers serving our 1.5 square mile and many of the residents refused to consider going to one waste hauler community-wide instead of allowing us to pick who we want to come to our house and on what day... yes, each homeowner has the choice to pick whoever he wants to pick up his trash so on my street there could be seven houses each having their trash picked up on a different day by a different company. What a waste!





    As a resident, I can see there is terrible overlap/duplication of services and some awful economic inefficiencies at work here and would love to see the county or the state step in. But, as a county employee, I sort of like it how it is now... Nobody ever complains to the county - they complain to their city/township or the state. We are like the forgotten level of local government. And I know if the county's were ever to take over the townships, our workload and responsibilities would increase, we would have more pesky residents coming to us, and no extra pay to show for it.
    "Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost." - 1980 Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    This former Michigander would heartily recommend getting rid of townships....or getting rid of cities. Someone just make a choice. What a total mess there...particularly with land use planning and municipal tax base. Woah.

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned the amalgamation of municipalities in Ontario that happened in the 1990's. This was HUGE!! And could only happen in a place like Canada.....the U.S. government system would never put in place something so progressive. They basically redrew the municipal boundaries into regions and suddenly small little towns were put out of the business of providing municipal services. It's worked very well and reduced administrative costs....plus, you can then PLAN at a regional level, which makes a lot of sense.

    Here's a map of Ontario's new municipal boundaries: http://www.mah.gov.on.ca/AssetFactory.aspx?did=6577

  13. #13
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by southsideamy View post
    This former Michigander would heartily recommend getting rid of townships....or getting rid of cities. Someone just make a choice. What a total mess there...particularly with land use planning and municipal tax base. Woah.

    I'm surprised no one has mentioned the amalgamation of municipalities in Ontario that happened in the 1990's. This was HUGE!! And could only happen in a place like Canada.....the U.S. government system would never put in place something so progressive. They basically redrew the municipal boundaries into regions and suddenly small little towns were put out of the business of providing municipal services. It's worked very well and reduced administrative costs....plus, you can then PLAN at a regional level, which makes a lot of sense.

    Here's a map of Ontario's new municipal boundaries: http://www.mah.gov.on.ca/AssetFactory.aspx?did=6577
    Also in Quebec.

    ENVYENVYENVYENVYENVY

    Anyways, I like that one amalgamation bill from 1999 - the 'Fewer Municipal Politicians Act'.



    Mike

  14. #14
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by southsideamy View post
    I'm surprised no one has mentioned the amalgamation of municipalities in Ontario that happened in the 1990's. This was HUGE!! And could only happen in a place like Canada.....the U.S. government system would never put in place something so progressive. They basically redrew the municipal boundaries into regions and suddenly small little towns were put out of the business of providing municipal services. It's worked very well and reduced administrative costs....plus, you can then PLAN at a regional level, which makes a lot of sense.
    The amalgamation fights on the radio and on Channel 9 were the highlight of my day. It was like politico cage matches! The more I dug into canadian local politics the more amazed I was, for example, Windsor is located in Essex County, but was totally separate from the County in all ways possible. I had always assumed that Windsor was the County Seat, and there would be some sharing of schools, roads, etc.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

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    Cyburbian stroskey's avatar
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    A few years ago the Des Moines metro was contemplating forming a regional government like the Twin Cities has. Of course it failed because voters in rich cities didn't want to "subsidize" lower-income cities. A resident I was talking to about the potential reorganization said this (paraphrased): "How would you like for someone to come in and tell you your house could no longer choose what cable you want, who picks up your trash, or what day you mow your lawn, but instead this would be decided by every house on the block as one group. We may get a better price on cable or have a more uniform look to the lawns but that takes away our ability to choose for ourselves and we want individually. It's not worth it to me".
    Do you think this opinion is worthwhile or are the two ideas not comparable? I didn't say anything after except "Thank you" but I was wondering what his opinion would be if he was paying the costs of the cable for everyone.

    Where I come from there are many municipalities and when you say the name of each city you know exactly what someone is referring to. When you say City X you know that's the rich place where all the athletes and politicians live. City Y is a historical river city, and City Z is where a lot of manufacturing takes place. When someone says Jacksonville FL or Houston TX I have no idea if they are talking about the suburbs, the city, walkable neighborhoods, strip malls,etc. I kind of like the distinction that each city has where I am from. That wouldn't work as well for a place like Phoenix where 90% of the metro is post-war constructions and planning, but you get the idea.

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    Super Moderator kjel's avatar
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    I don't have a problem with towns being distinct entities but I do have a problem with how inefficient having so many small towns are when it comes to the business of providing government/municipal services. Some things just make more sense and better service delivery happens when it is scaled.

    Example: Dunellen is a small town next door to mine. Faced with a dismal economic forecast and diminishing state aid it is working with Rutgers Department of Public Safety which has a new state of the art dispatch center being used at 1/3 capacity to consolidate emergency dispatch services. They will save $100K per year. LINK
    "He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" Jeremiah 22:16

  17. #17
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    High school football often prohibits school consolidations.

  18. #18
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    Jacksonville, FL

    I grew up in a consolidated city/county government...Jacksonville...and while there is less 'identity' from the outside looking in, there are distinctive areas of town, almost like suburbs, so for example in Jacksonville, you have Downtown, San Marco, Riverside, Westside, Old Arlington, East Arlington, Northside, Northwest area, Southside/Baymeadows, Mandarin, Beaches, etc. Lots of smaller 'areas or neighborhoods' in there as well. Its all pretty suburban in form, except downtown and the areas immediately adjacent to downtown.

    When asked where I grew up and if that person knows the Jacksonville area, they always say, what area of town?

    When you have a huge consolidated government, you have much more bureacracy and policital in-fighting IMHO, like the Jacksonville City Council has 19 members The upside of consolidation is the combination of services like fire, police...water, sewer. Basically it makes sense fiscally, but it doesn't make life easier politically.
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

  19. #19
    Cyburbian
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    Myron Orfield has also done a lot of research into tax base "sharing" for govenment services across these false municipal boundaries. He support regional govenments that can help prevent the disparities in school funding, municipal services, health care, and funding for the arts. http://www.brookings.edu/press/Books/1997/metrop.aspx

    This was a HUGE topic in the mid-1990's...what happened? I would think that with US economy in the tank, we could start talking rationally about these kind of choices.

    I see this funding problem most acutely in school systems in the chicago metro area. I'm on a local school board -- that serves only K-8 - and is one of 6 school districts in a town of 60,000 people. We're 20 minutes outside the City of chicago, where one of the most failed school districts continues to churn out mediocrity and no one cares. Our school district is well funded, we have new schools, and high test scores.

  20. #20
    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by DetroitPlanner View post
    The amalgamation fights on the radio and on Channel 9 were the highlight of my day. It was like politico cage matches! The more I dug into canadian local politics the more amazed I was, for example, Windsor is located in Essex County, but was totally separate from the County in all ways possible. I had always assumed that Windsor was the County Seat, and there would be some sharing of schools, roads, etc.
    I was living in Burlington, Ontario with my husband when all of this was going down in the late 1990's. I was amazed at how HUGE these new municipalites became. My husband got a speeding ticket in a town that was 45 miles away from where he had to go to pay his ticket.

    I didn't keep up with it, did they do away with Counties? What did the Counties do that the new regional municipalities weren't doing?

  21. #21
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    Checking some of the other Ontario maps, the one that most awes me is the 'new' City of Ottawa - it goes at least 30-40 km into the hinterlands in every direction from the limits of its main urbanized area.



    Mike

  22. #22
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by southsideamy View post
    I didn't keep up with it, did they do away with Counties? What did the Counties do that the new regional municipalities weren't doing?
    It depends. In more rural areas the counties became the limits. Examples of this in the Detroit sphere would include Chatham/Kent and Sarnia/Lambton.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  23. #23
    Cyburbian Mud Princess's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by kjelsadek View post
    If ever there were a poster child for consolidation it would be New Jersey:

    21 Counties
    566 Municipalities
    605 School Districts-591 operate schools, 14 do not operate schools
    No wonder why half of New Jersey is moving to Delaware.

    I think there are way too many separate school districts in New York. It's very confusing; many of them do not conform to municipal boundaries. The town in which I live is covered by five or six different school districts that are shared with other surrounding communities. Granted, it's one of the largest towns in land area, but still...!

    Then I look at Virginia, where school districts are aligned with county (or independent city) boundaries. Residents get one property tax bill that includes school taxes, which are separate in New York. There has to be a cost savings.

  24. #24
    Cyburbian Plus Whose Yur Planner's avatar
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    Random thoughts on the topic:

    I think Louisville/Jefferson County, Kentucky is the most recent example of a large scale consolidation.

    I remember in college studying about the Indianapolis/Marion County consolidation. When I was working in the Indy area 20 years later, they were still trying to hammer out the details. At the time, they were joining the sheriffs department and the Indy police department for even more savings. Fort Wayne/Allen County Indiana tried for years to consolidate and never did manage to do it.

    In general, I think it is a good idea. The fracturing and mutliple levels of government causes more headaches than it's worth.
    When did I go from Luke Skywalker to Obi-Wan Kenobi?

  25. #25
    Consolidation of local government is inevitable, regardless as to whether or not people want it to happen. Tax revenues are collapsing with the economy, and the value of the dollar isn't far behind. As a country, we produce almost nothing of value anymore that we can actually trade or export to support ourselves. So where is the money really coming from now--or in the next 5 to 10 years--that will continue to support all of the thousands upon thousands of local government subdivisions per state?

    I am amused by the "baby steps" some cities and townships are opting for now. So-called service sharing agreements that allow elected officials to essentially keep their jobs and maintain separate municipal fiefdoms without even so much as lifting a finger to make any genuine changes or sacrifices. What a big step forward! Guess what folks? You've still got a multi-million dollar buget deficit staring you in the face in 2011 and beyond!

    Some have talked about regional government consolidation as something that really needs to happen within their region. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Toledo and Buffalo are all examples that immediately come to my mind. Unfortunately few people have demonstrated the courage and conviction in these regions to press forward with consolidation, and when they do, they encounter fierce opposition from those who cling relentelssly to an outmoded and dying status quo.

    If we continue to collectively drag our feet on solutions, or flat out deny the need for change and innovation, crises within the next several years will force drastic measures upon us that may go even further beyond what is now necessary. I don't think we necessarily have to lose what makes our neighborhoods and communities unique in the process of change, but we must, however, begin to think and act regionally if we want to keep these places viable.

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