Let the annexation games begin

Kurt Fusaris has his Arlington Avocado making guacamole out of a possible Cambridge annexation of Arlington. His argument for annexation includes the following analysis:

Arlingtonians who otherwise wish they could afford to live in Cambridge would no longer have to live that as a pipe dream – and they could become Cantabrigians without leaving their current home. Also, Arlington, which has long suffered from a lack of commercial and industrial development due to limited space, would become part of a larger city with a large industrial and commercial base, with plenty of opportunities for further development. As one person said, Arlington would suddenly gain a ton of great new bars, too. Those disgusted with small-town politics would now be part of a larger city political structure – for better or for worse. As part of Cambridge, Arlingtonians would have a lot more clout with the state on matters of education policy, etc. Arlington would also gain many more progressive voters if it became part of Cambridge. Gone would be the days of bitter divisions over overrides and petty political scuffles pitting townies against the establishment.

The talk of annexation comes at a time in which I have been engaged in a question about the optimal size of a municipality. (This conversation has been one of the latest topics in the luncheon seminar on municipal governance that I hold with Wes Beal, Nawwaf Kaba, Joy Wrolson, and assorted other civic leaders on Saturdays.)   In this conversation, there are two theoretical axes that are important for the delivery of municipal services.

  1. Efficiency – economy of scale. If you consider the administrative structure of a town or school system, there is a certain amount of work required to run the operation. So, if a town of 10,000 needs a town administrator, police chief, fire chief, and superintendent of schools, and a town of 20,000 needs the same infrastructure, combining two towns of 10,000 into one town of 20,000 reduces the administrative overhead of the municipality. This starts to break down when the municipality grows large enough that you need to add senior staff to manage the operation.

  2. Accountability – access to municipal leaders. In a small town, it is pretty easy to gain access to and have a meaningful conversation with municipal leaders, elected and appointed. It is relatively easy to influence local elections, either as a candidate or a supporter.  The larger the municipality, the more distant the leadership. Consider the difference between the probability of having coffee with an Arlington selectman and the mayor of Boston.
I think we are in a sweet spot in the accountability axis, but we are smaller than the optimal size for efficiency. How much larger can a municipality get before the greater efficiency results in a significant cost to accountability?
I grew up in a municipality with a population of about 200,000, and local elections are expensive. You don’t have a connection to town leadership that you have in Arlington.
Where’s the sweet spot? My theory is that the theoretical optimal size for a municipal entity is between 80,000 and 100,000. Think Newton. At about 85,000, it is large enough to be efficient but small enough to be reasonably accountable.
So, being annexed by Cambridge would place us in a city with a population of 150,000, considerably above my theoretical “sweet spot.” Maybe I am wrong, but if my estimate is spot on, think about who we should be annexing.
  • Arlington 43,000
  • Lexington 31,000
  • Belmont 25,000
  • Winchester 21,000

Of course, we want Lexington, as it has a really nice industrial tax base along Route 2 and 128. Arlington and Lexington combined would be an interesting municipality, and we could theoretically add Belmont or Winchester (if we want them) and not get above the 100,000 maximum of my theoretical sweet spot.

So, in a nod to Kurt Fusaris, I would love to have a Cambridge parking permit, but if we want to play the annexation game, we should look to our smaller neighbors. Who should we target?

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