We are existing in unprecedented times in American history where public servants are villans and scapegoats; where services are demanded at the local level and funding from the states and federal government are rapidly evaporating (The LGF and Estate Tax cuts are particularly damning to local governments in Ohio), meanwhile the Ohio Legislature and Congress are supporting large tax cuts for extremely upper income people and corporations. To add to the quagmire, our communities are not supportive of raising their taxes to continue the services they are demanding.
So what do we do? Like the states and feds, our response is to cut our own budgets – very understandable. And of course, we and the Councils are going to scrutinize every purchase. Up this point, we have poured money into public safety, infrastructure, staff, training and development, capital equipment and economic development. So where do we cut first? We are not sure what to do with health insurance until November. I am sure that many are crossing their fingers on that one as well as PERS pickup – even though it cuts two ways.
Training usually is the first line item to take a hit. Sending folks somewhere and paying for hotels, etc., can add up and seem like a waste of time. Meanwhile, we want to make sure that we get to our professional association meetings. Why? We receive value from the topics and being able to trade stories with colleagues. We can still provide training in Ohio by utilizing the services of OCMA and SGR by having our employees participate in online training. It is a far more affordable option.
Gov. Kasich has talked about collaboration between communities. Frankly, one of the best options is Fire/EMS Departments. Inventory the equipment and vehicles in your Fire Department and the surrounding communities. How much duplication is there? What are the mutual aid costs? How often do communities respond to your mutual aid requests and visa-versa. What are those associated labor and equipment costs? Does anyone in your and respective fire departments track which vehicles respond? I imagine that if we looked at mutual aid alone, we would see that many communities are already working with a regional department. Instead, we call it mutual aid. Forming Fire/EMS districts can save local government general fund dollars as most districts are supported via property taxes. It is entirely possible that these types of savings may provide a meaningful mitigation of the aforecited reductions in traditional state aid.
Regional economic development programs have been taking place for decades (Ashtabula County has had one of the best in the state for almost two decades). At the same time, managers and elected officials are concerned about job growth in the most parochial of manners – and I can’t blame anyone for being so – I surely was for decades too! At the same time, I’ve learned the value of joint efforts, whether in terms of advertising efforts or website links. While these are good, most of us know that it is local job creation that will keep our communities afloat. Many smaller communities still do not have retention and expansion programs, or they shrug their shoulders and say, “The county will handle it.” This is an area of cooperation where cities, village and township professionals need to have an equal hand in the process. If you’re not sure how to start an R&E program, call the nearest city manager (or hey, call me!! I won’t even hit the meter!! — It’s that important). A good team effort of the Manager, County ED Director and maybe the Chamber of Commerce Director visiting the company, finding out what is important in their business, who are their customers, who are their suppliers, what is foreign competition doing, are they getting healthier — maybe looking at an expansion (yes, there are some). Asking these questions shows your interest and the business owners appreciate it. After all, a lot of ED work is relationship building.
And at the same time, there is an steady undercurrent that companies are more than willing to jump to other communities and that growing areas of technology and health care are creating jobs in places they never did before. Local governments need to be ready with sites and relationships with the site owners as part of a good toolbox. Every community has a website. Some are better than others. Part of it seems to be mindset too. Look at your website (or ask a local business person to look at it) like someone who is looking at moving into your community. Does it have all of the information that you need/want? How many clicks does it take to get to the information? The more clicks, the less interest the business person is going to have. Many communities are using services that have maps and are essentially real estate listings. Those are helpful. But what other information does the business need? Zoning information: permitted uses, etc?? Taxes and utilities? Is the information readily available? CDJ has the ONLY online economic development calculator in the country that provides readily available tax/utility/permitting costs in the US! And we have a patent pending on it. Now, some reading this will say, “Well, we have a spreadsheet in our office that we use to help businesses calculate that information.” How often do you use it? The point is, you may have a far better chance showing off your spreadsheet once the company has your community in that final 3-5 company competition once they have used your website to gather the tax and utility information.
And speaking of utility information, the present recession may also present an opportunity to evaluate and improve the state of and expand underground infrastructure. This is the time. The investment in water and sewer lines represents a return in income tax funds, which many, if not most cities are seeing a downward trend. This approach may tick that trend up, or it may slow the downward slope.
These are the areas in which cities, villages and townships may want to consider in dealing with state cutbacks: consolidation of Fire/EMS services while INVESTING in economic development. If there are others, please share the conversation here.