The Twin City: A Plan to Merge the Cities of Niceville and Valparaiso, Florida to Save Money and Deliver Municipal Services More Efficiently.

Table of Contents

The idea to merge the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso

Executive Summary

The residents of Niceville, Valparaiso, Eglin Air Force Base, and Unincorporated areas nearby have significant problems they need to face to become competitive in a 21st-century economy fraught with economic changes and disruption, political uncertainty, and risk from natural disasters. 

The two cities have an opportunity in front of them – the opportunity to merge – into a more agile, more robust municipality which will bring a net benefit to all who live inside the corporate limits. Citizens will see more efficient and cheaper services, businesses will find it easier to find the area in an ocean of unmined data and set up shop, and the significant military presence will have the ability to deal with fewer local governments so it can get its mission done and provide for a higher quality of life for its airmen. 

This paper will outline the arguments for and against the absorption of Valparaiso, Florida, into the city of Niceville, Florida, and give reasons why leaders of the cities should work together to affect a merger. Finally, this paper will outline the steps to make the union of the two cities a reality. 

Benefit

The cities of Niceville and Valparaiso have an opportunity to avoid or mitigate deleterious outcomes due to events beyond their control by consolidating into one political unit. The Florida Constitution outlines several procedures the cities can take to consolidate formally. Should the municipalities come together to form a united polity – they would be able to work more efficiently with the Air Force Base, which provides most of the economic activity in the area; more effectively bring in new and diverse business; solve housing shortages through more thoughtful planning that utilizes the land both cities sit on; and reduce the tax burden on the city’s residents by using economies of scale gained initially by residents brought together in the merger and then by those who are incorporated voluntarily into the city due to the lowering of taxes and increase of city services provided. 

Valparaiso has raised its property tax rate from 3.933 mills in 2011 to 5.024 mills in 2023 (Valp.org). After accounting for inflation – the total amount of taxes on property in Valparaiso has increased by 78.68% in the last 12 years. Furthermore, Valparaiso has seen its actual revenues (revenues after accounting for inflation) fall for the city’s franchise fees while seeing an increase in its reliance on utility fees. These data mean the taxpayer has found themselves on the hook more often for the costs of Valparaiso government, which continues to cost more as time goes on. Valparaiso will need to enact a new plan to continue funding government services. It will either continue its trend of raising taxes, a plan rejected five years ago after a heated discussion between the Valparaiso City Commission and city residents, cut services, or develop a creative solution to provide services while maintaining or reducing the levy on its residents. 

Valparaiso Annual Budget 2011-2023

Year

Inflation

Property Tax Rate

Property Taxes

Franchise Fees

Utility Service Tax

Intergovernmental Revenue

Total Taxes Levied

2011

135.20%

3.933

$ 940,784

$ 505,648

$ 253,000

$ 981,960

$ 3,831,723

2012

132.50%

4.0644

$ 925,407

$ 522,050

$ 253,000

$ 884,703

$ 3,939,139

2013

130.60%

4.524

$ 1,010,273

$ 483,220

$ 263,160

$ 879,875

$ 3,714,327

2014

128.50%

4.524

$ 1,024,106

$ 449,750

$ 353,375

$ 848,106

$ 3,916,185

2015

128.30%

4.524

$ 1,048,788

$ 442,635

$ 356,674

$ 782,951

$ 3,620,004

2016

126.70%

5.024

$ 1,194,148

$ 437,115

$ 352,733

$ 787,441

$ 3,745,936

2017

124.10%

5.024

$ 1,231,053

$ 397,120

$ 343,112

$ 842,347

$ 3,947,453

2018

121.10%

 

$ 1,257,399

$ 399,630

$ 328,787

$ 850,122

$ 4,143,630

2019

119.00%

5.024

$ 1,333,990

$ 403,410

$ 354,358

$ 890,102

$ 4,140,296

2020

117.50%

5.024

$ 1,419,988

$ 405,375

$ 364,250

$ 1,473,550

$ 5,218,445

2021

112.20%

5.024

$ 1,472,260

$ 409,530

$ 347,820

$ 1,284,342

$ 4,089,123

2022

103.90%

5.024

$ 1,467,068

$ 389,625

$ 327,285

$ 1,576,916

$ 4,559,454

2023

100.00%

5.024

$ 1,681,000

$ 415,000

$ 320,000

$ 1,330,935

$ 5,611,850

Data from the City of Valparaiso’s annual budgets 2011-2023. All amounts are inflation-adjusted to 2023 dollars. Data taken from the city’s website, Valp.org.

Meanwhile – the city of Niceville has held its property tax rate steady at 3.700 mills over the same interval. A union of these two cities would give both sets of residents the economies of scale necessary to keep taxes lower in the long term and allow the city to provide adequate resources in the long term. 

 

Together, the area’s residents can build a more robust, tax-efficient, and responsive city infrastructure to continue strengthening the area. 

The Potential Problem

The area including and surrounding Niceville and Valparaiso, has a problem familiar to many Americans who watched the decline of the car makers in Detroit through the second half of the 20th century. The area is over-reliant on one sector of industry. 

That is a problem. Overreliance on one industry or a small subset of industries can spell disaster for a region’s long-term economic prospects. Just ask the residents of the city of Detroit – who saw the car industry evaporate from their town – along with a large chunk of their population and the value of their homes. By the end of the financial crisis in 2008 – a home that had sold after the decline in the automotive industry for $88,000 resold for $35,000. The same house was later on the market for less than $1,250. The cause: Detroit’s overreliance on just one industry – the automotive sector. While the region has begun to diversify its economy, “Michigan remains heavily dependent on the auto industry and durable goods manufacturing in general. The highly cyclical auto industry, while shrinking, is still big enough to push Michigan into deep recessions when the national economy stumbles” wrote Rick Haglund in the Michigan Advance. Haglund notes that roughly one in four jobs was married to the auto industry in Detroit in the 1960s. Sixty years later, that number is one in five according to the Detroit Regional Chamber. Still, the Detroit economy, which has significantly smaller bets on the auto industry, would feel significant effects from a slowdown in that industry. However, it accounts for about seven percent of the city’s Gross Regional Product (GRP).   

The region of Niceville and Valparaiso faces a similar problem as Detroit with its dependence on Eglin Air Force Base for economic output in Okaloosa County. The Air Force Base is responsible for two-thirds of every dollar of gross regional product earned. The fact that the federal government can move missions on the base in an administrative action called base re-alignment (BRAC) means significant amounts of economic activity can vanish with a vote in Congress. One only has to look at the downturn in economic activity in towns and cities with a former military base to see what happens. While bases with negligible overall impact on a local economy did not significantly affect the area’s economy due to its closing – areas, where bases were a large part of the economy, saw catastrophic effects, according to a study by the RAND corporation.  

According to that RAND study of climate change’s effects on military bases around the United States – Eglin Air Force Base is at an elevated risk for flooding in significant portions of its perimeter, which includes unoccupied, but mission-critical test range area. On balance, the military facilities at Eglin could sustain between 3.8 and 4.5 billion dollars in damage from a hit from a hurricane

A RAND report from Narayana et. al notes a hurricane similar to Hurricane Michael, which would be more likely as climate change continues to make hurricanes more common.

This chart, taken from Narayana et al., shows the monetary damage that major Air Force Bases would take if a hurricane Michael-sized storm hit the base. The researchers based the cost estimates on a series of simulations.

Bay County, Florida – about 60 miles from Eglin Air Force Base – suffered tremendous economic hits when the tourism industry and Tyndall Air Force Base effectively shut down after Hurricane Michael landed in 2018. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has disbursed more than $3.1 Billion in aid to a region that produced roughly $8.6 Billion annually in gross regional product. Many missions have moved from Tyndall permanently, meaning federal money has left the economy, even though the base has not been officially shut down. Something similar could happen to Eglin, which hosts many different units with missions that could move their operations, should the need arise. “It would be completely devastating for our local economy,” says Tracy Jennette, a realtor, and City of Niceville planning board member with a background in economics, about the impact a closure of Eglin Air Force Base would have on the area.

Fun fact by Christopher Saul

Congress will not likely close down Eglin Air Force Base. Military planners say the need to keep the United States’s military technology one step ahead of the Chinese and Russians rely on the base  making the area valuable for planning, testing, and training. However, a slight realignment of missions for various reasons – from a genuine need to change the mission’s venue or reprisal against the area’s political representation, could cause significant damage to the local economy. A ten percent drop in the revenues Eglin provides the area, an action caused by the reallocation of mission to another area, would mean a six percent drop in overall gross domestic product. In June of 2022, the economy of the entire U.S. shrank by .9% – causing fears of a recession. A chain of actions to remove missions from Eglin Air Force Base would create localized economic destruction on a scale much worse than the .9% experienced nationwide and talked about widely in the media that year. Ultimately, the economic effect on the area goes up in proportion to the number of jobs lost on base – which is the biggest employer in the area. As long as the area can retain the majority of its military presence, one or two missions lost would not end Eglin’s economy as we know it, but the removal of a large number of squadrons would. “Losing Eglin would be catastrophic,” said Tracy Jennette, “just losing a single squadron would not have that effect. It would be a ding in the short term, but we would have a pretty stable economy in the long term because of all of the other bases we have.” 

However, just because something is unlikely does not mean planners should not allocate for it as a potential outcome. In the book Naked Statistics, Charles Wheelan brings up the failure of a risk analysis model, used widely in the financial world before the Great Recession, to pick up on the fragility of the subprime mortgage issue in the American Economy. This model, called VaR didn’t account for unlikey scenarios. An unlikey scenario is exactly what happened, “In the 1990s and early 2000s, commercial banks used lending mode for home mortgages that assigned zero probability to large declines in housing prices. Housing prices had never fallen as far and as fast as they had in 2007. But that’s what happened.” 

By preparing for a potential catastrophe, the residents of the two cities that would merge into a single entity would also get slightly lower tax burdens, better public services, and the knowledge that the city is both able and ready to respond with efficiency to the needs of its single-largest employer, Eglin Air Force Base and the potential disasters which could befall the city, such as a hurricane or the moving of mission sets away from Eglin. 

In this paper, four options are laid out to affect change in the two municipalities – including pushing for an administrative but not political merger of the two cities, a merger of the two cities, a dissolution of partnerships currently in place between the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso or doing nothing to change the status quo and the cities operating as they are now. 

The Solution

Residents and leadership of the area need to control what they can control – that includes the consolidation of their political strength into one entity that can advocate, strategize and assert their influence more effectively together. These fortifiers will, in turn, induce the movement of diverse economic activity, resilience from issues like storms and recession or military base realignment, and help retain property values in the area for residents. The cities should use their collective power as a larger area that a merger of the two cities would bring, along with a mild climate, low taxes, trained workforce, and other advantages, to increase the area’s resiliency to threats to its economic prosperity. 

This paper will lay out a plan to advocate for and execute a merger of the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso in the next decade and what the leadership of the merged city would do next. 

 

A review of the literature concerning the mergers of municipalities would seem, on its face, to discourage the mergers of Niceville and Valparaiso. However, this paper will show why the two cities would benefit from a merger despite some conclusions drawn in the academic literature.

 

This has to do with the fact that the areas which American cities – specifically municipalities in Florida – have economic control over are significantly smaller and driven by economies of scale than cities in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world. 

 

While the ultimate goal should be the incorporation into one city of all land between Eglin Air Force Base to the West and the intersection of John Sims Parkway and State Route 293 to the east – the first step, argument of this paper is to argue for the merger of the area’s two municipalities – Niceville and Valparaiso. 

 

The consolidation of the two cities into one will strengthen the city’s position in the region, allow for better coordination of further expansion of services and incorporation, reduce tax levies on current residents – and make incorporation more attractive to people in the unincorporated county, and improve municipal services to everyone in the region. The continuing consolidation of the region will, in turn, attract more businesses to the area and continue a positive cycle of growth and resilience for generations to come.

Background

Mergers are a messy business. They tend to crack eggs to make omelets and require a heavy lift from the elected officials, bureaucrats, and citizens who participate in them – whether willingly or unwillingly. However, with strong incentives to merge the cities in place, it is time to seriously consider the consolidation as a way to benefit the people who live in both cities.

History of Mergers in the State of Florida

Only two mergers between cities have occurred since the rules created by Florida’s 1968 constitution were passed and implemented in the state. Despite the massive population influx, Floridians have created few new cities in the last half-century. Florida grew from 4.9 million residents in 1970 to about 16 million residents counted in the 2020 census

Only two cities have unincorporated and merged into another city since the Home Rule Act passed the Florida Legislature and was signed by Then-governor Reubin O’Donovan Askew in 1973. A couple hours’ drive from the ‘Twin Cities’ of Niceville and Valparaiso, voters decided to dissolve Ward Ridge in Gulf County and merge it into neighboring Port St. Joe. Hacienda Village in Broward County, described as a “hamlet, once consisting of just 14 mobile homes, an orange grove, and three junkyards,” merged into another city in 1984 – partially at the insistence of a state representative who had received a speeding ticket from the Hacienda Village Police Force which pulled in more than half of the city’s annual revenue from a speed trap on a thoroughfare through town.

History of Niceville and Valparaiso

The cities of Niceville and Valparaiso sit across from each other on opposite banks for Boggy Bayou just outside the gates of Eglin Air Force Base in the northwest Florida Panhandle. The two cities share a border that runs approximately two miles. Both cities share a long history and a primary industry. Both cities serve as bedroom communities of Eglin Air Force Base, which supplies approximately 65.1% of the estimated gross domestic product of Okaloosa County – the highest percentage of military dependency of any county in Florida.

Settlers founded the town of Boggy during the tumultuous 1840s. Unrest permeated the Sunshine State through the Seminole Wars for the first half of the 19th century. While the area did not see much conflict during the war – there were several incidents close enough to the area to ensure skittishness amongst those who might otherwise move to the area for cheap land close to their places of birth. Add in the stifling heat and the proclivity of settlers to die of mosquito-borne diseases, and the area was uniquely unappealing for colonization. These factors resulted in a small population in Florida in general and the Florida panhandle in particular for the first 100 years of the state’s membership in the United States of America. 

More than 80 years after American settlers moved into the panhandle of Florida, an entrepreneurial Chicagoan named James Plew moved to the area. He became the driving force behind growing a newly created town, Valparaiso, in 1921. Valparaiso became dominant compared to its neighboring town (what is now Niceville) and was nicknamed ‘Old Valparaiso’, while the area that is now called Niceville was known as ‘New Valparaiso’ until an exasperated postmaster put a stop to the practice, accordind to a book, called The Heritage of Okaloosa County

Map of the Mid-Bay area. The city of Valparaiso is in red, the city of Niceville is in pink and the unincorporated areas are in yellow. (Okaloosa County GIS).

After the Second World War, Florida experienced a population boom statewide. Okaloosa County was no exception to that growth. The economic activity associated with Eglin Air Force Base increased Niceville’s population from 948 in the 1930 census to 2,468 in the 1950 census, according to documents compiled by Niceville City Historian Elisa Mitchener. Across Boggy Bayou, the City of Valparaiso saw an even more significant increase. Over the same period, the city had increased from roughly 220 people to 1,041, according to the US Census Bureau’s recrods. 

The two cities have since been referred to collectively as the ‘Twin Cities.’ A hospital on the border between the two cities is known as Twin Cities Hospital, and various businesses, from transmission repair shops to arborists, use the ‘Twin Cities’ name in their titles. The earliest discussion of a possible merger between the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso came to the fore in the 1960s when a businessman named Roger Wright – a proprietor of several businesses in Valparaiso and Niceville, attempted to get the merger discussion started. “Roger was a very progressive person,” said former Niceville City Manager Lannie Corbin, “He wanted to merge [the cities] and rename it Bay City. Well, you had real strong politicians who are very territorial. And you couldn’t get anyone to budge from either side. It didn’t last long”.  

Since rejecting Wright’s proposal, circumstances and sound planning have favored the city of Niceville. Niceville has doubled in population since 1980, according to the US Census Bureau, and has seen an explosion of economic activity within the city. Valparaiso vacillated between a high of 6,142 individuals in 1980 and a low of 4,672 individuals in 1990; the most recent count put the city at around 4,752 residents. Valparaiso struggles to retain and grow businesses within the city limits. The city, about a third the size of Niceville, has about one-fifteenth of the gross tax receipts, according to the US Census American Community Survey (US Census Bureau, 2023).

“You have to go back and look at the history. Niceville was a trailer park back then, and Valparaiso was a city. And [Valparaiso] had these commissioners who were larger than life and bigger than god back then. And they were [elected] for 50-60 years at a time. Well, they used to look at me when I first got here – and by then, they were in their late 70s, early 80s. They would look at me and say, ‘what happened, what happened to Val-p?’ And I’d say, ‘you just need to go look in the mirror, you guys weren’t changed for the last 50 years. You’re the ones who let it disintegrate into what it is. You decided that you wanted to be a bedroom community of Eglin, and you didn’t want to annex Niceville when you had the chance. You could have had Niceville and Bluewater,” said Valparaiso City Administrator Carl Scott. “Back in the 50s, Niceville was broke. Had zero money. [Niceville] was begging Val-p to take them over. And for whatever reason, it never happened. Because of the base’s proximity, people would just go to the on-base commissary, and then you got to see Niceville – which is at the right distance. Val-p was destined to die under this circumstance,” said Scott.  

The City of Valparaiso suspended its fire chief in 2018 and would eventually combine its part-volunteer fire service with the Niceville Fire Department under Niceville Fire Chief Tommy Mayville. This arrangement is the first merged-department agreement between the two cities. The fire department merger shows promise for further arrangements in the future between the two entities, which could eventually lead to a complete consolidation between the two cities, which could have financial and other benefits for residents. “We did not buy a piece of equipment this year for the fire department,” said Niceville City Manager Lannie Corbin in 2020, “We didn’t add people. Merging with them gave us access to more equipment… Just from a city standpoint, we have saved about $700,000 I guess in this first year”. Niceville City Manager Corbin said the department merger is a positive sign of collaborative development between the cities. “We’re their fire department. Even before we merged… they had a volunteer department with one or two firemen. And now, rather than taking 15 minutes for the Valparaiso Volunteer Fire Department to get there, we are there. That right there tells you about the efficiencies and services provided when you think positively about something like that”. 

The City of Valparaiso is uncertain it will be able to maintain its ability to provide expected services, like trash, police, and fire, with the resources it currently musters from the population. In their budget discussions for Fiscal Year 2021, the Valparaiso City Commissioners proposed a levy increase of 17%, or from 5.024 mills to 5.9 mills, according to the now defunct Bay Beacon newspaper. Just 15 years ago, the millage rate was 2.8754 – less than half of the proposed new millage. “They ended up taking some money out of their reserves – and were able to negotiate a new contract with their health insurance provider – as well as repurpose some restore act dollars,” said Michael Griffith, a reporter who covered local government for the Bay Beacon.

Demographics of Niceville, Valparaiso, and Unincorporated Areas

Niceville and Valparaiso together have around 20,000 residents. Niceville has the majority of those residents, roughly 16,000. Those who live in Niceville tend to be more affluent and younger. Many area residents are engaged in work, either as active duty military, federal civilian employees, or government contractors. Several indicators show that Niceville is the richer and more financially stable of the two cities, both individually and on a corporate level – though not so much so that a merger would create undue stress on one population or another.

Population and Income

Niceville has a larger population and more income per capita than Valparaiso. In fact, Niceville has roughly three-and-a-half times more residents than Valparaiso has inside of its city limits. Valparaiso residents, per capita, make roughly $4,000 less than the residents of Niceville every year. 

The Human Development Index (HDI) measures an area’s people based on their amalgamated health, education, and standard of living. The United Nations created the statistic to compare countries to one another as a way to measure development, but economists and social scientists can use it on the local level within the United States as well. 

A look at the Community HDI score for the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso shows a small gap between the two cities. Valparaiso has an HDI score of .880, a similar score to the countries of Poland or Lithuania. The HDI score map breaks Niceville into three sections. The western portion of Niceville has the lowest score in the city, at .910, similar to that of Spain. The southern peninsula portion of the city is recorded at .940. That number is comparable to the country of Finland. The eastern portion of Niceville has the highest score at .950, comparable to the city of Ireland (Community HDI Score). The four zones’ complete range spans .07 between the lowest and highest scoring. Niceville and Valparaiso’s range on their HDI scores is similar to other cities in Okaloosa County. Crestview, a city north of Niceville and Valparaiso, has a HDI range of .05 between its best and worst areas of town. Fort Walton Beach, to the southwest, has a range of .07. Larger cities, like Pensacola, have a range of .16, similar to the the economic difference between Columbia and Norway. So while there is a gap between Niceville and Valparaiso regarding wealth, it is about the same range as nearby cities and much smaller than in larger cities in Florida. 

 

The Community HDI Score Interactive Map

This embeded map is a collaborative effort between the University of Chicago  Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation. It aims to provide a Human Development Index (HDI) score for every zip code in the United States. The HDI score is a measurement of the overall development and well-being of an area, based on three key dimensions: wealth, health, and education level.

The HDI score ranges from 0 to 1, with 1 representing the highest level of development. The methodology used to calculate the HDI score follows the framework originally developed by the United Nations. According to the UN’s definition, the HDI is a composite index that takes into account the average achievement in the following dimensions of human development:

  1. Health: This dimension is evaluated based on life expectancy at birth, indicating the overall health and longevity of the population in the zip code.

  2. Education: The education dimension is assessed by considering the mean years of schooling for adults aged 25 and above, as well as the expected years of schooling for children of school-entering age. This reflects the level of education and access to knowledge in the area.

  3. Standard of Living: The standard of living dimension is measured using the gross national income per capita, providing insights into the economic well-being of the population.

By aggregating normalized indices for each of these three dimensions using a geometric mean, the webpage calculates and assigns an HDI score to each zip code in the United States. This allows users to gain valuable insights into the disparities in human development across different areas of the country and helps policymakers and researchers in understanding regional development patterns.

In addition to having more population and a higher per capita income than the city of Valparaiso, Niceville also has significantly more businesses within its city limits than its neighbor to the west. While some of this discrepancy could be attributed to the different sizes of the cities, Niceville is about two square miles larger than Valparaiso. There are more than ten times the number of businesses in Niceville. According to the Okaloosa County Tax Collector, the city of Niceville has 211 businesses in the city, while Valparaiso has a total of 15, according to data requested from the Okaloosa County Tax Collector’s Office. 

Businesses with Business Tax Receipts in the cities of Niceville (blue) and Valparaiso (Orange). Compiled from Okaloosa County Tax Collector’s Office Data. 

Tax Rate and Housing

The city of Niceville levies a lower rate of property tax than the city of Valparaiso – but the smaller city and lower overall land value mean that the city of Valparaiso collects far less tax revenue per square mile than its larger and more dense neighbor to the east. 

Lower tax revenues mean there are opportunities in the city of Valparaiso for commercial and higher-density residential housing options that have not yet been fully exploited for the benefit of the city’s residents vis-a-vis housing and tax revenues. Additionally, the region is dealing with a housing availability crisis that has forced people to live farther away from Eglin Air Force Base. Workforce housing has become so scarce in the area that the Niceville Police Chief asked the city council to consider asking developers for homes in developments that could be leased to city police officers as an incentive. The Okaloosa County Sheriff has floated the idea of creating Sheriff’s Office-owned barracks-style living for Deputies so they can afford to live in the area. 

Keeping Valparaiso an independent municipality may be an issue of pride for her longer-term residents. However, it is becoming harder and harder for the city commission to keep up standards and not raise taxes. Okaloosa County Growth Management Director Elliot Kampert is skeptical the Valparaiso city commission can keep any semblance of past standards in the city and keep the city’s already-higher-than-average taxes from increasing. “If the city council of Valparaiso has the political will to enforce standards to keep Valparaiso as it is, then it could make sense to keep Valparaiso as it is, but I don’t know that it would long term economically pan out. They would risk becoming a backwater community that is stuck with property values in decline simply because infrastructure ages,” Kampert said. He added in the fact that Valparaiso is next to a city with a lower property tax rate like Niceville, the logical argument that Valparaiso should continue to exist gets weaker. “If you look at the more rural areas of the county where cities form organically, because you need the cumulative power of taxation to provide the infrastructure you need in a more rural setting [it makes sense to have a city like Valparaiso]. But Valparaiso is surrounded in an urban area – it’s not a unique provider of any of those resources. People can go elsewhere for hospitals and shopping, schools, everything,” Kampert said, “So there is no organic need to have a city there, other than civic pride, or they want to control their fate by the way of zoning or land use”.  

 

As more people and families move into the area, the truism “they ain’t making any more land” becomes more painfully obvious. This lack of land has similarities to the vignette that a “thirsty sailor sees water everywhere. However, there is not a drop to drink.” To the south of both cities, the Choctawhatchee Bay prevents additional housing growth. In the other three directions, Eglin Air Force Base’s cantonment and range area presents a Catch-22. For city leaders, they know that encroachment onto the land, even if given to the cities for their use, could eventually lead to the Air Force deciding to pack up the mission and head somewhere else because of the disruption that residential living would do to a test range that is famous for ensuring that the military can maintain its lethality through the applied usage of bombs, missiles, and other hardware.

Indeed, the city’s leadership in Valparaiso knows this well. The city was built before the Air Force Base, and therefore experiences lots of aircraft noise and has homes  situated in what is called the ‘Clear Zone.’ The Clear Zone is the area the Air Force believes is most likely to suffer damage or destruction if one of its planes experiences issues. Other zones, which make up roughly half of the town’s total land mass, have issues with loud jet engines regularly. The Air Force wants  to remove homes from the Clear Zone. Clearing these zone would serve as a way to preserve the mission it has from the Department of Defense. To preserve that mission, the Air Force has offered to swap that property with the City of Valparaiso for other property the base currently owns but does not use. Valparaiso’s planning and zoning commission has worked toward a plan that would either see the city buy these homes from residents and give them lots in the newly acquired area – or encourage someone up the chain in the Air Force to offer residents that deal themselves – a project the city planning commission has worked on for the better part of two decades as a way to keep residents safe – and to ensure Eglin’s economically vital mission can continue. 

A map of the Clear Zone (denoted by CZ) and Noise Zones (denoted by APZ I and APZ II) in Valparaiso and Niceville

 

So, city leadership must balance the need for more places to put people with the knowledge that if they take too many liberties with the base, it could run off the goose that laid the golden egg: the Air Force Base. 

The cities must look at their housing makeup to account for the issues created by living next to an Air Force Base. The city of Niceville has been more densely developed – hosting some 1,200 residents per square mile. According to the US Census Bureau, Valparaiso has been less densely developed, at about 400 people per square mile. The imbalance in supply and demand must ultimately include balancing the Air Force Base’s needs, which could include land swaps and opportunities to build more affordable and dense housing for people in Valparaiso. 

How to Execute Mergers in Florida

The State of Florida has put together several methods through which cities can merge in Florida State Statute 165.041. The legislature can create a municipality out of thin air through its power. The statute also allows two cities to merge after following a series of steps involving ordinances and referenda. 

The law specifies that the State of Florida can create a city of its own volition. The legislature would first have to order a feasibility study and receive it before the first Monday after September 1 of the year before the regular session of the legislature when the charter would become the de jure law of the city. The feasibility study would need to contain the following: 

  • The location of the territory subject to a boundary change, and a map of the area identifying the proposed change. 
  • A list and explanation of the significant reasons for proposing the change. 
  • An outline of the following characteristics of an area:
    •  List of the current land use designations applied to the subject area in the county comprehensive plan.
    • List of the current county zoning designations applied to the subject area.
    • A statement of the present land use characteristics of the area.
    • A description of the development being proposed for the territory, if any, and a statement of when residents could expect actual development to begin if known. 
  • A list of all public agencies, such as local governments, school districts, and special districts, whose current boundary falls within the boundary of the territory proposed for the change or reorganization. 
  • A list of current services being provided in the current proposed incorporation area, including, but not limited to, water, sewer, solid waste, transportation, public works, law enforcement, fire and rescue, zoning, street lights, parks and recreation, library and cultural facilities, and the estimated costs for each service. 
  • A list of proposed services to a city would provide within the proposed incorporation area, and the estimated costs of such proposed services. 
  • The names and addresses of three officers or people submitting the proposal. 
  • Evidence of the financial ability and organizational planning to make the city a success including:
    • Existing tax bases, including ad valorem taxable value, utility taxes, sales and use taxes, franchise taxes, license and permit fees, charges for services, fines, forfeitures, and other revenue sources, as appropriate. 
    • A five-year operational plan that, at a minimum, includes proposed staffing, building acquisition and construction, debt issuance, and budgets. 
  • Data and analysis supporting the conclusions that incorporation is necessary and financially feasible, including population projections, population density calculations, and an explanation concerning methodologies used for such an analysis. 
  • Evaluation of the alternatives to the area to address policy concerns. 
  • Evidence that the proposed municipality meets the requirements for incorporation. 

While a full-on legislature-backed merger of the two cities of Niceville and Valparaiso is technically an option for the two cities to become one – the option more inclusive of the people it will affect would be the provision placed in the second portion of the same statute. Under this portion of 165.041, “A charter for merger of two or more municipalities and associated unincorporated areas may also be adopted by the passage of a concurrent ordinance by the governing bodies of each municipality affected, approved by a vote of the qualified voters in each area affected” (Florida State Statutes). The proposed charter would require both cities governing bodies to pass ordinances allowing for the merger of the two cities and then provide the city’s residents an opportunity to vote on it.

The ordinances passed by the cities would need to include the new city’s charter, its effective date, the economic changes that would take place, and majorities from both sets of affected voters. The vote should occur 30 days after the passage of the ordinances. Additionally, the notice of the election would have to be published at least once each week for two consecutive weeks immediately before the election in a newspaper of general circulation in the area to be affected. The notice will have to give the time and place of the election and a general description of the borders of the new city. 

Literature Review

More than fifty years have passed since the last major merger of two or more cities in Florida. The biggest example of a true merger took place in 1970, when five cities merged to create Panama City Beach. Only two mergers have taken place in the ‘Home Rule Era’ – named after the 1973 law which lays out how cities can merge, dissolve and incorporate.

On its face, the literature would not support the merger of the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso. Academics worldwide have studied mergers in different countries and, with some variations, have noted that the merger of cities, especially when voluntary, does not save taxpayers money. While this information is not disputed, the variables and incentives for the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso are vastly different from the ones studied by academics in Europe, Canada, and other parts of the world. These key differences come down to a couple of factors. The municipal governments studied in other parts of the world bear more responsibilities than a local government in the United States would. These local governments in other parts of the world must take care of their resident’s healthcare, childcare, and other burdens, which do not decrease by any noticeable amount after mergers because people still need the same amount of childcare and healthcare, regardless of which local government is in charge of the management of their programs. 

The literature does show cost savings for some of the biggest line items for local governments in the American system, though. In the literature review, administrative and road building and maintenance costs decrease after a merger for many towns and cities. Though the authors mentioned in this review also note cities that are likely to merge already share equipment and other resources, much like Niceville and Valparaiso do now, meaning that the residents may not see the cost savings post-merger because some of those cost savings have taken place due to a de facto merger. 

It does not seem that a vast amount of labor for the current literature has been devoted to the non-financial effects of mergers of municipalities. However, of the nearly 20 local elected officials and appointed leaders of the Twin Cities area, almost all of them mentioned specifically that a merger between the two cities would certainly bring about an increase in the quality of life for residents due to an increase in governmental efficiency in the long run. 

According to the literature review: in most cases around the world – the merger of two cities is not a cost-effective way of doing business. It does not bring about the reduction of tax burden on residents. It doesn’t provide them with any significant benefits to balance the weight of the infighting amongst leaders who do not want to see the end of the city and the desired efficiency results for leaders to point to during their re-election campaigns. However, this is not the case for Niceville-Valparaiso. The merged city would bring about desired effects, including a reduction in taxpayer-funded costs, the ability to use economies of scale to reduce costs, apply for bigger grants and throw its collective weight around to get what it wants more effectively. 

Cost Savings

Mergers and consolidations are only a good idea in specific situations. The latter part of the 20th century saw a multitude of municipal mergers in Scandinavia and the eastern portion of Germany. Governments in those countries, which have more centralized structures than the ones in the United States, looked at mergers to reduce the financial burden of local governance on the taxpayer. While the cost reduction was nominal for most merged governments at best – the countries studied, such as Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, provide significantly more services to their citizens, such as healthcare, welfare, education through the municipality, and childcare, which is paid for by taxes. Most of the literature states that municipal mergers took because the national governments of various countries wanted to reduce the overhead costs of running a government, as was done in Canada at the beginning of the 21st century . Indeed, Shimizu found that countries outside Nordic countries and Canada also looked to mergers to reduce taxpayers’ costs in Japan and Greece

Mergers do not generate extraordinary cost savings. Egger and other researchers found, “The average merger generates a night-light increase which is equivalent to overall two percent GDP growth. Absorbing places experience a four percent GDP growth, whereas absorbed places face a two percent decline in GDP” In addition, a study by Blohm-Hansen and other researchers noted that “Total wages of municipal employees fell after consolidation, but that only accounts for 10% of government costs in Denmark.” While this may seem at its outset to be a death knell for the argument for the merger of cities in general and Niceville and Valparaiso in particular – it is essential to keep in mind municipalities in Denmark are responsible for a bevy of services which Florida cities are not, including schools, childcare, the environment, social spending and to some extent, culture. Blohm-Hanson’s study did note that road maintenance costs per kilometer did decrease after the merger, and “some public goods have elements of nonrivalty in consumption, so that the marginal cost is zero. For instance, disease surveillance, water quality control, and restaurant inspections may not cost more to provide for multiple residents than for just one resident. Second, the increasing scale of service provision makes possible a more fine-grained division of labor, yielding the associated benefits of specialization. However, at a certain level, such benefits of larger size are offset by problems of communication and control. As output grows, so does the need for transmission of information through more and more layers of management. Large production processes often suffer from bureaucratic congestion. Consequently, production processes normally exhibit first increasing, then constant and finally decreasing returns to scale. The typical cost curve is U shaped.”

Blesse is more favorable than other authors about the concept of a successful merger but adds that the financial effects of the merger are more negligible than some optimists may suspect. “Overall, our results indicate that mergers result in economies of scale for administrative expenditures: We observe a negative and statistically significant effect on this category. On the other hand, we do not identify any significant average effects on staff, total and current expenditures. However, further analysis reveals significant heterogeneity across different types of mergers. First, we find that administrative cost savings are mostly due to compulsory mergers. Secondly, we observe that large negative, albeit insignificant effects of compulsory mergers on total and current expenditures; for voluntary mergers, our estimates are statistically insignificant and small in magnitude. Third, we find that the effect of voluntary and compulsory mergers varies depending on the additional characteristic of a merger. Voluntary and, to some extent, compulsory mergers are more effective in reducing costs when more inhabitants are effective”. 

Ultimately, the jury is out on whether or not municipal mergers or consolidations save the taxpayer any money. Some studies swear by the thesis that it does save money for governments to consolidate in the long run, while others are more reticent to make such a claim – or refute it altogether. 

The Ideal Size For a City

Several authors within the body of literature about municipal mergers and consolidations speak about an ‘ideal size’ for a city – where its services are most efficient. Experts disagree on a delineated number of citizens served at which a city is most efficient. An article from Byron Katsuyama in Municipal Research News from 2003 does suggest that economies of scale limits might be close to cities of about 25,000. Still, others believe the number could be as high as 26,108 and as low as 842 and that economies of scale will depend on initial and post-amalgamation sizes of the units and will also vary across the types of public services involved” according to Bløhm-Hansen.

Rune Sørenson notes the loss of specialized positions within municipal governments that comes with having splintered, smaller municipalities instead of a larger ones that can support more specialized positions – although that economic gain comes at a cost. “Small units allow each citizen more influence on local policies, so politics are populated with citizens with relatively homogenous policy preferences, and, mobility and competition among numerous local authorities may bring actual policies more in line with voter preferences. At the same time, small local governments are not able to address several important issues. They lack the governance capacity to offer some more specialized public services. Economies of scale call for a minimum level of production, and provision of local public goods requires a certain population base to achieve a sufficient degree of cost-sharing”.

Blohm-Hansen et al. note that cost savings will have some variability, which the cities’ size can explain after their mergers. The authors also noted that the cost savings would vary across the types of public services provided by the municipalities.  

“In Sweden, the national government ordered a merger of smaller municipalities to cut costs. Finally, Niklas Hanes and the other researchers who looked back at the mergers and drew conclusions noted, “Amalgamations in the Swedish 1952 reform did not have any effect on income growth, although amalgamations of small municipalities did have a small impact on population growth”. 

Voluntary versus forced mergers

The literature notes a difference between mergers enacted by the force of the national government and voluntary amalgamations. The authors indicated the binary motives for mergers; being told by the national or state government to do so and merge voluntarily also had differing outcomes. 

Blesse noted that voluntary mergers could have seemed less effective at reducing costs for several reasons. They believe municipalities that decided to merge voluntarily already began the process informally on the road to a merger – and would already have seen some of the benefits of consolidation before officials signed the documents. “Voluntary mergers may also be less effective because,” Blesse writes, “those municipalities that voluntarily agree may have already coordinated and pooled resources in the pre-merger period. Consequently, cost-savings would be lower”. 

Rich and Poor Mergers

According to the literature, there are mixed opinions about the effect of a merger on a city’s rich and poor. 

In their analysis, Researcher Stephen Calabrese of the University of South Florida found that renters in cities that experience consolidation typically end up better off, while suburban homeowners end up worse off. This reality means that the masses will likely need to “consulate the losers, [so that] everyone in all municipalities could be better off through a merger of two or more municipalities. Wealthier cities tended to avoid amalgamation with poorer ones, according to a study of Swedish mergers in 1952 by Hanes et al. “The results show that income differences affected the willingness to amalgamate; high-income municipalities opposed amalgamation with fewer wealth municipalities.” The writers add, “Small and large municipalities were most likely to accept the amalgamation decision, and equally-sized municipalities were less likely to amalgamate voluntarily”. 

Sørenson noted that more prosperous cities would almost always fight to avoid a merger with a poorer neighbor because they did not want to absorb and pay for a poorer city’s upkeep and felt it would be a drain on their resources. 

Non-Financial Incentives for Mergers

Almost none of the literature looks at other benefits to residents besides cost savings – such as increased quality of life. One study by the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville found that the public opinion of certain services decreased for city-county consolidated services but that other services would stay the same. The authors, Hardy and Shults, believed that the decrease in the approval rating of the services provided had more to do with the type of service itself – rather than the consolidation: “Many of the results of this research can probably be attributed to the type of service provided. Labor-intensive services which rely more on interpersonal relationships (such as police services and the tendency to actually complain and receive a response when a resident wants to complain) are sensitive to jurisdictional size, since residents in a smaller jurisdiction have a greater opportunity to know those who provide these services. Another survey was conducted only a year after the consolidation of Nashville and Davidson County. That survey asked if residents were “…generally satisfied with how Metropolitan Nashville/Davidson County has worked in its first year in operation?” The results indicated that a majority of citizens who were questioned believed that the new government was performing well”. 

There will be significant resistance to the merger from the community and elected officials

One aspect concerning the difficulty of a municipal merger was almost universally accepted throughout the body of literature was the opinion that both communities and elected officials would more than likely resist a consolidation vigorously. Even in Jacksonville – which would merge with Duval County, Florida, to form a single government there were stumbling blocks throughout the decade before the merger – including five failed consolidation votes. The consolidation advocates prevailed on the sixth effort, Journalist and Jacksonville historian Richard Martin noted in his book, A Quiet Revolution. 

Sørenson notes, “almost without exception, consolidation proposals also trigger highly emotional debates and local protests, and centralized restructuring commonly incurs prohibitive political costs”. 

Differing Politics

While this may not be an issue in the Florida panhandle, which is beet-red Republican and has been so for the last thirty years – Sørenson notes citizens of neighboring municipalities “commonly have diverging policy preferences. In a merged municipality, the local council may pursue different policies than each of the original councils”. In the last presidential election, Valparaiso and Niceville’s municipalities voted heavily Republican. 71% of Valparaiso residents voted for the Republican presidential candidate in 2020. Niceville’s five precincts voted between 68.5% and 72.5% Republican. The high incidence of political party loyalty indicates, though it does not mean definitively, that Niceville and Valparaiso’s citizens hold similar cultural and economic values. 

Political Disincentives

Finally, several scholars identify disincentives specifically for political machines to promote mergers and consolidations, as they reduce the number of paid foot soldiers that can advocate for their policies in the general public. In their paper about Japanese municipal consolidation, Kay Shimizu notes that the Liberal Democratic Party cut their legs out from under them when they advocated for the consolidation of many rural cities and towns to cut the cost of governance. The LDP then had to contend with fewer local advocates working on their behalf – and a more politically independent rural Japan, which had once been their stronghold. “First, the total reduction in the number of local politicians hurt the LDP by cutting the number of paid foot soldiers who had long been some of the most reliable vote gathering forces for the LDP,” Shimizu writes, “The reduction includes the mayors and the heads of each merged municipality. By reducing the number of prefectural units, and thus local politicians, the LDP, which have relied more heavily on local politicians for votes than other parties, took a disproportionately heavy blow after the mergers. Second, they argue that the reduction in the number of municipalities and foot soldiers and the increase in geographic size of each municipality hurt the LDP by increasing the geographic area of representation for each local politician, thereby diminishing the ability to monitor the voting behavior of their constituents effectively”. 

Sørenson notes similar patterns a half the planet away in Norway. Changes in party strength due to municipal reform mean weakening power bases for some parties in power there, too. Indeed – the current governor of Florida has more than likely noticed this and begun an attempt to shore up the Republican power base in Florida by encouraging the passage of a bill that would make all school boards partisan offices. 

Additionally, Sørenson claims local politicians will fight to preserve policymaking at a national level and their power at a local level. “After taking these factors into account, we observe that local politicians and top administrators in small municipalities remain more reluctant to merge than leaders of more populous municipalities. Elimination of revenue disparities would certainly further consolidations, but local leaders and probably citizens are prepared to pay a price, in terms of diseconomies of scale to persist as independent polities”.

Consolidation in this specific situation for Niceville and Valparaiso would be a net benefit

The cities of Niceville and Valparaiso have a hard time recruiting and retaining police officers, firefighters, and other city employees over a long period because the cost of living in the cities has crept up – and the promise of much better wages in other parts of the state is ever-present. A quick search of richer fire and police departments cross-tabulated with the cost of living for each city shows that public sector workers can make more money and spend less to live in larger cities. A graph of police officer pay versus the cost of living shows a strong financial incentive for someone in law enforcement. In this area, Niceville has had trouble recruiting in the last year for certified law enforcement officers to go somewhere else.

The cost of skilled labor – essential for the provision of public goods – will continue to be a more difficult hurdle for local governments. They will need to compete for a smaller pool of public servants. “It is plausible that small municipalities are not able to efficiently provide certain public goods, because of lack of professionalization. In addition, larger municipalities have more bargaining power vis-a-vis externals (e.g. private suppliers of inputs) and can reduce purchase price,” according to Blesse. This predicament continues to be dire for smaller cities and towns, so merging smaller cities and towns with another could offer a potential solution. The increasing expense and difficulty in the procurement of manpower are why Shimizu argues that local politicians should not look at a potential merger as a threat to their power – but as an opportunity to get ahold of more resources and an additional measure of independence for the town or city that results from the merger. “First, mergers themselves have made many localities independent by merging fiscally weak municipalities with larger cities and towns. Local politicians in these municipalities can now access larger budgets, have greater capacity to carry out larger projects , often have elevated their statuses within the subnational government hierarchy and can lure bigger businesses and other sources of income,” Shimzu said.

Research Methodology

Interview of Key Stakeholders in Niceville and Valparaiso

For my research, I contacted elected officials and key unelected stakeholders in the area to gauge their receptiveness to a merger. In addition, I asked the various elected officials and stakeholders whether or not they thought the merger would benefit the residents of Niceville and Valparaiso and their opinions on whether or not it was a good idea to conduct a merger. 

I reached out to all eleven elected officials in the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso to gain insight into their thoughts on merging. Five of the six Niceville elected officials spoke with me, and four of Valparaiso’s elected officials spoke with me. I also interviewed one elected official for Okaloosa County, Commissioner Nathan Boyles. Boyles was selected because he represents the western portion of Niceville and all of Valparaiso on the Okaloosa County Commission. The final elected official I spoke to was State Representative Patt Maney. Maney was selected because he represents the area in Tallahassee. 

The six unelected key stakeholders who were interviewed were selected because they have relevant knowledge of planning and zoning; they are appointed to key positions with knowledge of economics, demographics, policy prerogatives, and the city’s history; or they have relationships with key business stakeholders in the area. 

The majority of those who responded to my inquires answered that a merger would more than likely benefit the residents of both communities in the long term. However, only two – the combined Fire Chief Tommy Mayville and Niceville Councilman Carl Donahoo, believed a merger could become a political reality – at least in the short term. 

Most interviews were conducted via phone calls to the individual being interviewed. Except for Representative Maney’s interview, all interviews were conducted one-on-one. Representative Maney’s interview was conducted with the representative’s district aide on the call as well. 

All interviews were conducted with two standard questions, “Do you think a merger between the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso is a good or bad idea?” and “Do you think it is possible?” The rest of the questions asked were ad hoc and followed the flow of discussion. All interviewees were told this line of questioning would be used in a thesis and would likely see their findings published. 

Finally, most interviews were recorded and transcribed initially using otter.ai software and then edited for clarity. All interview subjects were alerted that their interview was being recorded for accuracy and that the audio would not be publicly shared. 

Policy Options

Four avenues of action were made clear after interviewing subjects and browsing the literature available for municipal mergers and consolidations in the United States and abroad. In total, the leaders of the residents of Niceville and Valparaiso can choose to expand their consolidated departments but keep two separate elected boards; fully merge the two cities; end their current relationship and separate their current joint functions; or do nothing and continue as they are now.

Evaluative Criteria

Four evaluative criteria were considered to determine which policy option was the best for the cities of Valparaiso and Niceville. First, the political feasibility of the option. This criterion studied if the option could gain the support it needs from leaders and townspeople to become a reality. Next, the administrative feasibility was analyzed. This criterion determined how hard it would be to implement the policy option. Third, I performed a cost analysis of each policy option. Finally, I assessed ethical considerations for each option. This criterion ensured that all individuals affected by the policy options were considered, and none would be subject to unethical policies.

Analysis of Policy Options

The four avenues the cities of Niceville and Valparasio can take are: 

  • Option A: Merge departments and keep two separate governments 
  • Option B: Unicorporate Valparasio and annex it into the City of Niceville (a merger) 
  • Option C: Disintegrate existing services and have both Niceville and Valparaiso act with completely independent functionality 
  • Option D: Do nothing 

Ultimately, the best option for the residents of the Twin Cities area is a merger. It is the most efficient way to deliver services to residents. However, many of the elected and appointed officials in the area do not believe a merger to be a possibility – and therefore, a serious look at merging more departments before a complete merger of the cities takes place may be the Realpolitik option on the table. A summary of the key leader’s response to the idea of merging Niceville and Valparaiso can be found in the following table:

Officials reaction to merger idea by Christopher Saul

Option A: Merge Departments and Keep Two Separate Governments

“No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other” (Douey-Rheims Bible, 2023, Matt 6:24).

The alternative most often praised by local elected officials on both sides of Boggy Bayou – is the merger of more of the Twin Cities departments into one to increase efficiencies and reduce tax burdens on the residents of both cities. The argument goes – that the merger of the Fire Department has gone so well that we should look into this with other departments as well. 

This option has some significant advantages – and it may be the most actionable and politically expedient of the four courses of action. Under this course of action, the cities might see some – but not all – of the financial and logistical efficiencies gained from a complete merger without dealing with the political conundrum of an all-out merger of the two cities. 

However, new problems may arise from continued mergers of the two cities’ various departments. While the departments are merged, the governmental entities they answer two are not; they will essentially serve two masters with two separate sets of goals and desires. This dichotomy of responsibility can lead to adverse outcomes like high turnover, low performance, and animosity between the two governments that would lead to the dissolution of the merger. 

In addition to the vexation of having two masters, the departments may not see the savings typically seen from consolidation. Having two sets of masters means everything from two budgets to prepare to two council/commission meetings to attend regularly. 

Political Feasibility of Option A

Carl Scott, the City Administrator for Valparaiso, believes that a significant consolidation of services or a merger will become necessary for the two cities in the immediate future – especially as equipment becomes a larger and larger proportion of the two smaller towns’ budgets. “I think that the concept of merging city services is totally necessary… everything is kind of to scale. You take public works, for example, you can integrate Niceville and Val-p public works departments together, you wouldn’t need to have two vacuum sewer trucks at $350,000, for example, you wouldn’t need to duplicate a lot of the equipment,” Scott said. “So just to share a cost of the equipment would be a big reduction in both budgets, and that you can make it up with additional manpower, which is always, you know, critical to maintaining your streets and you know, little things Public Works does”. 

The cities both recognize these cost-savings, says Niceville  b. He says he has spoken to Valparaiso Mayor Brent Smith about the potential for other cost-saving measures between the cities and mentioned they could do the same with police and public works. “I think, potentially the police department, we might be able to work out something there,” Henkel said, “it would be mutually beneficial to both organizations. I know we’re short men [in our police department]. At this point in time. I don’t know if [Valparaiso] are, but I would suspect that it probably is a situation that that they are, and so again, you might be gaining efficiencies, and certainly you know, you will be gaining the use of each other’s equipment to make sure that you fulfill the needs of the community” . 

While it may seem anathema to speak on this topic – it is true that local representatives will fight consolidation if it means the end of their jobs. After all, no one wants to get laid off. The literature shows this had much to do with the level of organized resistance against the merger of municipalities in Quebec at the turn of the millennium. Should the cities decide on a merger of departments without a full-on merger of the two cities – the elected representatives of those cities will be less incentivized to fight a merger. They may have reason to support an amalgamation in the long term. The cost reductions and the ability to keep taxes low while also keeping the prestige of a city council or commission position in the long term can motivate elected officials to support mergers that might save the taxpayers some money. 

Most elected officials expressed a favoribility for this on both sides

While the vast majority of elected and appointed officials noted they oppose or are neutral about a complete merger between the two cities of Niceville and Valparaiso – they also noted that continued mergers of departments would be a good thing. Of the sixteen officials who I spoke with for this report, ten said a merger of more departments to improve efficiencies and save money would be a good idea. 

This overwhelming favorability for merging departments from elected and appointed officials indicated that this course of action would have the support necessary to make a pragmatic consolidation of departments between the two cities a possibility soon – especially as department heads for the agencies age and wish to retire. Carl Scott, the City Administrator with the City of Valparaiso, said about Valparaiso that, “We’re kind of in a unique position, because Chief Hart will be retiring. He’s already retired once and came back. So he’s a short-timer, maybe five, six more years, and [then] they ought to be, you know, planning that planning that merger.”

Administrative Feasibility of Option A

From an administrative point of view, this may be the most challenging program of the four options to implement. The heads of merged departments would essentially be forced to answer to two groups of elected bodies with different wants, needs, and priorities. Additionally, the management of two separate units, which have two separate budgets and two separate sets of HR rules, could lead to consequences between the staff of the unit departments and their managers. While the city of Niceville, in theory, has a city manager who is the only person who reports directly to the city council – the commission form of government that the city of Valparaiso has requires department heads to interface directly with city commissioners. Therefore, a department head like a fire chief would have one person they directly report to on the Niceville side, though city councilpersons are likely to attempt to influence and change methodology, as well as another five people on the Valparaiso City Commission to answer to. Therefore, the department director of a merged or married department would have somewhere between six and eleven people to answer to at any given time – all with different priorities and needs. 

The Wharton School notes that the multiple-boss scenario happens more and more frequently in the 21st-century private sector. Quoting a 2015 Gallup Survey, the school noted that 84% of the 4,000 workers asked had a reporting structure that included more than one person . The key for the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso is how the two ‘bosses’ will respect one another. “Of course, there are times when managers do not want cooperation. “When one manager has no particular respect for the other or their line of business or its contribution to the bottom line, they are going to think whatever work you do for me is more important,” says Yost. “If they cannot see the ROI of that other manager’s function, it will never be justified in their mind that the work for the other manager should take any priority. Furthermore, it is possible, depending on the environment, the two managers may be competing for that next level up, so if they see that person as direct competition, it is not unheard of for them to do things to damage the other person’s performance”.

A department director placed in between this rock and a hard place would have to contend with the fact that one set of elected officials is doing a great job while another set may think far less of their performance. An attempt to please both could result in two sets of disaffected elected officials. It’s a balancing act that few, if any, employees would want – let alone a department director who more than likely has decades of experience in government. Finding replacements for aging department directors in this scenario might prove difficult – and it may push other directors out of the door early, some by choice and some by force. 

A paper by Seong-Yoen Tun et al. in the International Journal of Corporate Communications notes that the ability of managers to imbue into their employees the company’s mission statement has a direct relationship with both the employee’s performance, their ability to work within the framework of the organization and their ability to adhere to the values of the company they work in (Seong-Yoen et al., 2018). When an employee does not have a clear goal or vision (or two clear, conflicting goals or missions), they have been set up to fail. Because the two policymaking bodies will have individual ambitions for their departments, they will never be satisfied with their department head’s performance. 

Cost Analysis of Option A

Mergers, like the one the Niceville-Valparaiso Fire Department underwent in 2018, or projects which unify the two city’s efforts, like the wastewater treatment plant which both cities and the county use, or the sharing of the costs for a building inspector, tend to lower costs for the pair of cities – but they are not necessarily as efficient as they could be. 

The two departments still file separate budgets with their respective cities, hire for their cities’ needs, and plan for their future needs with tax revenues as independent government bodies. 

However, the fusion has rendered some savings despite not being a complete department merger. “Because when you purchase a fire truck or maybe a fleet of trucks for like the water department or maybe different things, you get them at bulk,” said Chief Mayville in an interview about the subject in 2023, “that is why everybody goes to Sam’s, that’s why everyone goes to Costco because there are savings to it. And to say there wasn’t savings in municipalities or any type of government would be foolish. So yeah, there are savings there.” 

Additionally, due to the surpluses of equipment the two departments brought to their marriage, they could reduce costs over the short term. “We did not buy a piece of equipment this year for the fire department,” said Niceville City Manager Lannie Corbin in 2020 – two years after the merger, “We did not add people. Merging with [Valparaiso] gave us access to more equipment… Just from a city standpoint we have saved about $700,000 I guess in this first year”.

Those savings from the fire department could also occur in other departments – and may already happen de facto. Valparaiso City Commissioner Tom Browning notes that several intercity loans occur regularly in the Twin Cities for the resident’s mutual benefit. “I know our water and sewer guys have lent Niceville equipment and vice versa…. you know, we both sides have said, ‘Yeah, sure if you need it, by all means,’ because it’s not like we’re using all of our equipment all the time. But when we have this heavy equipment stuff as needed, it’s nice to be able to borrow when we can especially when our stuff was broken we were able to borrow trucks too while ours were being repaired a couple of days here and there.”

While this option, merging the Twin Cities’ departments, presents the opportunity to cut costs and keep everyone’s pride intact, it will not do so as effectively as a complete consolidation between the two cities. The two cities may well keep much of the management functions they needed when there were two discrete agencies – and would thereby reduce the amount of savings taxpayers could see over the long term. 

One of the main reasons in the literature that the European and Canadian national governments noted for the impetus of their desire to merge was the potential to reduce costs for the taxpayer. Much the same way, many of the elected officials spoken to in the research portion of this paper cited the potential reduction in costs as the main driver for any merger of city functions shortly. However, merging additional departments will not eliminate significant management overhead. 

Minnette Bruce, the CFO for the Walton County Sheriff’s Office, recently oversaw the reassignation of the Walton County Fire Department from the purview of the Walton County Board of County Commissioners to the Walton County Sheriff’s Office. She found that transferring the department to the Walton County Sheriff’s Office and consolidating the command staff into the Walton County Sheriff’s Office apparatus cost the taxpayer more money when the changeover finished. Because the agency relinquished the fire department, The Walton County Board of County Commissioners did not eliminate any management or oversight positions associated with their management of the Fire Department. “I don’t know about the county side, but for our side, by picking up 150 additional employees, it actually cost us money. We had to add more HR people, more finance people because of additional invoices to pay additional people, to pay additional recruiting of people, and to take care of their insurance and retirement and all of the other benefits.” Bruce added, “I don’t think they cut any positions by transferring fire over to us. Unfortunately, in government, it’s hard to cut positions. Even though, you know, they may have had 600 people – it went down to 450. We probably had to add people to cover payroll and additional vendors and they probably did not cut the same number of people. If we had absorbed a totally independent fire station, then yes [the consolidation] would have. So, for another organization, like the county, they still had to keep their management, because they still have a lot of other operations”. 

Ethical Considerations of Option A

A gradual partial merger has the potential to save lives and reduce costs, though the savings and efficacy may not be as significant as they would be in a complete merger. Along with some of the financial incentives gained by the merger in the short term, City Manager Lannie Corbin noted that the additional level of protection Valparaiso enjoys means faster response to fires and lower insurance costs. “Even before we merged… they had a volunteer department with one or two firemen. Moreover, rather than taking 15 minutes for the Valparaiso Volunteer Fire Department to get there, we are there. That right there tells you about the efficiencies and services provided when you think positively about something like that” (Saul, 2020). These efficiencies and a fully professionalized force equate to lower insurance values and quicker response for residents of Valparaiso.

Option B: Unincorporate Valparaiso and Annex it into the City of Niceville (A Merger)

The most drastic option – a merger between the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso would require either the passage of separates ordinance by both the cities of Valparaiso and Niceville or a successful petition drive – and then subsequent separate plebiscites by the residents of both cities to affirm a merger. If voters approved the merger, the real work would begin. Both cities would have to determine thousands of variables, from which city hall to use, to what name to have (potentially), to what the millage rate would be, and when the merger would officially occur. 

Political Feasibility of Option B

While there are a plethora of benefits to the residents of both Niceville and Valparaiso – people tend not to like change, and they tend to like the ending of a city even less. In nearby Laurel Hill, residents voted against the dissolution of the city – even though the municipality does very little in the way of providing services while still collecting taxes. Almost two-thirds of residents voted against the measure to dissolve. 

While the option to merge the cities has many powerful benefits, the city leaders of both cities will have to acknowledge some of the weaknesses both cities bring to the table. In some instances, these weaknesses serve as warts that will make the cities unattractive to the other city’s residents and thereby potentially preclude a ‘yes’ vote on a merger. Issues like Valparaiso’s lower median home sale price, older infrastructure, and lack of commercial real estate may serve as a disincentive for people from Niceville to vote for a merger. Conversely, Valparaiso residents may be strongly disincentivized to give up their autonomy in order to reduce taxation costs in the long term. 

Additionally, the political influences of city leaders, four of whom in the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso said they had serious reservations about a potential merger of the two cities, may serve as a deterrent in both cities to a merger. 

Ultimately, the only form of support that would be needed for the measure to get on the ballot for a plebiscite is ten percent of the total number of registered voters in each city (FSS 165.041). That means finding 1,155 registered voters in the city of Niceville and 322 in the city of Valparaiso to fill out the petition (Lux, 2023). Therefore, the ballot measure is not only feasible, it may be the most practical method by which to merge the two cities. 

Administrative Feasibility of Option B

Of the options, the complete merger of the two cities would be the most administratively feasible. The strength of this option comes from the argument that the two, now one cities’ residents would reduce the layers of bureaucracy for citizens so that consolidation of the two cities would reduce the layers of government involved in daily life and simplify the process of citizen interaction with it. The newly consolidated city would have the ability to hire more specialists that would be tasked with expanding the city’s ability to secure grant funding from the state or federal government, communicate effectively with the public on an everyday and emergency basis, and support the city manager in their quest to improve the quality of life, housing affordability and other goals for the city in the medium to long term while abiding by the city council’s strategic planning initiatives. 

Easier for citizens to interact with their government

The most important benefit for a city’s decision must revolve around whether or not it will improve residents’ lives. By merging and looking to annex more land into the city, the merged city must use those advantages it accrues by becoming larger to make residents’ lives easier. By having a single city with easily defined borders instead of the current situation where there are two cities and a county government operating in the area with different rules and regulations, residents will be able to conduct business efficiently with the government because they know which government they need to interact with much more quickly. 

Part of the quality of life improvement would be the ease of starting or expanding a business in the area. Niceville-Valparasio Chamber President Tricia Brunson believes the consolidation would allow more businesses, for better or worse, to see the newly consolidated city as a place that is ripe for economic activity. She also sees the potential for consolidation as a way to boost economic activity because it will make it easier for both city residents and businesses to conduct business with the correct local government. “Then you would have a standard place to always go for your business license. And you would have a standard center to go to to find out about zoning and all of that stuff, that we don’t have now. It’s always, like, ‘well what is your address? Well, are you city or are you county? Which city are you [in]? And it’s kind of hodgepodge. And our zoning – Niceville’s is bad enough, but Val-p’s is even more difficult because their business corridor is so slim. They are slowly expanding that, but it happens slowly. And I understand that, and I agree with that, but maybe not as slow as they are doing it. But, you know, I think Niceville has its own set of problems with all of these random, unincorporated areas. Because people will literally have no idea if they live in the city limits or not,” said Brunson.

Answering to one Administration

With a consolidation of the two cities, departments in both cities which provide services to more than 20,000 people would be able to plan with and answer to one city administration instead of two. That city manager, supported and empowered by the city council, would be able to plan strategically for the future of the whole area – instead of just one part of it. The cohesive plan would be better, simply by its existence and implementation by one more extensive group of public employees working together. 

Ability to secure the services of more expensive specialists for the city

Employees, especially those with specialized roles, are expensive. As noted earlier – a city manager in Florida earns about $100,000 per year plus benefits on average. Other highly-skilled positions in municipal government can cost a budget-breaking amount of money as well – and smaller cities like Valparaiso may have a hard time affording them on the smaller amounts of ad valorum taxes they collect – leaving them forced to raise taxes to recruit qualified individuals. Carl Scott, the current Valparaiso City Administrator, currently fulfills several roles for the city of Valparaiso and Niceville, which, he estimates, would cost $200,000 per year in salary for the city of Valparaiso alone to replace. He currently earns around $75,000 annually from Valparaiso and some compensation from the city of Niceville. While both cities have a reprieve from paying the extra cost now – they will when Scott, a man nearing retirement who also builds homes on the side for more money, decides to retire. “I don’t see how [the cities] can afford to [pay for the roles Scott plays separately]. Otherwise, you know, you just [these jobs would] all be budget breakers, certain jobs would be just impossible to do,” Scott said.  

In order for the cities of Valparaiso and Niceville to be able to continue their functions in areas where the cost for talent, like everything else, is going up. Add in the fact that Niceville and Valparaiso are more than 50 miles away from the nearest university that can grant degrees in public administration, and the city needs to innovate to find talent. The cities will also need to keep up with new positions cities need, regardless of size. This includes positions neither city has, like the Public Information Officer, Community Redevelopment Agency Director, Assistant City Manager, and other specialists. “Those are all positions that, you know, could be expensive to fill,” said Niceville Mayor Daniel Henkel, “But they would provide dividends. I mean, there’s lots of stuff that’s going on with the city, that would be great if we had a public information officer that could get that information out in a timely fashion, and would be available to answer questions.” The open channel of communication the PIO would provide, for example, would increase the transparency of the city, reinforce the proactivity of elected officials and help to disseminate emergency notices to the public more generally – a function that is currently handled in an ad hoc manner (Niceville) or not all (Valparaiso). 

Can organize better to fight for funding on the state and county level.

While, theoretically, cities of various sizes have equal standing before the state government; some are more equal than others. Larger cities and counties have the resources (staff time and financial backing) to advocate for themselves more effectively at the state legislature level, which means their concerns and requests have more weight than others might. State Representative Patt Maney made a note in a conversation on the subject that he works just as hard for the smaller cities in Okaloosa County as he does for the big ones – and cited several projects he was able to get funded in the 2023 session for the town of Cinco Bayou, Florida. The town, for reference, has fewer than 400 residents. While the representatives themselves may put in as much effort on behalf of cities in their district, large and small – the cities can advocate for themselves if they have the funds available. Those cities with the money and resources available can secure outsized funding because of the number of voters they have in their ranks and the quality of their proposals. The higher the quality of those proposals, the more likely they are to get both initial traction in their representatives’ offices and on the house floor. 

“I personally think dealing from an appropriation side when we get requests from whether it be the county or for Crestview,” said Ian Thompson, the district aide for Representative Maney. “I think definitely dealing with first the county, and then Crestview, Destin kind of moving down in that order [of population size] that and that kind of order. The bigger cities definitely have more professionalism.”

The ability to put together a sharper, more attractive proposal for funding that follows the myriad guidelines and avoids procedural pitfalls of the legislature has a much better chance of getting funded than proposals from smaller cities with fewer resources to ensure the letter of the funding solicitation document is followed. For that reason, the combination of resources to get state and federal funding that would follow a merger would be a boon for the residents of the newly combined city. 

In addition to the ability to lobby for more funding and resources on the state level – a newly-merged city would be nearly as large as the county’s second-largest city, Fort Walton Beach. While the population size is valuable for its economy of scale – the designation as the county’s second-largest city would also afford it a seat on the Tourism Development Council for Okaloosa County. This allowance would mean the city of Niceville would have at least some say on where the tens of millions of dollars in bed tax revenue in Okaloosa County gets spent. Hopefully, the representation could turn into a positive cash flow for projects in the Twin Cities region. 

Cost Analysis of Option B

Merging the cities would produce significant benefits for the residents long term. The consolidated city would see some cost savings from eliminating positions and duplicated efforts – and creating a city in what both the literature and Okaloosa County Commissioner Nathan Boyles say would be the ideal city size. Other benefits would spring up as well. Thanks to economies of scale, citizens would have more services for less tax revenues. Residents would have an easier time figuring out who approves permits. Business owners from out of town would more easily know with whom they need to do city business. More large firms would look at the area for new businesses, as the city would have a larger population. Finally, city services would have a larger talent pool to draw – meaning service delivery would improve. 

By combining the cities of Valparaiso and Niceville into one city – the residents would be able to get increased municipal services, reduced levels of ad valoreum taxation through economies of scale, and the ability to bond out for larger projects at a lower rate of interest than they would as individual cities. These benefits would stand as large incentives for taxpayers to approve a potential merger between the two cities.  

“As cities get larger, their ability to generate more revenue through direct taxation gets larger – and their ability to receive more revenues from the State of Florida based on their population does the same,” said Okaloosa County Administrator John Hofstad on the subject, “The slice of the pie for state shared revenues go up the bigger the city you are. There is value in population and there is a return for every citizen you have on your rolls. They would have the benefit of being larger, the benefit of having greater access to capital to be able to leverage greater bond issuances. So right now, Valparaiso is going to be capped, because of their size. Maybe their max they can go out into the municipal bond market and secure is $5-$10 million. All of the sudden, you grow to a municipality of 20,000 and now your bond ceiling might be $20 or $25 million.”

Together the two cities will have a reduction in the need for total support staff per resident due to the elimination of extra IT, HR, and other ancillary support services positions – this would mean the ability for the consolidated council to create a win for the residents of the city – either through lower taxes or more services at the same taxing rate.

In the merger, the cities would have to determine what to do with the two in-house services Valparaiso offers, which the city of Niceville does not – cable and trash hauling. Because of the existing franchise agreement with waste management and the fact that Niceville does not have its own cable service – the simplest thing to do would be to sell off whatever assets the city of Valparaiso can from the two services and pocket the money. However, with the dissolution of those assets would come some heartache from residents who like the control of a local trash and cable utility – according to Valparaiso City Commissioner Chris Wasdin. “When my cable breaks, I call [Valparaiso Cable] up. And I know exactly who they’re sending. And he can come over right away, and he can fix it. You know, they’ll say, ‘We’re sending Bobby in 10 minutes,’ or, or he’ll say, ‘Oh, I know which one you’re talking about? Well, that room in your house doesn’t work, right?’ You know, he knows stuff like that. So it’s personal. And the same applies to our garbage service, we do our own garbage. And people are always saying nice things about them. Because there’s a lot of senior citizens, and the garbage man will come right up to your door practically, And grab your trash can. You don’t have to put it out at the street. So that those kind of small-town feel things would be a big loss if we merged.” City Commissioner Tom Browning agrees; “It’s part of our identity of knowing the people that come to your yard every day, the people that come to your yard every week. Our cable company is renowned. People know more about our cable guys than they know about themselves. I mean, they know when their parties are they know when their kids are graduating. They know every detail. They’re in our houses; they’re cleaning up after themselves very well. They know their customers. It’s a huge pride for Val-p on those two [functions] alone.” 

A city’s water and sewer infrastructure is one of the largest assets or liabilities, depending on its condition. The cities of Valparaiso and Niceville have miles of water and sewer piping that runs under the ground, which must be maintained at regular intervals to ensure it still works for residents and complies with state and federal laws and regulations. The longer a water and sewer apparatus is left unmaintained, the more expensive the repairs can become. Both cities need to take this under advisement regarding a potential merger – one city’s residents could be on the hook for another city’s years of mismanagement. Okaloosa County Administrator John Hofstad, a former water and sewer department director for the cities of Mary Esther and Fort Walton Beach, warns, “The other thing you have to consider… how up-to-date is their infrastructure? Road infrastructure is easy to evaluate… Everything below ground, stormwater, water, and sewer, is much more complicated. Is that infrastructure in good shape, or will you have to go in and out of the gate to make wholesale improvements to upgrade gravity sewage mains, and sewage force mains… are the water lines corroded? What impact is that going to have on the ratepayer?” But Administrator Hofstad still believes, warts and all, the ratepayer would ultimately win in a merger. “In the end, you should still see significant economies of scale because you have a bigger pool of customers. You also have the leverage of additional revenue.” 

The most commonly argued-for reason for a merger in the literature is that a merger will save taxpayers money by reducing the cost of service delivery in the municipality. The literature shows some cost savings for the taxpayer – significantly as the administrative portion of the government can reduce itself in a merger – along with some duplicate roles such as information technology and human resources. Blohm-Hansen, in particular, notes that because payroll costs are such a small part of the municipal equation, roughly ten percent in Europe – they would only see nominal savings through mergers (Blohm-Hansen). In the city of Valparaiso, payroll accounts for more than half of the cost of running the municipality – according to their most recent fiscal year budget (Valp.org). A merger, therefore, would considerably affect the city’s bottom line more than it would in a typical European city, on which Blohm-Hansen bases their findings. 

While Valparaiso Commissioner Tom Browning prefers the idea of two separate cities for the foreseeable future – he notes that the cost-saving potential is evident to him and would be amenable to a merger. “I also got to be practical-minded. You have to say, you know, it might be cheaper in the long run for the two to combine. That spreads the tax base a little more. You’ve got more people in Niceville than you’ve got in Valparaiso. It would help us in Valparaiso lower our rates, lower some debts,” Browning said.

According to a 2020 lecture by Florida State University professor Dr. Gary VanLandingham, the top enticements for businesses to relocate or expand into a new area that local or state governments can provide are the availability of skilled labor, transportation infrastructure, quality of life, construction cost and existing infrastructure. Through the concerted organization and consolidation of resources through a merger, the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso could offer businesses streamlined movement to the area, more organized construction and maintenance of transportation infrastructure, increased quality of life through parks and other services planning and incentives to retain local talent after it graduates from high school or leaves the Air Force. 

The merger, in the opinion of the local chamber of commerce president Tricia Brunson, would bring more firms to the area. “Would we get better, or bigger businesses? And the other question is, is that what we want? Yeah. So, I’m not interested in attracting a lot of national businesses, because I think that we will then change our whole dynamic of the Niceville area…. And so the likelihood of people being interested, because they are going to, you know, pull the data from wherever their favorite place to pull it is. And they are going to say, ‘Okay, I want to be in the southeast and we need a population of ‘X’. And so [a consolidated Niceville] is going to come up on searches… In my mind that could be a minus.” By increasing the number of firms in the Niceville-Valparaiso by leveraging the benefits of consolidation to attract those businesses, the area would be able to insulate itself from calamities like hurricanes or base realignment.

Currently, the city of Valparaiso has had a challenging time developing economic growth within its limits. The City of Niceville has expanded rapidly and has added multiple shopping and dining options in the last ten years. Big box stores, grocery stores, restaurants, and breweries have sprung up on John Sims Parkway in Niceville. The Parkway is the main east-west route through both Valparaiso and Niceville. However, no such growth occurred in the Valparaiso area during the same period. This lack of growth has resulted in serious budget woes for Valparaiso. The city commission attempted to raise the millage rate from 5.024 mills to 5.9 mills to cover increasing costs from health benefits and other cost drivers – but an outcry from the local newspaper, as well as citizens, caused the commission to about-face (Griffith, 2020). Both the City of Valparaiso (5.024) and the City of  Niceville (3.7) have had the same mileage rate since 2015 (Okaloosa County Property Appraiser). 

Ethical Considerations of Option B

There are some drawbacks with which the merger of the two cities might have to contend. Niceville would have to be willing to assume the responsibility for Valpraiso’s infrastructure. Citizens may feel a loss of identity and wish to leave the area. Additionally, the city of Valparaiso – which currently owns and operates its garbage service and cable – would possibly lose its monopoly on those services. Finally, the city of Valparaiso would lose its more direct “Galveston” model of governance that it has had for more than 100 years in favor of the more modern city manager-council model.    

Carl Scott has a distinct memory from about fifteen years ago in Valparaiso. The memory consists of the Valparaiso Volunteer Fire Department scrambling like disorganized madmen to get to their truck for a fire call. “Our fire department was hideous,” Scott said, “I live down the street [from the fire department] I used to watch these boys run from the Tom Thumb when they would have a fire call, because we used to have an old air raid siren that would go off. They were all volunteers, and there’s just no way we could provide good fire service.” Since the professionalization of the fire service – costs have gone up significantly – almost tripled – but the service has improved dramatically, too. “The fire service is so much better. Now, I have so much more confidence in it. There’s no reason why you couldn’t integrate departments like public works, too. A lot of municpal work is economy of scale.”

The professionalization of the fire service in Valparaiso, brought on by its fusion with the City of Niceville’s Fire Rescue, has done more than change the economics of fire protection for both cities – it has also allowed for better coordination and emergency response on the ground for both cities. The City of Niceville can more quickly respond to emergencies on State Roads 123 and 85, according to Fire Chief Mayville. In addition – the Valparaiso full-time station allows Niceville to keep its precious ISO Class 2 safety rating for the city of Niceville, even as it grows. Because the Valparaiso station can quickly respond to calls in Valparaiso and Western Niceville, the calls that take longer to respond to in the eastern portion of the city balance the average response time – and allow the Niceville Fire Department to get to those more easterly calls more rapidly, as they are less likely to be stuck on a call in the western portion of the city with the Valparaiso station in support. “I don’t know that you’d necessarily see like a cost reduction for budgetary purposes, but you would just see an increased amount of manpower, because you’re decreasing the amount of equipment as necessary to serve both cities,” said Fire Chief Tommy Mayville, “when you integrate that effort. It’s kind of like the fire department. [Valparaiso] supplied fire trucks and pickup trucks and all that stuff, they supply manpower to us, and it just works out. We have a fire station in Valparaiso… they could pull in from [Valparaiso], if they need to, service area of Niceville, that’s close to us, which frees up their fire insurance to do things that are farther away. Like [the new subdivision in Niceville’s eastern half] Deer Moss [Creek], for example, there’s no fire station out by Deer Moss, but you know, the closest one is over there while they’re out doing a Deer Moss call, but you know, our fire stations can handle the rest and vice versa, you know, if we need more services.” 

The Walton County Sheriff’s Office CFO Minette Bruce says the efficiencies gained may not show up on balance sheets like hers – but that does not make them valueless. “I know this will sound strange coming from a finance person, but some of the benefits will not necessarily be financial. However, the taxpayer does get some benefits,” Bruce said, “If you go to the scene of a terrible auto crash, you usually have the ambulance show up, you have a fire truck show up, you have law enforcement officers show up. Those people have been working together in the same organization. They know each other. They work much better as a team. And their policies are the same. So if you know the person in the fire truck is the incident commander, those law enforcement officers know they need to follow their directions. Another benefit of that same scenario is because we have the fire department under us [at Walton County Sheriff’s Office], we have trained a lot of our law enforcement officers because they can get to a scene much more quickly because they are dispersed throughout the community, where your ambulance and fire departments are not. Whereas your ambulances and your firefighters are typically in the firehouse, where law enforcement is on the streets. A [law enforcement officer] who is an EMT can get to the scene faster, and that can be life-saving.” 

In addition to supplementing and supporting other areas’ needs when required – a merger of the two cities would eliminate an invisible line that can sometimes jeopardize effective service delivery in a city or town. Jurisdictional barriers naturally create hiccups and fumbles between agencies. Especially when it comes to emergent situations that can take place, the reduction of the number of invisible lines in an area to a minimum can mean the difference between safe and unsafe neighborhoods. 

Support departments in a consolidated city would also see greater levels of consolidation as well – reducing manpower and possibly other costs. In addition – the larger pool of talent to draw from for a larger city means more options for the positions that need to be filled. “there are obvious economies of scale benefits. You have a larger talent pool to draw from and you can reduce personnel resources you no longer need. You have buying power and leverage because you are larger. You have the benefit of a potentially reduced property millage, although that is not a guarantee… you are not duplicating IT resources or other internal service functions,” said Okaloosa County Administration John Hofstad.

While the support that consolidated agencies members can make for one another in a single function, like public works, or across functions, like fire and police, are legion – the chance to merge departments also presents the city with an opportunity to reduce invisible lines and red tape. Walton County Sheriff’s Office CFO, a native of New Orleans, explains it this way. “When I lived in New Orleans, I lived near the parish line. The Old Metairie Discount (a gas station convenience store) was right on the parish line and it was one of the most robbed stores in the parish of Jefferson, because it was right by the line. The [robbers] would cross the line, usually to go back to Hollygrove because the [victim] would call into Jefferon Parish 911, because it was in Jefferson parish. It takes time and they would have to dispatch it over the line to Orleans Parish. So, that delayed getting responders there, because they had to take extra time. So, again, it’s not a cost savings, but [consolidation] can keep crime off the streets.” 

Eliminating an invisible line of red tape would mean reduced response times for everything from emergency calls to the new municipality’s 911 centers to reducing the time it would take to fix a busted pipe near the former cities’ border. Reducing red tape would be a net benefit for the residents of both cities. 

Option C: Disintegrate Existing Services and Have Both Valparaiso and Niceville Act with Completely Independent Functionality

In this scenario, the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso would return to their arrangement before the 1980s when they did not share a fire department, building inspector, or wastewater treatment plant. The Twin Cities have combined resources for the last half century to meet the needs of residents – and those interlocal agreements and mergers could be nullified easily by one or both city governments. 

If one or both cities decided to take this course of action, the assets of the two cities’ united operations would need to be split in half and disintegrated  in a way that is equitable to both cities’ residents.

Political Feasibility of Option C

Disintegrating the two cities’ established merged functions has precious few benefits and would likely not be supported by either the City Council in Niceville or the City Commission in Valparaiso. For the most part, the benefit would consist of the two cities’ ability to regain complete authority over those departments’ functions. 

The so-called merger of the two fire departments seems here to stay. Fire Chief Mayville, Niceville Mayor Daniel Henkel, Valparaiso Commissioner Tom Browning and Valparaiso City Administrator Carl Scott expressed a robust favorable sentiment for the arrangement, which has brought Valparaiso resident’s insurance costs down – as they have the benefit of Niceville’s ISO class 2 rating. The combination of a functioning arrangement, the lowering of insurance costs as a deliverable to Valparaiso residents, and the ability to leverage tax dollars for both cities to maintain and expand fire coverage throughout the area means it would be tough to sever ties. 

Administrative Feasibility of Option C

Technically, the City of Valparaiso and Niceville fire departments are two separate entities with one chief. The union of the two departments took place in 2018 when Valparaiso Commissioners fired the previous chief. As of the publishing of this paper, the departments are run through what European History Scholars would call a ‘personal union’. In 1603, the King of Scotland, James VI, also became England’s ruler. While he was king of both countries, both nations abided by “An arrangement in which two or more states share a single head of state. A personal union does not create a single international person; rather, each state retains its separate legal personality“. In the same way, there are two fire departments but one fire chief. 

The city of Valparaiso would need to appoint a new chief to replace the outgoing Chief, Niceville’s Tommy Mayville, and have that new chief begin work on cutting costs back down to a manageable level. Before the merger of the departments, the Valparaiso Department was partially a volunteer force and had significantly lower costs than the department does now (City of Valparaiso, 2012-2022). 

The regional wastewater treatment plant owned collectively by the cities of Valparaiso, Niceville, and the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners would continue to operate as usual – with each part-owner paying for their part of the upkeep of the facility. 

As for the building inspector – more specific arrangements would need to be made. Carl Scott is the current building inspector for Niceville and Valparaiso. Scott also serves as the Valparaiso city administrator. The job is a catch-all function, including permitting, inspection code enforcement, and other civil duties. While he may be able to manage both cities’ duties in the short term, Scott will not work forever, and a new person may not wish to take on all of those duties – especially at the rate Scott is paid for his expertise. That could present a problem for both cities as they shore up their budgets yearly (Saul, 2022). 

Should the two cities decide to unhitch from one another, the cities’ separate elected officials would have a direct say over the operations of their respective functions – at the cost of building up those functions on their own time and dime. Niceville and Valparaiso representatives would no longer have to consult with one another about the functioning of fire safety, building regulations and protocol for their cities, or how the sewer treatment plant runs or when. 

However, the cities would need to either build a new sewer treatment plant – or hook into the County’s plant in Fort Walton Beach – a significant expense, especially done twice. They would also need to provide their fire chiefs revenues for supporting their departments independent of one another and other ancillary public safety costs. 

Cost Analysis of Option C

The issues that the disintegration of combined services creates would lead to dramatic problems in the area – especially for the city of Valparaiso, which has grown its fire department tremendously over the last five years in order to pay the partial salary of Mayville, improve its apparatus and increase the number of professional firefighters on staff. In addition – should one or both cities decide to pull out of other agreements they have made with one another over the last half-century, the costs would be high for both cities. 

The budgets of the Niceville-Valparaiso fire apparatus have climbed regularly since their merger in 2018. The city of Niceville’s budget, which supports the larger share of the fire department, has risen 70% in the last half-decade. The most significant single increase occurred between Fiscal Years 21-22 and 22-23 when the department’s budget increased by 22% according to the City of Niceville. 

Valparaiso’s fire protection costs have increased 264% since the department effectively merged with the City of Niceville – more than $450,000 annually, accrodinf to the City of Valparaiso.Those costs allowed the department, which was previously volunteer, to become a full-time, professional outfit with a much quicker response to fires, traffic accidents, and other emergencies that call for the need for a firefighter. 

While the costs of the departments’ collective services have increased dramatically in the last five years – the city’s ISO rating, which determines residents’ home and life insurance rates, has dropped by two – meaning lower insurance costs for the city’s residents. To that end, ending the merged relationship between the two departments could put this rating in danger and lead to higher insurance rates for the city’s residents. 

Finally, severing all joint programs for the Twin Cities would require one or both cities to hire a new building inspector for their respective cities. Finding someone of this caliber is not easy or cheap – both positions earn about $50,000 per year before benefits are added on. 

Ethical Considerations of Option C

Separating the two cities would do more than separate the city of Niceville and Valparaiso’s joint fire protection venture. In order to truly accomplish the separation of the two cities – they would also need to end their joint ownership of a long-running sewage treatment plant on Partin Drive in Niceville. The cities jointly own and operate the plant along with Okaloosa County. They plan to close it down and divert sewage to the Okaloosa County-run Arbennie Pritchett Waste and Sewage Treatment Plant in Fort Walton Beach, according to Niceville City Manager Lannie Corbin. State Representative Patt Maney has filed bills to receive funding to such an effect (Florida House Bill 4545, 2022). Separating the two cities in all things would require the cities to divert off the plant and close it immediately. This closure would, in turn, create a crisis for the cities to respond to, as they currently have no way to divert their raw sewage to the county plant in Fort Walton Beach. The cities would then need to prioritize the connection of their sewer lines to the County plant without the benefit of time to line up state or federal grants to reduce the direct impact on residents. 

In the sphere of fire protection – there may be an ethical dilemma for leaders to deal with in both cities. As of right now – the city of Niceville’s eastern flank is exposed. Ruckel Properties, a local development company, began construction of a planned development of 3,500 homes in 2018. About 300 of those homes have been completed, and many more residences, including mid-rise apartment complexes, retail and single-family homes, are on the way. The development is about five minutes away, with lights and sirens on, from the Niceville Fire Department Headquarters on Partin Drive. The cities of Niceville and Valparaiso are also jointly responsible due to mutual aid agreements with the United States Air Force Fire Department at Eglin Air Force Base to respond to traffic crashes and other incidents on State Route 85 north of the city. Thanks to the current agreement, fire fighters based at both the Valparaiso and Niceville stations can effectively coordinate with one another rapidly to cover the highway, the [proposed] city’s core areas, and the newly developed areas on the east side of Niceville instantaneously. However, with an uncoupling of the two departments, the cities would be one close series of calls away from a significant delay for a response that could cost lives and property and absolutely would cost the residents of Niceville a decrease in their ISO ratings, meaning higher insurance costs for residents and businesses. 

The twin issues of worse fire coverage for all residents and higher costs for insurance make this option politically unappealing and ethically questionable. 

Option D: Do Nothing

The chances that the two cities would renege on the deal which created their joint fire department are low. The increase in readiness, shown by the ISO rate increase, is enough for both elected bodies to be happy about the decision. “I do like the way that the fire department has worked out. We have 24/7 coverage over here instead of just 16 hours via a phone call away,” said current Valparaiso City Commissioner Tom Browning, “What we had before was not acceptable.”

The low chances of a backpedaling on any merged functions between the cities bring the next option – do not change anything about what the two cities are doing to serve their communities now. 

Political Feasibility of Option D

Doing nothing is more than likely the most politically feasible option of the four outlined in the scope of this paper. Many of the local leaders interviewed noted they believe a merger cannot occur between the two cities of Niceville and Valparaiso because of the desire of local politicians to retain power in their domains. By merging the two cities, some elected and appointed leaders might lose their positions to a merger. “You would lose your city government,” said Niceville Councilwoman Cathy Alley as she explained intransigence against the merger of the two cities. She added that elected officials and the people do not “like to give up that power.” By leaving things the way they are, the status quo stays the same, and elected officials keep their posts – citizens get the same amount of representation as they did previously as well. By doing nothing and remaining on the path the two cities pursue, no one would rock the boat or offend residents, voters, leaders, or city employees. 

Doing nothing has broad support amongst the city’s elected officials and appointed officials. Only two people interviewed for this paper believe that a merger is feasible politically, while many believe that a merger would be a good idea. One can infer, therefore, that a political consideration stands in the way of a merger that is not the merits of the idea itself. 

While it may be true that the objections to the merger are political and not practical, they still exist. The status quo, therefore, is most easily left alone. Emergency Management literature discusses focusing events – essentially cataclysmic events that create a strong desire for change that can last anywhere from 12-18 months after a tragedy . This period sees an onus for immediate action from the general public, though it wanes as time separates the present from the event. As of the writing of this report – no event could be exploited or otherwise demand change from two separate cities to one. Therefore, there is a strong incentive for nothing to be done about the issue. 

Administrative Feasibility of Option D

From an administrative standpoint, this would be the easiest course of action to take in the short term, because nothing has to be done. In the longer term, though, this course of action does come with some headaches and heartburn for the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso. 

In the short term, no leadership replacement needs to take place and no administrative tasks need to be changed. But like with many other personal unions – their legitimacy tends to waver over time. At some point, someone will have to succeed Chief Mayville, who has broad support from the city leaders of Niceville and Valparaiso. The chief is in the end stages of his career and has mentioned retirement soon. This retirement would require his replacement by both cities’ fire departments. If the cities wish to continue sharing the cost of a chief, this would mean issues that could bring the cities to loggerheads. After all, both cities will naturally want a say in who their new fire chief is, especially if the departments continue to be led by one person. To circle back to an earlier vignette, James I successor, Charles I, learned the difficulties of navigating what his constituents, namely the officials he ultimately must work with, want. If there is one, the successor at the fire departments will have to deal with a constantly shifting set of wants and needs for each city that can run counter to each other, just as Charles I did. 

For the record, it did not work out well for Charles. Oliver Cromwell and the roundheads executed Charles at the end of the English Civil War. The conflict laid waste to the British Isles, claiming numerous lives and creating further emnity between the various protonationalistic, religious and economic factions under the reign of the forming British state. Doing nothing has its consequences, for kings, councils and fire chiefs. 

Will the succession of a fire chief lead to all-out civil war in Niceville and Valparaiso? No. But it could lead to squabbling between cities that could end up costing the taxpayer and reducing the efficacy of governance in the Twin Cities, just as the English Civil War did for the British Isles. 

Cost Analysis of Option D

Valparaiso is coming to a juncture on the road to its future. As it sits now – the city has ‘stock price’ is at a high, relative to the last half-century. Median home sale prices in Valparaiso have risen by $93,000 since May 2022. Niceville has seen a median home sale price gain of about $45,000. These increases are driven by the influx of population to Florida as people move to the state for jobs, weather, and other reasons. 

In Valparaiso, this growth depends on the continued success of its neighbors to the west, Eglin Air Force Base, and to the east, Niceville. The lack of retailers in the city limits means that the city only collects property taxes on residential homes with a homestead exemption, meaning lower than possible revenues in the long run. In comparison, Niceville boasts a much larger population and a robust commercial footprint along its portion of State Route 20, also known as John C. Sims Parkway. Okaloosa County Growth Management Director Elliot Kampert says this reality will hobble Valparaiso in the future. “If the city council of Valparaiso has the political will to enforce standards to keep Valparaiso as it is [via raising millage rates to keep up with needs], then it could make sense to keep Valparaiso as it is, but I don’t know that it would long term economically pan out. They would risk becoming a backwater community that is stuck with property values in decline simply because infrastructure ages,” Kampert said. Adding in the fact that Valparaiso is next to a city with a lower property tax rate, like Niceville, the logical argument that Valparaiso should continue to exist gets weaker. “If you look at the more rural areas of the county where cities form organically, because you need the cumulative power of taxation to provide the infrastructure you need in a more rural setting [it makes sense to have a city like Valparaiso]. But Valparaiso is surrounded in an urban area – it’s not a unique provider of any of those resources, and people can go elsewhere for hospitals and shopping, schools, everything,” Kampert said, “So there is no organic need to have a city there, other than civic pride, or they want to control their own fate by way of zoning or land use,” Kampert said.

The political impetus to raise taxes does not exist in Valparaiso. City commissioners say from the dais in their regular meetings that it is their prerogative to keep taxes at their rates – Commissioner Browning reinforced this notion in the  interview I had with him for this paper. The last attempt to raise taxes from the current millage rate of 5.024 to 5.9 was resoundingly defeated in 2018 by commission members after the local paper called the commission out for the attempt. 

The resistance to even higher taxes means the city’s leadership cannot pay for more specialized service personnel needed to make itself relevant as an independent entity. Currently, the town has no full-time manager to coordinate across the elected officials – as the city still has a Galveston-style commission government when the debate about whether or not to move to a manager-council form of government – or some variation thereof that would not force a charter change for the city – the biggest concern for the city was the fact that they would not be able to afford the cost for a city manager. Due to Sunshine Law restrictions, the commission will be forced to continue as department heads who can only do the work in their silo – and cannot communicate with one another. 

The cost of a city manager alone, never mind affiliated support staff like a Public Information Officer, Administrative Assistant, and Deputy City Manager, costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 to $140,000 before benefits in nearby cities. The cost of a city manager would add a 50% increase in administrative salary to the city alone. 

Citizen outcry from 2018 shows the residents of the town do not want to see taxes go any higher than they already are – and implies that a city manager form of government – whether by charter change or on a de facto basis would not be acceptable to residents if it meant additional costs.

Ethical Considerations of Option D

On its face, there are no apparent ethical dilemmas for elected officials to worry about that they would not otherwise be engaged in dealing with during their regular duties. Residents empower them through election to act as governmental fiduciaries collectively. That responsibility to do the best for the most does not change whether or not those elected officials represent a consolidated city or they represent one of two different cities.

Is a Merger Possible?

Before a decision can be rendered on which of the decisions to make – it has to be determined whether or not a merger is politically feasible as an option in the immediate future. The overwhelming opinion of elected and appointed officials was ‘no.’ Of the elected or appointed officials surveyed about the merger – only three, Fire Chief Tommy Mayville and Niceville Councilmen Carl Donahoo and Sal Nodjomian, believed it was an imminent possibility.

Okaloosa County Commissioner Nathan Boyles summed it up with one word: tribalism. “You have very tribal tendencies amongst us mere humans, and we see in something as minor as a rural water utility or a volunteer fire department. Even when everyone agrees that a merger would be beneficial to all involved, the power in control of making a decision, usually the elected officials or the fire chiefs, are unwilling to let go of the position of power, control, or authority that they currently have. Frequently, the decision is made with the individual needs of perception of the individual needs of the decision-making class instead of an objective review of what would be the best for the whole,” said Boyles.

There is some precedence for this dim view of humanity in Okaloosa County. In 2016, the idea was floated in the northern portion of Okaloosa County to consolidate the eight volunteer fire departments in the area.

Despite the claims that it would save money and make the fighting of fires more efficient in the area, the consolidation has not, seven years later, come to fruition. Consolidation and mergers are a messy political business that typically cannot take place because the egos in the equations can outweigh the benefits to the citizens in the long term. 

Some officials believe misinformation also has something to do with residents’ intransigence to mergers – in addition to the hyperlocal autonomy residents would have in smaller cities. “they are afraid that their taxes are going to go up,” said Niceville city councilwoman Cathy Alley, “Generally they do not. Moreover, then you would lose your city government. So about the city government, you know, council people mayor would go away, because of who they would fall under. They don’t like that. They don’t like to give up that power.”

Decision and Defense

Were decisions made only with the facts, the answer to this question would be easy. The cities of Niceville and Valparaiso should merge into a larger city. The larger city would receive some savings from an economy of scale, gain some fringe benefits like power on county-wide boards, including the well-funded Okaloosa County Tourism Development Council, be able to coordinate response to emergencies and other local needs with agility, attract more and bigger businesses to the area, diversify the economy, and provide more specialized services to residents. 

Leaders in the cities, elected and unelected, face the choice most kids face when they go swimming at the pool for the first time each summer. They can scream “cannonball!” and smash into the chilly water and be done with it – or they can inch into the agony of a new freezing sensation as they gingerly acclimate themselves to the situation. Both methods have issues – but one gets over the problems after a jarring transition and quickly gets to playing with friends. The other one typically got halfway in and splashed by their mates halfway through the icy experience. 

One can’t ignore the vast majority of key elected and appointed officials in both cities who believe the path forward is a merger of departments to reduce costs before a possible full consolidation. These leaders have a responsibility to do what is best for the residents of the cities they lead – they also have to prepare to deal with the consequences they face. 

Ultimately, either decision – a formal consolidation into a single polity or a more gradual amalgamation that leads to a full merger – are steps in the right direction. There is certainly more political support for the latter, which means it may be the practical option. However, the formal merger of the two cities into one would be the most cost-effective and judicious use of the public’s resources in the short term, even if it encounters resistance. 

Mayor Henkel of Niceville noted in his interview that he and Mayor Brent Smith of Valparaiso recently had discussions about what other departments of their two cities could merge in the future to increase efficiency and reduce the cost of services provided and determined that good places to look were the city’s police force and the city’s public works units. 

There is a desire among the leadership of the two cities to see more mergers and consolidations like in Option A. Leaders in the two cities can use the mergers of individual services to accelerate the movement toward a complete and formal consolidation that would result in more efficient service performance and cost savings for residents in both cities in the long run. This consolidation, in turn, will encourage members of unincorporated Niceville to incorporate into the city. Even if small, the cost savings will bring the cost of living in the city below that of living outside of it in terms of taxation. At the same time, people living outside the city will have a higher tax levy to pay for fewer services. Once promoted vigorously by a marketing and advocacy campaign, this realization will make service provision even less expensive because unincorporated homes and businesses will be brought into the city. 

This recommendation will take convincing and changing of minds – and the grace for members of the Niceville community to realize they are asking the members of the Valparaiso community to give up something unique – their city. The fire department merger, which took place in 2018, had some angst amongst the rank and file as it took place – especially when it came to the embattled chief in Valparaiso. “When we first did it, there was resistance. And there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Niceville and Valparaiso Fire Chief Tommy Mayville, “Because they were proud. They were proud and sometimes being proud, is foolish. Because you can be so proud that you hold on to something that it’s just absurd.” Mayville added that the merger would have similar struggles because of the personalities involved. “I think the biggest obstacle to overcome is people who have lived here long. They like to hold on to what they got. And, you know, it was okay back in the day. But we’re beyond that now.”

Why the merger is suitable for both cities

The land between Eglin Air Force Base’s east gate and the intersection of State Route 293 and John Sims Parkway holds roughly 35,000 people: 5,000 people in Valparaiso, 16,000 in the city of Niceville, and another 14,000 or so in the unincorporated areas in the east of Niceville and Bluewater Bay. The merger of the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso creates the conditions for the residents of both cities to retain high levels of service, compared to residents in unincorporated Okaloosa County, while potentially lowering the cost of services per resident. Niceville’s millage rate of 3.7 is still slightly higher than the East Niceville Fire Department’s millage rate of 3.4. Because Residents of East Niceville pay unincorporated parks tax in addition to the fire department obligations – the total cost in property taxes is about 40 cents higher per year on a $400,000 home between the two entities. With the merger of Valparaiso and Niceville – it may be cheaper to live in the Niceville City limits than outside of them – because of economies of scale. In addition – residents would get police protection and other city services as well. This overwhelming benefit for incorporation would mean a rapid voluntary annexation of properties into the city, which would, in turn, decrease costs even more substantially for all involved. This more extensive population base would give the city’s residents more weight to throw around at the county and state level, as well-meaning even more funding for the city in the long run. “If you merge this whole area at the center of the county, which would be you know, it would be Val-p, Niceville, Bluewater, East Niceville – if it all merged, it would be a force to be reckoned with,” Chief Tommy Mayville said.

Why the merger is good for Niceville Residents

The city of Niceville is in a strong position. The last half century has been much more favorable to it than it has been to the city of Valparaiso. Niceville has seen heavy residential and commercial development compared to the development of its western neighbor. This development means quadrupling the Niceville population and significantly increasing the city’s tax base. 

 

Nevertheless, Valparaiso has much to offer the City of Niceville’s residents with a merger, including rapidly appreciating property values and the potential to house even more people soon – a concern for the two cities, which essentially inhabit an island.

Valparasio’s property tax receipts have grown 10% annually for the last half-decade

Valparaiso is the poorer and less developed of the two areas and currently has a higher tax levy to make ends meet for the city’s government. However, the town has plenty to offer the residents of Niceville – should the two cities vote to merge. The City of Valparaiso is on the upswing. In the last five years, property values in the city have climbed astronomically – as evidenced by their stable tax levy rate – but their steady 10% increase in received ad valorum taxes. 

Why the merger is good for Valparaiso residents specifically

While the community would benefit from the merger of the two cities, the city of Valparaiso’s residents stands to gain immensely from the amalgamation of the two cities into one. As a smaller city, they will continue to struggle to find specialists in local government, such as building inspectors, city managers, and other positions willing to work at a pay rate that the city can afford. Population growth is stagnant at this time and will continue to be because of the lack of available space to build new and more dense housing.

Ability to afford government specialists that improve the quality of life in the near future

As previously stated in this paper, the cost of government specialist employees continues to rise as fewer and fewer members of the workforce, especially young people, look to local government as a career opportunity. According to a survey by Route Fifty, half of all government workers have considered leaving their jobs after the COVID-19 pandemic. I personally left a government job because the demands were not worth the pay or time away from family. “Waves of retirements, pandemic-induced burnout, benefit reductions and a host of other factors have fanned the flames of the public sector employment fire. With so many opportunities available in the job market, the contrast between a modernized private sector and a public sector that has failed to pivot, change and respond to rapidly evolving worker expectations is stark”.

Young workers have turned off the idea of taking a government job because they do not believe the message that they can make a difference in the government. “Government organizations need to abandon the tired message of “making a difference” by working in the public sector – a dusty adage that is obviously not resonating with a weary and wary younger generation,” Kosek says, “Instead, governments need to do the work within their organizations to provide meaningful, attractive opportunities to younger workers.” this means that Valparaiso, with a total of 79 positions and just six management positions quickly needs to figure out how to create a path for meaningful advancement if it wants to replace its aging workforce. Merging with the city of Niceville would create a larger single unit with opportunities for advancement to middle and upper management for people who want to take a job in government. The longer they are on the path to advancement in a city role – the longer they are providing value to the residents that the organization serves. 

Valparaiso has a strong bargaining position now

Valparaiso will likely not have a stronger bargaining position than it does now. The city has seen gains in the value of its land, making it more attractive than in the past for a merger. However, its water, sewer, and street infrastructure gets older each day. “The problem is obvious in Valparaiso,” says Niceville-Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce President Tricia Brunson, “They do not have the funds they need, and things are falling apart. However, they want their taxes low. But if you look at other areas of the state with a comparable population, their taxes are so high, but that’s because they are willing to pay that for the quality of life. And that is what we do not have in Val-p.” Its budget remains stagnant, and its’ taxpayers remain recalcitrant to raising taxes even higher, especially when compared to Niceville’s rate, which is more than one mill lower. Valparaiso is, in business terms, at an excellent point to sell. 

Niceville needs the land currently used as lower density to plan long-term for areas of the town to become higher density housing in the long run. It can do that planning in Valparaiso because the homes are older than those in Niceville, so purchasing land, knocking down houses, and building more density housing will be less expensive. Niceville has a much smaller percentage of older homes than Valparaiso – meaning it will have a more challenging time building higher density housing in near term. Every builder worth his or her salt would rather tear down a $200,000 house and build duplexes on the land than buy a $500,000 house and do the same thing. Additionally, many of the homes in Valparaiso were built before the promulgations of Homeowner’s Associations (HOAs). The fact that there are fewer HOAs will mean less red tape to build in Valparaiso, while the Not In My Backyard (NIMBYs) in Niceville would have more power to stop the same thing from happening in Niceville – or at least make it much more expensive and litigious. Both cities need the partnership for different reasons regarding population growth – Niceville needs more affordable housing options for service workers, junior officers and enlisted personnel, and young people. In contrast, Valparaiso needs the economies of scale Niceville has in place for the area to remain governmentally viable. 

The Plan to Merge Niceville and Valparaiso

In order to execute a successful merger of Niceville and Valparaiso, the cities will need to work well within the parameters of the political realities in the Twin Cities. This means leveraging the fact that expenses continue to rise to put steady pressure on elected officials in both cities to merge various departments over the long run. 

Additionally, the cities’ leadership and the leadership of citizens who wish to see a united future for the city will need to use what are called ‘focusing events’ in emergency management literature. The term “focusing event” was coined by John Kingdon in his 1984 book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy, which forms the foundation of the Multiple Stream Framework (MSF) of agenda setting and policy change. The MSF argues that the policy process contains three streams of activity, which, when coupled, create windows of opportunity for proponents of policy change to push their favored issues onto the crowded government agenda. The suspension of the Valparaiso fire chief in 2018 to instigate the merger of the two cities’ departments was the focusing event that allowed the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso’s leadership to push through a merger as a solution to the management issue at the city of Valparaiso’s fire department.

Separate focusing events, like the retirement of a police chief in either city (both are at the sunset of their careers) or a hurricane strike that destroys both city’s public works infrastructure, would rapidly advance the agenda of consolidation because of the desperate need for a rapid and coordinated response to a public safety threat for both cities. 

Ultimately, the merger of the cities into a single entity takes its direction from Florida State Constitution, title XII, Chapter 171, Municipal annexation or contraction. “In Florida, a charter merger of two or more municipalities and associated unincorporated areas can only be adopted by the passage of a concurrent ordinance by the governing bodies of each municipality affected, approved by a vote of the qualified voters in each area affected.” So, leaders of the cities and merger effort would need to pass ordinances advocating for a merger between the two cities from the Niceville City Council and the Valparaiso City Commission and then hold two separate referenda of the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso in which voters would vote for or against the merger of the two cities into a single city.  

Steps to a city merger in Florida by Christopher Saul

Founding an advocacy group.

Every mission needs to begin with a well-thought-out plan and a goal. To ascertain the goal and the group’s course of action to achieve it – those who believe in the mission of a merged city must begin to advocate for a specific set of goals in the community. Advocates must form a catalyzing agent, like a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), to advance the movement to create the merger and determine what kind of merger it will be, how that will take place, and what the government and departments of the new city will manifest. 

The advocacy group’s decisions to make are legion. They include:

  • Whether or not to work toward a merger as an out-and-out NGO.
  • Whether or not to advocate directly for the merger of departments of the two cities as a way to gain momentum for the outright merger of the cities. 
  • When to begin collection signatures for a petition to merge the two cities. 
  • What kind of government the merged cities should have?
  • Who will be in charge of the NGO? 
  • How will the campaign be funded, and to what extent?
  • What political leaders, if any, to involve.
  • Whether or not to support and endorse the running of candidates in favor of a merger in the cities in the near future. 
  • Which issues to highlight.  
  • Whether or not to work with the business/religious/military community to achieve the goal. 
  • How will representation on the governing body work out? Will there be seats reserved for former Valparaiso residents on the council? Will they expand the number of councillors on the dais? Will there continue to be a city manager form of government?

Once a group is founded and its charter and mission are established – the group can advocate for the merger of the cities to improve citizens’ lives in the long run. 

Survey

When a mission and method are established – the new group will need to take a scientific survey of the people of both Niceville and Valparaiso. The survey, which will use statistical methods of randomized selection and other scientifically rigorous principles, should gauge whether or not there is an appetite for a merger – and whether or not this is because of the population’s desires or because they do not know about the options. For example, there may be a desire to separate Valparaiso and Niceville cities. However, those same voters might also want to see lower taxes or more services more than anything else – based on other questions asked in the survey. This survey data would allow the NGO to determine its course of argument in the public square. 

 

Surveys can be prohibitively expensive to conduct and could be outside of the reach of a small group of individuals. For this reason, the NGO should explore fundraising opportunities such as membership drives and sponsorship events to raise money. Alternatively – and perhaps in concert with the fundraisers for the survey – the members of the NGO may be able to recruit college students in statistics courses at Northwest Florida State College or the University of West Florida campus in Fort Walton Beach to conduct the research as a part of their curriculum. 

However the study is accomplished, the answers reaped from the survey should inform the group of the following:

  • Whether or not there is widespread support for the merger of the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso.
  • Whether or not there are issues at hand that the NGO believes a merger of the two cities would resolve, such as potentially lower taxes or more efficient government services. 
  • Are there differences between subsets of the questioned regarding a merger or any of the other questions asked (e.g., do men want lower taxes)? Do residents of Valparaiso favor a departmental merger but not an all-out one?
  • Do the citizens of either city have an overwhelming sense of pride in their city?

Is there a difference between people who are likely to vote in a referendum on a merger and those who would not?

Marketing campaign from an NGO to convince people a merger and annexing into the city is a good idea

Based on the information received from the survey, the leaders of the NGO would then have to decide whether or not they want to move forward with the effort. Once the group decides whether or not the effort is worth the chance of success, they must determine whom they will target with an influence campaign and how it will take shape. 

 

The campaign is necessary in order to invigorate turnout for a merger vote. According to the National Civic League, roughly 15-27% of voters will cast their ballots in a municipal election (Brennan, 2020). Valparaiso turned out for a closely contested mayoral election that turned out roughly one in five eligible voters (Okaloosa Supervisor of Elections). In the city of Niceville’s last series of elections in 2019, all candidates were unopposed in 2021, saw 6.8% of voters, precisely 750, showed up to the polls. A concentrated and funded campaign will need to occur to ensure voters are both educated on the benefits of a merger and show up to the polls when a merger vote takes place. 

 

The creators of the marketing campaign will have to determine who their likely target is, what arguments will most likely compel them to head to the polls in a plebiscite, and how to convince them to vote in favor of consolidation. Several interviewees for this paper made suggestions as to what might motivate voters. “Basically, what defeats the mindset,” Okaloosa County Growth Management Director Elliot Kampert, “is when the citizens look somewhere else and say, ‘why are we paying additional taxes when a neighbor like Niceville could lower our taxes?” said Elliot Kampert, the Okaloosa County Growth Management Director (Saul, 2020). “The barrier is time, it just takes people time to adjust,” said Niceville-Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce President Tricia Bruson, “And there are people I know in Val-p that would dig their heels in. But you have to get past that point. And, and the way I think you do that is you start feeding the idea, you start investigating, and you come out with all the pros, you know, all the great things that would come out of it, and you sell that.” Finally, Representative Patt Maney noted, “that is the educational campaign to build a consensus to do it in two different municipalities lay out the benefits and laying out the costs and the benefits and whether people values political identity of a distinct one city or the name of the larger city” (Saul, 2023). 

The NGO should use the advice of community members to promote and market the effort via the many channels available to the petitioners to raise awareness and obtain signatures. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Email marketing campaigns and newsletters
  • Social media
  • Guerilla marketing, such as PR events, creative advertising stunts, and endorsements from ‘local celebrities’ and business owners
  • Billboard advertising
  • Word of mouth and door-to-door petition gatherers 
  • Digital marketing and advertising
  • Signs and stickers at businesses
  • Sign advertising at football games and events.

     

  1. Petition to Cities of Niceville and Valparaiso

Once a marketing campaign is launched, the NGO should aim to move voters down a kind of ‘sales funnel,’ from becoming aware of a consolidation effort to becoming in favor of that effort to seeking out and signing a petition. The members of the NGO will be responsible for making this happen in both Niceville and Valparaiso – as one petition for each city will be required. Both petitions do not necessarily need to meet the statutory ten percent of qualified voters to get the measure on the ballot. However, a sizable showing in a short period might short-circuit the need for a continued collection of petitions by forcing the city council and city commission’s hands in both cities and forcing them to pass an ordinance leading to a referendum. There are 11,545 registered voters in Niceville and 3,220 registered voters in the city of Valparaiso. Therefore, any effort to put a referenda measure on the ballot would require 1,155 signatures in Niceville and 322 signatures in Valparaiso (Saul, 2023). 

Ordinance passed from Niceville and Valparaiso

Ideally, the Niceville Council and the Valparaiso Commission would receive the idea of a merger well and pass ordinances calling for a referendum after conversations with one another in working sessions. These sessions would, for example, allow the council and commission to ensure equitable representation and funding for their ‘parts of town’ after the merger. A referendum that guarantees proportionate representation for Niceville and some guaranteed representation for the (former) City of Valparaiso may be a compromise both councils could make to secure popularity for the merger before the vote. 

 

Should the elected officials of Niceville and Valparaiso be more amenable to the idea of a merger, they could also vote in each city to put a ballot measure on to ask the residents of their city if they would like to merge. If this occurs according to the Florida statute, the vote would have to occur more than 30 days after the council’s and the commission’s votes and less than six months after that same vote. In addition, the ordinance would have to provide for the new city’s charter and its effective date and financial and other adjustments needed to realize the merger. There would also need to be an advertisement notice of the election that must be published at least once each week for two consecutive weeks immediately before the election in “a newspaper of general circulation in the area to be affected.” The notice would need to inform voters about the time and places for the election and the general description of the area to be included in the municipality. That description needs to be in map form and show clearly the area that would become the new city. 

 

Suffice it to say that there would need to be ample coordination between the two cities for this vote to become a reality. The cities would need to decide on the new city’s form of governance and how to choose the city’s leadership.

 

In addition to an ordinance concerning the actual merger of the city – the city of Niceville’s city council, should it be so inclined, would do well to consider a charter revision of its own. In this consideration, the council should look into two measures to make the merger even more attractive to the residents of both cities – geographic-based council seats and adding two more seats to the council. Changing the city’s charter to limit candidates to the different wards of the city would ensure that voters from every portion of the city would be represented on the council. Currently, any city resident can run for any city council position. At this time, Niceville city council members are not clustered in any particular area, meaning this measure, if passed, would not assuage current council people. They would not have to run against another council person in the near future for a single spot. 

 

Furthermore, the city could add a spot for two new council members to the ballot that would, should the first part of this suggestion pass, represent the former city of Valparaiso on the council. This arrangement would assure the residents of Valparaiso that they would have proportional representation in their new city while also providing adequate representation for the residents already inside Niceville city limits. 

Referendum to voters

Should the requirements for the petition be met or the city leaders of both cities vote to have a referendum on a merger – the two cities would have to host concurrent votes on a set day. Should a simple majority of the voters in both votes approve the city merger, the city will merge on a specific date, per the city’s proposed charter approved by the city’s leadership or by the submitted petitioners.

Implement transition plan

Hooray! – we have a united city – soon. In the interim, the leaders of the two cities must get together to decide the details of the new city. Who is going to be the police chief? Who will serve as the human resources manager? What IT software will the city use, which one will get the boot? When will the city of Valparaiso trash service cease to exist, and when will Waste Management move in and take over the area? City leaders will need to answer all of these questions quickly and effectively to ensure a smooth transition.

Combined city operates to serve citizens

Finally, the cities will officially merge on some future date. This union will take plenty of minute actions and adjustments to achieve an orderly transition from two cities to one. The city of Niceville staff will have to determine what they need and do not need to keep regarding policies and assets. Leaders will have to decide which, if any, of the in-house operations the city of Valparaiso currently has to keep – and which to end. Can they sell their trash trucks? Who will maintain the city cable network? Will the city keep all of Valparaiso’s parks intact? Who will work in the new city? Who is getting laid off? City leadership must answer these questions before the two cities can successfully merge.

Final Thoughts

The Florida State Statutes say a municipality has five core functions (Florida State Statute Title XII Chapter 165). Cities must allow orderly patterns of urban growth and land use, assure adequate quality and quantity of local public services, ensure the financial integrity of the funds they have been entrusted with, eliminate or reduce avoidable and undesirable differentials in fiscal capacity among neighboring local governmental jurisdictions, and promote equity in the financing of government services. 

 

The proposed merger of the cities of Niceville and Valparaiso would accomplish the goals set up by the state legislature and allow for more efficient and expedient use of government resources while also ensuring a ready, talented, and willing workforce with opportunities for advancement that would encourage young people to fill the ranks of government – and ensure there are people to do the job in the future. 

 

Furthermore, consolidating the cities into one would place the populace and its collective leadership in a position to deal with natural calamities like hurricanes or political ones, like the removal of missions from Eglin Air Force Base. By creating a single representative body for the citizens to work through, leaders of organizations from Fortune 500 companies to FEMA and the Air Force would have a single point of contact with which to negotiate on everything from hurricane recovery, mission planning on base, and building new business in or near town to supply more jobs and economic growth. 

 

By making this difficult change as soon as possible and working to bring both cities together under one banner – the residents of the city will be better served by a city that is united, has the resources it needs to promote and execute the best interests of the residents and set the city up to succeed in the future with a more welcoming and diverse economy. As shown in this paper, the newly unified city would allow the resident government to more efficiently bring more resources to accomplish the goal of a robust and better-diversified local economy – by bringing more businesses that have nothing to do with the military into the area and creating an environment where those businesses can thrive alongside existing commercial enterprises. 

 

This consolidation is very possible. In theory, only about 1,800 people need to sign a petition form to start the process. From there, advocates of a one-city solution could move quickly to get a referendum on the ballot – with or without the support of the city commissioners or city council members, though that would make the process significantly easier – as they could act as public faces for the cause. 

 

However the residents and leaders of the Twin Cities choose to accomplish consolidation, it will significantly benefit the people living there. If the literature and interviews with community leadership are any indications – the residents could expect to see lower or stable taxes, more critical services that cost less and respond quicker – and the ability to use the framework of consolidation to advocate for the annexation of lands currently outside of the corporate boundaries of both cities. 

 

The merger is just a starting point. With the annexation of the city of Valparaiso and unincorporated areas in Niceville and Bluewater Bay – the residents of the area would have a vital forum that could organize and work toward even more benefits for the residents of the Twin Cities area at the county, state and federal levels. 



About the Author

Christopher Saul is the owner and manager of Mid Bay News, a hyperlocal news outlet dedicated to the Niceville, Valparaiso, and Eglin Air Force Base areas. Saul has more than a decade of experience in Journalism, public relations, marketing, government and public policy. He graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism from Southern Methodist University and a Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the Askew School of Public Administration at Florida State University. He lives in Niceville with his wife, Abby – a Niceville native – and two children.