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One for all isn’t always good for all

By Paul Stout

Over the years we have spoken out against mergers and acquisitions of large corporations and the decline of locally owned businesses in our rural communities. We also have talked about market concentration in our grain and meat industries.

Today I want to speak to you about another type of concentrated power in local government.

Merger mania has manifested itself in the urban vs. rural arena. For most of their existence, counties across our nation had a large rural demographic and their principal cities were not as large in population as the unincorporated areas and small towns combined. Today we are seeing that cities carry over 50 percent or more of a county’s population. Today, across the nation there are 37 unified city-county governments.

While it is understood that elimination of duplicated services is supposed to save money and created efficiencies of scale, there are fundamental questions that are not adequately addressed. Geography is one of those issues. The proposed Albuquerque-Bernalillo County merger here in New Mexico would create a city of 1159 square miles, of which there are 465,000 acres of farmland and 100,000 acres of forestland. How can a large metro government effectively address the needs of farmers and ranchers and other rural citizens in terms of essential services, water and land use issues, law enforcement and so on? What guarantees do rural residents and small municipalities have that they will receive adequate representation on a merged city-county commission? How will taxation be treated in rural areas vs. the city? Are rural residents expected to pay to for big city pork projects and get little or nothing in return? The unification charter commission has a standard response to some of these questions. I have trouble believing what they tell us will actually happen the way they promise.

The real issues are the effectiveness of county government in relation to large cities and accountability of cities for the money they spend. The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County unified government proposal is nothing more than a power and money grab for the city that will siphon tax revenues and resources from the rural areas and place control over and ultimately absorb smaller municipalities such as Cedar Crest, Sandia Park and Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.

While the Albuquerque issue isn’t of paramount importance to Colorado or Wyoming, I offer this as a view of what will come in the next 20 years with the continued explosion of growth on the Front Range. Envision unified urban governments in Adams, Arapahoe and Weld counties, or a new government called Colorado Springs-El Paso County, City and County of Pueblo, or Cheyenne-Laramie County. While water and land-use planning are already highly contentious issues on the Front Range, they will be even more so in this type of structure.

As I see it, there should be new solutions that provide an equitable situation for both interests. Perhaps one solution would be to elevate cities proper to county status such as is the case with Denver and Broomfield. This covers a smaller area and in the case of Broomfield was necessary due to its city limits covering four counties. In the state of Maryland, Baltimore City is fully independent of Baltimore County. Rural voters should have the option of creating a new rural county or merging into a neighboring county to preserve services and tax base, along with agricultural land use. Urban counties remove more obstacles for developers to obtain land and water resources. Albuquerque needs to be separated from Bernalillo County.

My challenge to those in New Mexico is to urge your legislators to revisit this issue in regard to the constitutional amendment passed by voters statewide to allow this process to happen. If you are a member in Bernalillo County, vote NO to stop unification. This is a mail-in ballot. For those in Colorado and Wyoming, I urge you to carefully watch for these types of ballot initiatives in your elections. Government of the people should be for all, rural and urban alike, not special interests.