WHEN THE OHIO village known as Amelia voted to dissolve its government last year, The New York Times seemed bewildered and a little alarmed. The paper acknowledged that it isn't exactly unprecedented for a municipal regime to shut its doors: Since 2012, it noted, "at least 12 in Ohio alone" have "dissolved or are in the process of doing so." But it added that these fights usually happen "for financial reasons, often because shrinking populations or reduced state funding make paying for basic services unsustainable." Amelia was growing, and it wasn't in particularly dire financial straits. The battle there erupted over what the Times called "a new local tax of just 1 percent."
That sort of conflict is not especially unusual. In a 2012 paper for The Yale Law Journal, Michelle Wilde Anderson--the same expert who told the Times that cities usually dissolve because of financial problems--lists tax revolts as another recurring reason towns think about disbanding. (Granted, most of the tax-oriented dissolution campaigns that she discusses failed.) And as the Times eventually mentions, the flashpoint in Amelia wasn't simply a new local income tax; it was the fact that the tax was imposed without public input, along with some plausible complaints that the town was wasting too much of the money it already had. The vote to shutter the government wasn't close: 68 percent backed the idea.
Anderson's paper points out that more cities considered dissolving in the first decade of this century than did in the final three decades of the 1900s. Nonetheless, she notes, the press frequently greets a dissolution campaign "as if it were the first in a generation or more, despite the fact that many such changes were being considered across the country at the same time." Even when the spotlight shines on one of these rebellions, the larger phenomenon somehow seems invisible.
Is that phenomenon something to be happy about? Are we better off with more municipal governments or with fewer?
It depends. Eliminating a government means scraping away a layer of taxes, bureaucracy, and sometimes corruption. But it also means replacing a regime that's close to home with one that's more distant and often less accountable. If that just means the county takes over plowing the snow and collecting the trash, it may be a net gain. If it means a new consolidated metropolitan government that's quick to raise taxes and slow to deliver services, it's not. There is a long history of...