Merger proposal offers a lose-lose situation
In politics, the best proposals are usually win-win propositions, where there is some benefit for everyone. Unfortunately, the current proposal to merge the City of Des Moines and Polk County would result in a lose-lose situation for both our city and our suburbs.
Though the merger is loosely based upon the concept of unity and a purpose to “increase coordination, efficiency and fairness in the delivery of services to the people,” it in fact proposes a radical change in local government that would disenfranchise the citizens of Iowa’s capital city while failing to meet the lofty promises made by proponents.
The buzz words used by proponents easily get heads to nod in agreement: “Unity” is good; the concept of merging some public services sounds fine; and most of us would favor efficient and fair government.
The merger might sound good. But, as John Adams once said, “the devil is in the details.” Let’s look at some of the details.
The suburbs have opted completely out of the proposed merger. The only people giving up their local government are citizens of Des Moines. The merger would create a new “super-council” that would consist of 15 partisan members elected by residents of the entire county. This means politicians from outside Des Moines (likely a majority of the council) would have a vote on purely local Des Moines issues. Consequently, suburban representatives would get to set the property tax rates for Des Moines residents.
Under the new council structure, Des Moines residents would pay 80 percent of the taxes to the new government but likely get only 50 percent of the votes. This is not only “taxation without representation,” but it resembles a hostile takeover, not a merger.
In addition, the new mayor of Des Moines might come from outside the city, and yet would have veto power over purely Des Moines issues. The mayor would have the power to appoint all members of boards, committees, utilities, administrative agencies and special purpose districts. There is no requirement that a representative percentage of the members be from Des Moines, even if that board or committee deals only with Des Moines issues.
This proposed merger would completely disenfranchise residents of rural Polk County because their representation will be subsumed into adjacent urban districts. There is no meaningful protection within the new structure to ensure that the interests of rural Polk County residents would be heard.
At the same time, despite claims that the merger would save money by consolidating services, there is nothing in the proposal that mandates such a change. Cities and the county already have authority to merge services, and Des Moines has done exactly that more than 200 times. This proposal would make it more difficult to combine services: Currently, a decision to merge services requires a total of seven votes (three county supervisors and four city council members). After merger, it will take 10 votes of the new council.
Finally, proponents rely upon a 2-year-old study, the Wilkey Report, to claim that the proposed merger would save local government $5 million a year. But they fail to acknowledge that most of the savings identified in the report have already been realized. For example, Polk County has already reduced the number of full-time employees by 72, eliminated the county manager office, reduced the number of departments from 10 to six and cut $14 million from its budget. The city of Des Moines has reduced its workforce by 137 and cut $10 million from its budget. Further, it is estimated that the equalization of salaries of employees in the new structure would increase costs by as much as $7 million.
The proposed merger is too high a price for the people of Des Moines to pay for nothing in return.
Bonnie Campbell is a lawyer in private practice in Des Moines and former Iowa attorney general.