REGIONAL COUNCILS: Today's Governmental Tool for the 21st Century (1986) - The U.S. is about to hit the debt limit ceiling again; another budget crisis. "How did this happen?" many wonder.

The U.S. is about to hit the debt limit ceiling again; another budget crisis. "How did this happen?" many wonder. In 1986, I wrote the following article for the World Future Society. If you are short of time, just consider the first line. The need is greater today, the answer the same. 

REGIONAL COUNCILS:  Today's Governmental Tool for the 21st Century (1986)
Thomas J. Christoffel, AICP

Revenue sharing may soon become deficit sharing, as the crisis of the U.S. Federal debt causes the national government to retrench from its fiscal assistance to state and local governments.  With programs being eliminated or severely cut back, state and local governments are getting financial and program responsibility for their own self-help for urban, suburban and rural development. This decentralization is occurring at a time when the shift to a global economy is causing havoc in many industries and likewise in the tax base of local government. As they seek to broaden the tax base to help take up the federal fiscal slack, they find themselves in competition with other regions of the country or their own state, for existing as well as new development. Since no industry is safe from downturns, greater diversity is being sought in the local economic base. Economic development is the goal of the day for most state and local governments.

An important reality that governmental officials are learning is that " owners select locations primarily on the basis of regional characteristics, not local attributes."1 The structure of the economy does not follow governmental boundaries at the local level any more than it does at the global level. While this is not startling information to futurists, it is news to those elected officials who have not caught up with the changes in the global economy. Local officials must look at economic development in the context of their geographic region and attention must also be paid to the governmental services that create the environment in which productive economic activity can take place. In The Third Wave, Alvin Toffler correctly identified the trend to decentralization in government. To deal with it he said, "...the institutions of government must correlate with the structure of the economy, the information system, and other features of the civilization."2 State and local governments now need such an organization of the future to deal with these changes.

Organizations of the Future

Toffler said organizations of the future, "...have flatter hierarchies...are less top-heavy.... [and] consist of small components linked together in temporary configurations.... capable of assuming two or more distinct structural shapes as conditions warrant...."3  Furthermore, these organizations: ...need managers who can operate as capably in an open-door, free-flow    style as in a hierarchical mode, who can work in an organization structured like an Egyptian pyramid as well as in one that looks like a Calder mobile, with a few thin managerial strands holding a complex set of nearly autonomous modules that move in response to the gentlest breeze.4

Surely there is no "module" more autonomous than a local government. Do local governments have such an organizational structure and managers available to help them deal with the crises of the future as the demands on and cost of governmental services increase?

Yes they do, since most local governments belong to: "...a public organization encompassing a multi-jurisdictional regional community ... founded, sustained and directly tied to local governments through local and/or state governmental laws, agreements or other actions."

Although the local name may be council of governments, planning district commission, or planning and development district, the generic name is "regional council."  There were 534 councils in the U.S. at last count and they exist in all but four States:  Alaska, Hawaii, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Their governing bodies are composed of elected and/or citizen members appointed by the local governments and states.

Although formed in response to federal programs and state enabling legislation, they each now work essentially as a tool of the local governments within their region, and as an advocate of the region to the state and federal levels. Staff size and budget vary with the nature of the region served, ranging from under five employees in some rural areas to over 50 in large metropolitan areas, but generally ranging between 6 and 15. Budgets similarly run from $150,000 to over $5 million, a very small share of the total local government cost.6 In Virginia in fiscal year 1982 for example, regional council budgets totaled $6.9 million compared to $4,313.2 million for cities and counties. This does not include towns or special districts.

Besides an Executive Director, councils employ what are essentially information workers; planners for community assistance, economic development, environmental concerns, human services, and transportation; engineers, data analysts, cartographers, and computer specialists. By providing ad hoc coordination from a regional perspective, they help the local governments correlate their local plans within the structure of the regional economy. They are also capable of dealing with specific sets of localities on various issues, being for example, the transportation planning organization for the urbanized areas of the region or the service provider for programs for the elderly. They are entrepreneurs providing data services to local governments and the private sector, regional training for agencies, and ride-matching services for commuters. Unlike local governments, they can easily expand and contract their staffs to meet program needs.

Changes in Local Government

According to the International City Management Association (ICMA), 1960 was a benchmark year for "...the beginning of rapid  growth in the federal aid system, the closely related expansion of local government responsibilities, the creation of substate regions, and the modernization of state governments."7 In contrast, 1980 is the benchmark year for the decline of the federal aid system, but the roles it helped fund still remain for local government to carry out. In 1960, local governments raised 70.6% of their revenue and their budgets totaled $32,424 million. In 1983, their $178,994 million local share was 60.7% of their $294,651 million total budgets.8 Although the percentage share declined by 10%, the total increased 909% in 23 years. The Federal government share of state and local government revenues peaked at 22% in 1978, and declined to 18.5% by 1983. The difference of 3.5% was absorbed 1.7% by the states and 1.8% by localities.9

This has created conflict at all levels of government, since citizens want better services without further tax increases. Quality governmental services are, in fact, a prerequisite for the economic development sought to balance the tax base, so more investment is necessary. Local governments will be forced to seek greater efficiency and look for economies of scale in service delivery to deal with the impact of the federal fiscal crisis, the changes brought by technology, and the global economy now and on in to the 21st century.

How has the structure of government changed to correlate with that of the global economy?  Local government has gotten more complex and fragmented. Since 1962, at the local level, decreases have occurred in counties, declining in total from 3,043 to 3,041; townships and towns from 17,142 to 16,734; and school districts from 34,678 to 14,851. Municipalities have increased from 18,000 to 19,076, and special districts from 18,323 to 28,588.10 Thus in spite of the consolidation of almost 20,000 school districts, the total number of local government units has increased by 10,931 since 1962.

Consolidation of local government units is often proposed as a means of dealing with the cost of government, but is generally rejected by local politicians and even by the voters in referendums, if the idea gets that far. The report of the Governor's Commission on Virginia's Future in 1984 called for a bold realignment of local government boundaries to consolidate many rural counties, but the idea has not moved any local governments to action. It also recommended more aggressive state leadership in the promotion of regional solutions to regional problems and state aid to reward regional cooperation and encourage consolidation among local jurisdictions.11

The rapid pace of change may in fact make people cling to the local identity provided by governmental boundaries, even as they understand that they work, shop and play within a greater region than the single jurisdiction in which they live. State aid to reward regional programs is more likely to help achieve coordination among the autonomous modules of local governments, since it offers something in return for local control shared in a regional program. Likewise, the State agencies must share decision making with these regional programs.

Kent Mathewson, Counsel on Urban Affairs from Ray Associates, Inc., recently told City and County Managers in North Carolina that, "Fiscal restraints are reshaping Federalism."12 He quoted Andrea Beatty, a former Vice President of ICMA, on the benefits to local governments of this situation:  "As the Feds opt out the locals are given the opportunity for greater control and decision-making and ... enlarge the opportunity for regionalism as a cost necessity, e.g., water resources and economic development."13 

What tools do localities have for working regionally?

Primarily there are the special districts, the majority of which are single purpose. They deliver services such as transportation, sanitation, parking, etc. As a reflection of the complexity of governmental services, they have grown by 56% between 1962 and 1982. While they can be efficient in delivery of a limited range of services, Kent Matthewson says his boss, Jim Ray, "...foresees the awful prospect of impotent general purpose local government elected officials (city and county) as special purpose politics move power and service options off of their hands and into special purpose districts, independent local commissions or boards, and regional single-purpose authorities."14

The Regional Council Alternative

Regional councils are a type of special district, but they can be comprehensively multi-jurisdictional and multi-purpose in terms of the scope of their services. By their representation from local governments, they can avoid some of the tunnel vision that limits single purpose authorities. Although regional planning commissions have existed in metropolitan planning areas since the 1920's, they were composed primarily of citizen representatives. It wasn't until the 1950's that informal meetings of city and county elected officials became structured as councils of government, as a response to local interest and encouragement by the Federal Housing Act of 1954.15  Georgia, in 1957, created a state-wide system of planning and development districts. Other States investigated the idea and followed suit. With the 1968 Intergovernmental Cooperation Act, the federal government encouraged the concept by establishing the A-95 review process which called for a regional review of applications for grant funding to determine the regional impact of projects. The Department of Housing and Urban Development supported the concept by funding councils for regional planning.

Regional councils, as early networks, put local governments into a situation where they had to share power in decision-making. Under this system, applications for Federal and sometimes state grants had to be reviewed by a regional clearinghouse for its impact on local and regional plans. Thus, to get a local sign-off on a grant application, a central city may have had to deal with growing suburbs or vice versa. These early regional forums were either controversial or yawn inducing as they dealt with the allocation of assisted housing or abstract issues of regional planning. The reaction of local officials to the concept of the regional council in many cases was that it was an unnecessary level of government and a threat, fearing that they would be eliminated at some time in the future. State administrations often oversold the early regional councils, such as in Virginia, where the enabling legislation even included an option for a directly elected multi-purpose regional service district.

What are the roles of regional councils today?  That depends upon the size and characteristics of the region served. There are three basic categories, depending upon the size of the metropolitan area within the region:  large, medium and small or rural if there is no City/suburban area of over 50,000 populations within a Metropolitan Statistical area of 100,000. In a 1985 meeting of regional council Executive Directors, all levels saw economic development as a functional concern of their member governments. This reflects a growing understanding by all involved in the process that companies pick regions in which to locate, since single jurisdictions can seldom offer all the amenities sought. Also the high cost of marketing encourages cost sharing approaches. The rural/small metro and medium metro councils saw their roles as providing specific types of technical and operational assistance for localities, while promoting, brokering and assisting in financing/grantsmanship deals to bring about economic development. The large metros operate as information/data resources with increasing private sector ties to facilitate better management of a broader region.16

As tools of local government, regional councils can be shaped by the member governments to handle programs for one or more member government as desired, though authority may have to come from state legislation. In southwest Virginia, two regional councils are involved in implementation of a variety of programs, including development of a regional industrial park, operation of solid waste disposal programs, and job training. In southeastern Virginia, for the Norfolk-Portsmouth-Virginia Beach metropolitan area, the regional council serves as the ad hoc coordinator for a variety of regional services through a network of appointed and elected officials. The states can use these councils to promote regional cooperation through an application of incentives, however if they are to function in concert with state agencies, the agencies must share power.


Looking back at the 1950's, the leaders in the regional council movement envisioned the benefit of local governments working cooperatively to benefit themselves and each other. Within the past thirty years, the regional council has grown from  a "meet and eat" affair for local officials, to become a valuable tool for local and state governments to deal with complex issues which are now faced by the various substate and interstate regions of the country. A tremendous amount of consciousness raising was necessary on the part of local officials to get them into the 20th century. Now that many have arrived, using the local planning tool, it is now time for them to jump shift to a tool for the 21st century, the regional council.

The ultimate decentralization in the current political structure is to the local government, those boundaries set up in the horse and buggy days. The identity local governments provide is as important to American democracy today as it was then, so it is unlikely that the public will voluntarily reorganize in the name of efficiency. At the same time local government will face crises as impacts are felt from (1) the shortage of public dollars, (2) the shift to a global economy, and (3) technological changes. A viable option for local governments is the continued evolution of regional councils consistent with the needs of the regions they serve. The regional council is a tool for today and tomorrow.

Published in “Challenges and Opportunities: From Now to 2001,” Howard F. Didsbury, Jr. ed., World Future Society, Bethesda, MD, 1986. ©

1. National Association of Towns and Townships, "Harvesting Hometown Jobs: a small-town guide to local economic development," Washington, D.C.:  1985 National Center for Small Communities, p. 11.
2. Toffler, Alvin, The Third Wave, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1980, p. 449.
3. Ibid., p. 280.
4. Ibid., p. 281.
5. National Association of Regional Councils, "Directory of Regional Councils 85-86," Washington, D.C., p. 3.
6. National Association of Regional Councils, Report No. 107, March, 1985.
7. Anderson, Wayne F. et al, The Effective Local Government Manager, Washington, D.C.:  International City Management Association, 1983, p. 172.
8. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States:  1986, (106th edition.) Washington, DC, 1985 p. 274.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid., p. 262.
11. Governor's Commission on Virginia's Future, "Toward A New Dominion:  Choices for Virginians,"  Charlottesville, Virginia:  Institute of Government, University of Virginia, December, 1984, pp. 37-8.
12. Kent Mathewson, "Perspectives on Council-Manager Government:  American Federalism," remarks to the 25th Annual City and County Management Seminar, Institute of Government,  University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, text copy. p. 6.
13. Ibid., p. 7.
14. Ibid., pp. 11-2.
15. Hartman, Richard C., "The State's Role in Regionalism," February, 1973, p. 163, The Regionalist Papers, Kent Mathewson, ed., Southfield, Michigan:  Metropolitan Fund, Inc., 2nd Edition, 1978
16. National Association of Regional Councils, "Directors' News," Vol. 6, No. 10, October, 25, 1985.