The Ohio Chambers of Commerce has commissioned a report titled, Redesigning Ohio. It has some interesting areas of study. The first area of the study to be addressed here is chapter on local government. This is an incredibly weak area of recommended reform.
If the State of Ohio and the Chambers want a better functioning system of local government, the following need to be discussed if not undertaken. Few of these ideas are immediately palatable. Some of these are radical ideas, though the intent is not to offend, but to start a discussion of what is possible — what role do each of us have in the future of the State we call home? The intent is to really think about where Ohio is going to be in the future. And in a larger context, how can Ohio contribute to the overall dream of America.
It has been my experience over the past 20 years working in council-manager forms of government, that communities with professionally trained managers function better (professionals with an MPA; not ex-council members). The council-manager cities, in my opinion just function better (as long as the council members truly understand the form). It is with over 30 years working in and around local government in Ohio and living in 9 of Ohio’s counties in 53 years, that I make these comments:
1) Remove barriers to home rule functioning for municipalities. Over the years the state legislature has put limits on the home rule function of charter municipalities. Allowing municipalities to function as a ward of the State is one thing; local governments, especially those with a professional system of management have led innovations in Ohio for decades. It is time to let them continue their tradition in being the reform of local government in Ohio.
2) Require townships of over 7,500 to incorporate. Townships continue to use county provided services. A portion of these services are paid via property taxes of municipal residences. Townships such as Colerain and Boardman should be required to incorporate and reduce the service burden on County governments and support themselves like cities of comparable sizes.
3) Eliminate townships of under 3,000 people. These geographic areas will become unincorporated parts of townships. The elimination of the duplicative cost of elected township officials will provide tax relief to residents in these rural areas – often poor and struggling. The scale of operations of township and county road crews will also achieve cost savings.
4) Encourage/Require the consolidation of Fire/EMS services and safety dispatching into county-wide departments. The number of fire calls continues to fall statewide. Communities have a duplication of fire equipment or in some cases have “agreements” whereby one government will buy one piece of equipment and the other will purchase a complimentary piece of equipment – and then respond in mutual aid, costing both local governments money. The command structures are often duplicative as well. Consolidation of fire services within a county may well save hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
5) Do not allow County governments to include tax values of municipalities in bond issues for utility projects taking place in unincorporated areas. Eliminating the municipal value will reduce the tendency of counties in entering into the water and sanitary sewer business and the accompanying tax and rate burden on county residents. Residents in townships interested in municipal services can either incorporate or request annexation into a city or village.
6) Reduce the 24% retirement benefits paid by local governments for police/fire pensions. Increase the retirement service of police and firefighters to 30 years (including county sheriffs and highway patrol). The reduction of the pension amount to the rate presently covered by localities (14%) will save considerable amounts of local tax dollars. Increasing the service time will need to be investigated as well as the anecdotal references to police and firefighters taking disability retirements. In most every community, police and firefighters must pass a physical agility test to become employed, however, attempts to require retaining a level of fitness have been avoided by labor unions representing these services. It has been proven that a physical fitness program will reduce the number, type and level of injuries for these services. Staying fit is also in their own best interests.
7) Allow double dipping. This is an important method to retain institutional knowledge and reducing pension payments. This is pretty obvious on its face. We all know how well term limits has worked in Ohio…
8) Reform the Ohio Public Works Commission operation. I recently mapped out the process in a Northeastern Ohio District. There are 18 steps to the process, including the local bidding process. A quantifiable, objective process is needed to reduce the waste of administrative and oversight time to assemble and vote on projects.
9) Retain collective bargaining. A respected public service is a motivated public service. We can all find faults with any labor contract; we are in a time where public employees understand the handwriting on the wall — and so do the elected officials with whom the unions have danced trading endorsements for benefits.
10) Value each and every local government employee. City managers/administrators and mayors need to be taught models for employee involvement and other TQM related models for continuous service delivery improvement. Without these people our communities are not desirable places to live.
11) Require annual ethics training for ALL elected officials from the Governor to Township Trustees. Why? Cuyahoga County. Need I say more?
12) Legislate the ability of all counties in Ohio to use a charter system with appointed county executives – basing county government on the Council-Manager model (not the Cincinnati model). Again, I think this is self-explanatory.
13) Encourage sustainable growth and development. We need to be more mindful of our immediate environments. This does not just mean the trees and fields and streams. We need to consider more of our built environment and its many connections. High speed transit, infill development, creative zoning codes, LEED building and retrofits are all part of the future of Ohio’s destiny.
14) Create a compact with adjoining states eliminating tax abatements. Tax abatement have only hurt our schools and created larger gaps between our have and have-not communities.
And while saying these things, those in public service have an ethical obligation to see and act beyond efficiency and economy. They must provide and distribute services equitably — from the township and village hall to the Statehouse. This is an area that the Chamber just don’t understand. This last part of the argument has been missing from our recent discourses. It is well and good to reward collaboration amongst communities. Unfortunately, we will see that only the wealthiest communities (or at least those with some amount of healthy reserve funds) will be able to participate. Creating models of governance that meet what I call the 3-E test (efficiency, economy and equity) are needed. However, in reaching that 3-E test, the State is also obligated to observe that ethic.
Any awarded governance/service model must be able to “transported” or taught to the communities with lesser economies. The State and smaller villages, cities and township may want to consider not only consolidation of services, but also creating a governance structure whereby professional management can be shared among an area administering/overseeing services on a daily basis like a city/village manager.
Without reforms proposed at the level suggested here, the Ohio Chambers of Commerce, the State Legislature and Governor are merely moving the deck chairs on the Titanic and playing a power and economic game — a game that does not include all Ohioans. Like any polity, Ohio is a political animal; it is also a symbiotic organization.