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GAR Foundation

By WKSU's Kevin Niedermier

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

NOrthern Ohioans are taking steps toward regional cooperation. Some adjacent cities have combined services to save money and talks are underway to form broader partnerships. But across the country, many cities and counties have completly merged to form one entity.

     


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A map of the Louisville/Jefferson County Metro area. (map courtesy of Lousiville/Jefferson County Metro Government)

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Greater efficiency, more clout, and the ability to "speak with one voice": Those are some of the big reasons many American cities and counties have merged their operations as communities across the nation struggle to do more with less. Louisville, Kentucky and surrounding Jefferson County formed one of the latest city-county unifications. It's a partnership that has taken half-a-century according to Lousiville/Metro Deputy Mayor Joan Riem.

Reim: "The first public referendum on the issue of merging city and county government was taken in 1956. There was another referendum in 1982 and a third one in 1983. All of those failed, though by close margins. Finally in the year 2000, we took our fourth vote and the issue passed."

The Louisville/Jefferson County merger moved the city from the nation's 67th largest, to the 16th largest community. There are about 35 such arrangements across the country according Bob O'Neil of the International City County Management Association. He says the popularity of mergers comes in waves.

O'Neil: "There was a wave of these consolidations in the late sixties and early seventies, that were consolidations like Nashville and Jacksonville and Miami, and Indianapolis would have been in that group. Then it stopped. Most of them require approval by the electorate, and in many cases there were a number of proposals that failed."

But merger interest is on the rise again. Besides Louisville and Jefferson County, recent converts include Lexington and Fayatte County in Kentucky, and
Kansas City, Kansas and Wyandot County. Buffalo, New York and Erie County are also working on an agreement.

O'Neil calls Louisville and Jefferson County's merger a benchmark. Deputy Mayor Reim says when civic and business leaders started pushing the idea in the 1950s, they believed the city and county were each too small to have individual governments duplicating services. But residents had concerns about merging.

Reim : "The city of Louisville residents who enjoyed their own government and their own very specific services within their 56 square miles, well they were concerned a larger countywide government would diminish the services they received and not care as much about the needs of the city. The county residents who paid lower taxes and therefore got a lower level of service, by their choice, were concerned a larger countywide government would raise their taxes in order to give them more urban-type services they didn't want to pay for. And they were also concerned the problems they associated with the city might somehow come out into the county with a larger government."

Riem also says minority residents felt their political influence would be diluted because they would become a smaller percentage of the new government's jurisdiction. Under the old system, 12 city council members each represented about 24-thousand residents and three county commissioners represented over 200-thousand each.

Reim: "We created a metro council of 26 members, and although that seems large, what it does is ensure every single part of the county has a representative on the metro council so each council member represents about 26,000 people. That means that each part of the county knows it has a specific voice in the legislative body, and that their particular neighborhood and local concerns will be represented in the person of their council member."

Besides merging the city and county executive and legislative branches, all departments including police and E-M-S are now combined. Reim says this part of the merger has resulted in several cost savings, including something as simple as the octane levels of gasoline for police cars.

Reim: "City police officers used 87 octane gasoline in their cars and the county police officers used 89 octane in their cars. When you're talking about more than 2000 vehicles, and certainly this was 3 years ago, today especially, the cost of gas is a huge concern. So the Chief asked the city folks, do you notice any performance problems with the 87 octane gas and they said no it works fine. So he said 87 octane is cheaper than 89 octane, let's everybody use 87 octane gas. Well 3 years ago that was a savings of $100,000 a year with just that one change by looking at the 2 budgets side-by-side."

Reim says there are some downsides to the merger, including sluggishness in adjusting employee salaries because of the different city/county contracts, and the need for higher skilled managers because of the larger government systems. But the new government promises no tax increases for at least four years after the new system was implemented in 2003.
No city/county merger talks are going on in Ohio, and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, says a merger definitely won't happen on his watch.

Jackson: "In terms of my adversity to regional government, I just believe in the principle that government closest to the people is the best government."

But Jackson is open to some city/county and regional cooperative ventures like help for Cleveland's struggling public school system.

Jackson: "I do know it will be a big fight if you're talking about doing a regional school district. But the regional funding of public education to me makes a lot of sense. How do we pool our resources in a way that we can fund our educational efforts, and do it at the same costs or less. So again, you have the issue of how do school districts then interact with each other on service and procurement that would allow them to reduce the costs of the operations of their districts."

Meanwhile, Jackson is looking at possible cooperative ventures with other cities in the region. He will hire a Regionalism Director to coordinate the effort. Many Cuyahoga County cities are working together or are planning to, and some Northeast Ohio counties have had cooperative programs for years. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District is one example, according to Cuyahoga County Development Director Paul Oyaski. He says the county is now studying other cooperative opportunities with local cities and surrounding counties to increase purchasing power and economic development opportunities. But merging county and city governments is not in the cards.

Oyaski: That's flying the face of a 250 year history of local control, and under the law, everybody has to vote in favor of these kind of mergers, or dramatic restructuring of government. But I don't know if the will of the voters would exist to give up what their city hall signifies to them in order to reduce taxes. Obviously, everybody wants to reduce taxes, but merely merging governments does not necessarily convince a voter that he or she is going to save taxes."

Oyaski believes starting small and expanding joint efforts could lead to bigger regional ventures in the distant future. Louisville/Metro Deputy Mayor Reim agrees. She says merging is not a "magic bullet" for everyone. During the half century it took for Louisville and Jefferson county to finally merge, those two entities took what she calls many "baby steps", establishing cooperative agreements on purchasing, parks, libraries and other services. Oyaski says one focus of Cuyahoga County's efforts, is getting all the region's players to agree on common goals for Northeast Ohio's economic future. I'm Kevin Niedermier...89-7 WKSU.