It Takes a Village to Dissolve a Village

Residents in Lakewood, Tenn., still call Aaron Prince regularly with questions about trash pickup or how to get a police unit to check around their house. But Prince hasn’t been the city’s mayor since May 2011, when the city disincorporated, and became part of Nashville.

Often, he just forwards their request to officials in Nashville, which now provides services to and governs the area. “I tell them I’ll do what I can, but I’m no longer mayor,” says Prince, 48. “They can’t call the mayor of Nashville like they can get a hold of me.”

More U.S. towns and villages like Lakewood have dissolved their local governments in the past decade than in the 50 years prior, according to a recent study, which attributed the increase to a combination of economic decline, backlash against taxes and movements seeking local government reform.

Proponents claim the process can lower local taxes by sharing police and fire departments and consolidating public services like trash pickup. But dissolution can also introduce uncertainty: Emergency response times can increase, and city halls sit empty as the seat of government moves elsewhere. Some residents complain that being part of a larger municipality dilutes their voice in local matters.

“One of the most important crosswinds against a dissolution campaign is a sense that the community will be weakened or lost,” says Michelle Wilde Anderson, an associate professor at University of California, Berkeley School of Law and author of the dissolution study, which will appear in April’s Yale Law Journal.

In many cases, economics motivates these decisions, like in the Village of Altmar, N.Y., where voters approved a dissolution that projected a 45 percent tax cut to residents.“Voters are wise to think about the governance of their city as a community focal point, and to ask what role that focal point does or doesn’t play in their ties to their neighbors and their community,” Anderson says.

Some aspects, however, like a town’s name can broaden conversations about dissolution to more than numbers. In these cases, the practicalities of streamlined services and lower taxes take a backseat to an issue that can be harder to measure: identity. It is less an issue in towns that maintain their name, even without their own local government. But in some areas, like Village of Medina, N.Y., it can be tricky. Residents there are weighing a plan that would consolidate the village with the Town of Shelby and the Town of Ridgeway. If they combine, what will the new area be called?

“We know that that’s going to be an issue down the road,” says Donald Colquhoun, a Medina resident involved with the consolidation process.

Vicki Brown, associate director of the Center for Government Research, a think tank in Rochester, N.Y., that has completed dissolution analyses for dozens of towns and villages, has seen the opposite as well: “If the village and the town are both named the same, you have less of an identity issue.”

Such was the case in the Village of Edwards, N.Y., which voted in March 2011 to dissolve into the Town of Edwards.

“Some people thought you lost your identity, but how can you lose your identity if you’re still part of Edwards?” asks Sharee Lanphear, who works as both the village’s clerk and the town’s supervisor.

With the Edwards dissolution under way, Lanphear explains, the village will take down its three welcome signs. Officials still need to decide whether Main Street will keep its name, or whether it will become County Road 24.

New York state is a center of recent dissolution activity, as a state law that went into effect March 2010 offered municipalities grants to study the impact of a dissolution in their community.

New York is not alone, however. Concerns about their local government’s efficiency caused residents in Cedar Grove, Fla., to vote to disincorporate into Bay County in 2008. Many residents were surprised, says Chris Burnham, a commissioner for the city at the time. “I still get calls from people who didn’t think it would happen,” he says. “With the city being there 50-plus years it was kind of accepted that it was there to stay.”

One unintended consequence of the Cedar Grove dissolution emerged when Bay County announced in September that it could pay to illuminate only about one quarter of Cedar Grove’s 350 or so streetlights.

According to Gulf Power, the county’s service provider, 89 city residents volunteered to pay an extra $9 per month to sponsor one streetlight each. But with the county covering only an additional 90 lights, soon about half of the former city’s streetlights could go dark.

In the same region, residents in Port Richey, Fla., have voted down seven attempts at dissolution in the past three decades. Jim Priest, a lifelong resident of the city, says he fears that he’d lose input in local issues if such a measure passed.

“You have a smaller voice in what goes on in your block and neighborhood,” he says.

Voters in Amelia, Ohio, rejected a 2009 dissolution measure brought by a local group concerned about fiscal responsibility. Concerns about police response times sunk the plan, which would have split the village down Main Street, dividing the community between Batavia and Pierce Townships.

“Residents like the intimacy of knowing that you have a police force in such a small area that knows the parents, knows the kids, knows the family dynamics,” says Amelia resident Michelle Balside, 47.

As the role and benefits of dissolution are debated, some advocates see an issue with how the process has been framed. Kevin Gaughan, an attorney based in Buffalo who for the past few years has advocated dissolution in northwest New York, thinks that the word “dissolution” sends the wrong message.

“These are votes to dissolve the government, not the village,” says Gaughan. “And my strong view is that a village is not a government. A village is a community; a village is an idea. It’s a sense of place.”