An upcoming Chamber of Commerce study considers whether, by consolidating some functions, Morgantown-area municipalities could give us all more of the services we love.

The Morgantown area is growing fast. From 1990 to 2010, the permanent population of our little four-city metropolis—Granville, Morgantown, Star City, and Westover—barely grew. But in the five years from 2010 to 2015, it grew by more than 10 percent. From congested roads to increasing fees for government services, we’re all feeling the strain.

Something may have to give.

“There are reasons to believe that, as governments get bigger, they can operate more efficiently by consolidating,” says John Deskins. “Maybe each of four city units has an IT guy with a salary, for example. If the cities combined, maybe the combined unit could get by with just three IT guys, and that would leave extra money for roads, parks, upkeep.”

To that end, the Morgantown Area Chamber of Commerce has undertaken a study of services and costs. It’s headed up by Deskins, a WVU economist and a member of the chamber’s Governmental Affairs Committee.

“We have four municipalities carved out in what I think is a relatively small region. So we want to look at several important government services—standard things like trash pick-up—to see how much we’re spending in the four municipalities here, and then look at similar-sized municipalities around our region and compare,” Deskins says. “If we’re getting good services for relatively little, we’re in good shape. If we’re spending more than peer cities, that might point to some need to share government services or consolidate government functions.”

Consolidation is not always the best idea, Deskins acknowledges. “The reason we have local governments is, sometimes smaller units can be more connected to citizens and more responsive to needs,” he says. “And you want to allow for local tastes—you don’t want one-size-fits-all policies, because people in this region of the state may have different preferences from people in other regions.”

It’s really a question of balancing autonomy with efficiency, he says. “I have no doubt that we need some local autonomy in the Morgantown region, but I’m not sure that it should be carved into four different units or whether one or two would be sufficient.”

Loss of local identity is an issue that entities raise any time consolidation comes up.

“That is a concern of any community,” says Eldon Callen, who heads up the chamber’s Governmental Affairs Committee. He remembers when Sabraton became part of Morgantown in the 1960s, and he notes that people who live in Sabraton and in adjacent Jerome Park today still see uniqueness in their neighborhoods and take pride in the distinction. In Deskins’ words, “There are ways to maintain identity without going to the expense of contracting with your own dog catcher service or trash pickup.”

Callen weighs concerns about identity loss against the potential benefits of consolidation: consistency among the codes and ordinances that businesses with multiple locations in the area have to observe, for example, or a greater aggregate population that could put the area on the radar of national companies like Amazon when they’re looking for sites. “It’s going to get to a point where the businesses and citizens say, ‘This is ridiculous. We’ll maintain our local identities, but let’s quit throwing money away over duplicated services,’” he says. “The chamber is saying, it’s time to start having these debates.”

The aim of Deskins’ analysis is to help the chamber understand whether there’s a potential for cost savings and to inform a productive discussion. He expects to complete the report early in 2018.