Some lawmakers in Columbus are pushing a bill that would make it easier for townships to merge. The idea is that consolidating local governments saves money - something that will be increasingly necessary as the economy right-sizes itself for today's post-recession environment. Ideastream's Bill Rice reports the initiative is seen by supporters as just the first step in a long-term trend.
Merging two governments into one in Ohio runs anywhere from "not easy" to "not possible" - so says state Auditor Dave Yost, who is leading the effort to encourage such mergers. It HAS been done - for example Hudson Township and Hudson Village MERGED to form the city of Hudson back in 1995. But it's a rare occurence, and Yost is one of numerous officials who would like to make it less rare - by eliminating barriers embedded in complicated state law.
YOST: "We want to streamline it, make it simpler and in essence allow small governments to come together the way small businesses would and merge to get those economies of scale to make them more competitive and economically viable."
But even Yost concedes it would be a SMALL step toward more regional government.
So just what is possible under state law? Well, let's start with what's NOT possible. Again, Auditor Yost:
YOST: "Two counties that are under fiscal stress and want to come together can't do that without an act of the legislature. If two townships want to join without becoming a city, there's no provision under the law."
The reason for that gets into state constitutional definitions, says Allen Weinstein, a professor of both law and urban planning at Cleveland State University. It's the difference, Weinstein says, between incorporated municipalities, which includes cities and villages, and un-incorporated jurisdictions - townships and counties.
WEINSTEIN: "Municipalities under the Ohio constitution have the power of home rule regarding their own self-government and also regarding police power regulations - the kind of health, safety, and welfare regulations that all governments enact. Townships, and counties as well, only have those powers that are granted to them explicitly by the legislature by a statute."
And so some mergers are already possible under the constitution. Incorporated cities and villages are free to merge with each other. And un-incorporated townships are free to merge with incorporated cities and villages - the Hudson example cited earlier is the most recent example of that. What's NOT allowed under the constitution - without an express act of the legislature - is… what Auditor Yost said: unincorporated townships and counties merging with each other. And that's what the Auditor hopes to change. But, he says, it will take more than just a law to make mergers happen.
YOST: In this economic environment we need to create a path for success and show that it can be done and start to change the way candidates and officeholders think about these merger issues."
One person whose mind will need to be changed is Dave Gillock the Republican Mayor of North Ridgeville in Lorain County. He also and chairs the Northeast Ohio Mayors and City Managers Association, a strong advocate for regional initiatives such as shared fire or EMS services, and even tax revenue sharing.
GILLOCK: "That's something we're all looking at and we should be doing, but I don't think you're going to see merging of entities.
One reason, Gillock argues, is that the larger the government entity, the less access ordinary citizens have to their elected leaders.
GILLOCK: "The tax payer loses that personal contact with their representatives that they want."
And there are two other obstacles. One is that many cities just don't want to take on the problems of other cities. The other is that inconvenient truth that most local leaders try to steer clear of: every merger of two governments into one means eliminating one leadership position - possibly their own.