Emerging Issues: FAQs re: Cities. 4 U & for all of us

by Bill Barnes


If you responded to the number above with "How many municipal governments were there in the United States in 2007?" you could have won some money on the TV show "Jeopardy." Bruce Calvin would be pleased. 

Calvin is, among many other good things, the manager of the "Cities 101" pages at the NLC website where the 19,492 figure and other basic data about the nation's municipal governments are gathered. Over the years, he has accumulated facts in response to frequently asked questions (FAQs), questions that come to NLC and inexorably end up on Calvin's desk. 

So, he created and has maintained the Cities 101 resource.

Much of the data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau. The Census of Governments is done every five years. It "identifies the scope and nature of the nation's state and local government sector; provides authoritative benchmark figures of public finance and public employment; classifies local government organizations, powers, and activities; and measures federal, state and local fiscal relationships." 

The 2007 data are online at www.census.gov; no hard copy will be printed. Unfortunately, the 2007 reports lack some of the analytic and summary tables that enhanced earlier reports. 

The 2012 Census involves several questionnaires that are going out from October 2011 to October 2012. (Cities should respond so that the results are as complete as possible.) The bureau says it plans to engage potential data users about dissemination plans.

Not "Just the facts, ma'am"

It turns out that Sergeant Joe Friday, in the old TV series "Dragnet," never actually said that exact phrase, but you get the idea. But "the facts" are not just everything that's lying around; we get "facts" by asking questions and that's what the Census Bureau and Cities 101 do. 

In "The Idea of History," the philosopher R.G. Collingwood explained this relationship of "facts" to questions by noting the difference between two fictitious detectives: Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Christie's Hercule Poirot. Sherlock collects facts (like the source of ash dropped from a cigar) as if the facts themselves can add up to something. Hercule makes "the little grey cells to function": he asks questions that elicit "facts" and he develops theories that make sense of the data. We do our best thinking like Hercule, not like Sherlock or Sergeant Friday. This is rather unfair to the incomparable Holmes, but the distinction is practical, memorable and fun. 

So, the Census of Governments' data allow and stimulate people to ask more probing questions and develop more useful theories, and the answers they get stimulate even more questions. For example, the large number of municipalities may prompt the question of whether they are all the same (which, of course, they are not.) That's how we get to know important stuff, expand our common knowledge base and frame and re-frame our assumptions. 

More Facts and Questions

The system of local government in the United States is among the most complex in the world. The 2007 Census counted 39,044 general purpose local governments, which includes counties, municipalities and townships. 

There are also 50,432 special purpose local governments, including 37,381 special districts, 13,726 independent school districts and 1,452 dependent public school systems. 

The 19,492 municipal governments are established by state law. They vary widely according to quantity (Hawaii has 1; Illinois has 1,299), designation (they may be called cities, towns, boroughs, districts, plantations and villages), and incorporation requirements (Florida, for example, requires 1.5 persons per acre). 

Cities 101 includes all this and more, such as rudimentary explanations of municipal structure, city elections, and city/county consolidations. There are also "factoids" such as city rankings for bike friendliness and asthma sufferers, guidelines for flying the American flag at half-mast, and the text of the Athenian Oath.

Visiting government officials from elsewhere sometimes want a "brief overview of city government in the United States." Jim Brooks who, among many other good things, manages NLC's international collaborations, deals with that request frequently. He reports that among the aspects that often elicit surprise are: municipal differences among the states; the variety of revenue sources; the high percentage of city expenditures that are locally raised; and the lack of a focus on local government at the national level. 

Americans may also find the complexity a bit daunting and perhaps not at the top of their list of things to study.

All the more reason - in this era of challenges to the very idea of government itself - that people concerned about cities need to have access to and make good use of current, understandable and relevant information about municipal government and city life. 

Bill Barnes, the director for emerging issues at NLC, can be contacted at barnes@nlc.org. Previous monthly columns are collected on the Emerging Issues webpage.