Disincorporation. Unincorporation. Dissolution.
Whatever you call it, the phenomenon notched two more manifestations late last year, when the Clermont County, Ohio villages of Newtonsville and Amelia went out of “business.” Look for more municipalities to do the same in 2020.
As the National Constitution Center blogged, “the power to establish or abolish cities is delegated to the states by virtue of the 10th Amendment.” Thus, where it is allowed, the process of disincorporation varies considerably, from voter initiative to legislative action. But however municipal evaporations are achieved, their causes are usually financial distress, population loss, or both.
Newtonsville, The Buckeye Institute’s Greg Lawson explained, was “a village boasting fewer than 400 residents” that had “struggled with insolvency for years.” Amelia, a community of just over 5,000, did not suffer from money woes quite so severe, but there had “been signs of duress for nearly a decade,” with disincorporation floated as a solution as early as 2011.
Copying their counterparts from much-larger government entities, neither village’s “leaders” were willing to make tough decisions to curtail expenditures — so they adopted income taxes. Not smart.
The levies sparked intense voter resistance. The Tax Foundation’s Jared Walczak noted that “local income taxes … are heavily concentrated in the two states situated at the Forks of the Ohio, with Pennsylvania ‘boasting’ 2,978 local income tax jurisdictions and Ohio claiming another 848, together accounting for 77 percent of local income tax jurisdictions nationwide, more than ten times their share of the U.S. population.”
And Amelia’s residents, The New York Times reported, “began to question the village council’s spending, including hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade village offices to a Victorian-style building, with a lion door-knocker, chandeliers on the ceiling and a gazebo in the backyard.”
In November, tea-party populism carried the day in both communities. But elsewhere, disincorporation is the product of what appears to be an irreversible pattern: the decline of rural America. Research by Iowa State University’s David Swenson found that “counties with central cities of at least 50,000, along with the surrounding counties that are economically dependent on them,” make up just 36 percent of all counties. But between “2008, the cusp of the Great Recession, and 2017,” they garnered nearly the entirety of the nation’s “job and population growth.”
In a 2017 profile of former Centerville, North Carolina, The Wall Street Journal’s Valerie Bauerlein wrote that “many small local governments throughout the U.S. are being pushed to the brink financially as residents move to bigger cities.” Just 12 voters had cast ballots in the 2015 local election, so Centerville’s mayor and councilors chose “to dissolve the town’s charter and become unincorporated in January, after a measure to raise property taxes failed.”
A 2018 Des Moines Register analysis concluded that “two-thirds of Iowa counties lost population between 2010 and 2017: 71 counties lost residents, while 28 saw gains.” Between 2010 and 2018, a majority of Nebraska’s counties hemorrhaged people. Minnesota’s Center for Rural Policy and Development estimates that “most” of The Gopher State’s nonmetro areas will “continue losing population over the next 20 to 30 years.”
So it’s no surprise that the U.S. Census Bureau’s quinquennial Census of Governments documented that Kansas, Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa and Pennsylvania each had fewer municipalities in 2017 than in 2007.
Fortunately, as Walczak observed, opponents of disincorporation have yet to proffer any evidence that dissolved villages, towns and cities “descend into anarchy.” They are either absorbed by larger municipalities, or become unincorporated areas under the control of counties (46 states), boroughs (Alaska), or parishes (Louisiana).
Yes, it’s often the case that diseconomies of scale plague the “public” sector. But for those facing a municipal merger or county assumption of services who fear the loss of a hyper-local focus, non-government alternatives — organized right down to the neighborhood level — abound. The majority of firefighters in the U.S. are already volunteers. B
“Give me disincorporation, or give me death!” Well, it’s not always the solution when your panel of local pols proposes or enacts something extraordinarily stupid. But at the right time, in the right way, transitioning your municipality into nothingness is the right call.