Functional responsibilities of municipal government: Metropolitan disparities and instruments of intergovernmental management

Blog by Agustín León-Moreta

1 Nov 2018, 10:02 a.m.
Agustín León-Moreta



The functional (or service) responsibilities of municipalities vary widely across metropolitan regions in North America. While some municipalities have broad functional responsibilities, other municipalities have limited functional responsibilities. What explain those differences in the functional responsibilities of municipalities? This article explores this question by examining metropolitan municipalities in the United States over the last four decades.

The article finds that municipal governments have widely different capacities in metropolitan areas and that those differences are shaped by disparities in fiscal and institutional capacities of municipalities. The article therefore investigates the role of intergovernmental instruments to mitigate those disparities. Specifically, it examines the mitigating effect of interlocal collaboration and state programs of assistance to municipalities. The article finds that those instruments of intergovernmental management matter and can potentially redress the impact of municipal disparities. It also finds that the longevity of a municipality is another mechanism that influences the functional breadth of municipalities.

In addition to its analysis of municipal functionality, the article links to policy debates on mechanisms of intergovernmental cooperation in metropolitan regions. While municipalities are core providers of services in metropolitan areas, the article notes that higher levels of government play an influential role through intergovernmental programs of assistance. While focusing on metropolitan America, the article also links to broader discussions on the role of the state in other metropolitan regions. The role of intergovernmental instruments is evident in the US, but it is also relevant for intergovernmental relations in other regions of the world. The article, though focusing on the US, seeks to broaden the debate on the evolving responsibilities of municipal governments in metropolitan regions, from a more global perspective.

The article discusses the contrasting differences between two U.S. metropolitan areas: the Twin Cities and the St. Louis regions. These two regions are discussed to illustrate specific mechanisms analyzed in the article. Whereas the St. Louis region is an example of a fragmented region, the Twin Cities region is noted for its programs of fiscal equalization between municipalities.

This paper reports a unique data set of the functional responsibilities of municipal governments in the United States. The paper contributes to the literature by using longitudinal data on US municipalities. It employs a proprietary database from GeoLytics that normalizes metropolitan areas. In this way, data on metropolitan areas is compiled using a consistent definition of metropolitan areas over time.

The article examines a question of growing importance in the context of municipal disparities. It promotes a research agenda and future extensions on the functionality of municipal governments in metropolitan regions. The conceptual framework, based on local public economies theory, will be useful to researchers interested in the evolving roles of local governments in those regions.


Read the paper on Urban Studies - OnlineFirst here



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