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Services pinched, money’s tight: Is merger right?
Tiny municipalities savor place, not waste
Jun. 18, 2011
 
After enduring the frequent Bang! Bang! Bang! of gunshots while living in Walnut Hills, Phillip and Erin Smith wanted to move to a safer but affordable community.
 
They chose Arlington Heights, a tiny village stuck in the middle of the curving divided northbound and southbound lanes of Interstate 75. With only 745 residents, Arlington Heights is Hamilton County’s smallest community.
 
Phillip Smith, 28, says their move to the little village a year ago has brought welcome changes in their lives. They like the quiet, homey atmosphere and the up-close-and-personal services of the village’s government.
 
“We know if we have any needs for the police, it’ll be a pretty quick response,” said Smith, who lives only a few doors from the village hall, which houses the police department.
 
Arlington Heights is so small that everyone lives within a few blocks of the village hall.
 
But in today’s economy, it’s becoming more and more challenging for small communities like Arlington Heights to maintain their services. The village eliminated its fire department in 2008 because it could no longer afford it.
 
Financial and political pressures are raising questions about whether it makes economic sense for some of the region’s smaller communities to continue to exist. Ohio’s funding to local governments has been reduced significantly in recent years. The state legislature is considering phasing out estate taxes, a vital source of revenue for some communities.
 
There are 19 communities in Hamilton, Butler, Clermont and Warren counties with fewer than 1,000 residents. The smallest communities in the four-county area are Butler’s Jacksonburg and Clermont’s Chilo, each with 63 residents.
 
Because Jacksonburg has fewer than 40 registered voters, candidates for elected offices there don’t bother filing petitions with the Butler County Board of Elections to get their names on the ballot. They simply register as write-ins.
 
Many people view their small communities as endearing throwbacks to a simpler and more pleasant era. But with Ohio facing an economic crisis, some state and county officials are encouraging these small communities to consider merging with abutting communities or, at the very least, consolidating services.
Statewide wave of municipal mergers could save big money
 
Ohio Auditor Dave Yost believes the state would be better off with fewer counties, townships, cities and villages. Ohio has 88 counties and 1,380 townships.
 
“There are 691 villages in Ohio, and one-third of them have fewer than 500 residents,” Yost said in a recent meeting with The Enquirer’s editorial board. “That’s not a government. That’s a homeowners association.”
 
This past week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich announced he and legislative leaders probably will appoint a commission to study the potential benefits of consolidating schools as well as cities, townships and villages.
 
Neighboring Kentucky and Indiana have some consolidated city-county governments. Louisville and Jefferson County merged governments in 2003. Indianapolis and Marion County formed a consolidated government in 1970.
 
Yost is advocating changes in Ohio law that would allow two contiguous townships to merge, and make it easier for townships and municipalities to merge and for villages to merge into townships. Mergers can not only save money but also improve efficiency, Yost said.
 
Merging communities should result in fewer elected officials and public employees, and that means a savings to taxpayers, he said.
 
“There are a lot of unnecessary layers of government oversight,” Yost said. “Having one small community merge with another will save a small amount of money. But when you multiply it across the state, we’re talking about significant dollars.”
 
He emphasized that the mergers would be locally controlled and purely voluntary.
 
“You would get to pick your partner or partners,” Yost said.
 
Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann is encouraging local governments to merge or to share services.
 
“We have 149 political jurisdictions in Hamilton County,” he said. “That makes for expensive government.”
 
The decline in Hamilton County’s sales tax revenue and the drop in property values in the county have further eroded local governments’ financial resources.
 
Cincinnati and Hamilton County recently ended discussions about merging the city police department into the county sheriff’s department. But they continue to talk about merging the city solicitor’s office and the county prosecutor’s office.
 
“I think the time is ripe under current economic circumstances to use a more efficient means of government,” Hartmann said.
 
If Cincinnati and Hamilton County can work out cost-saving service consolidations, he said, it could encourage the townships, cities and villages in the county to follow suit.

Mergers offer financial, service advantages for tiny towns
 
In virtually all communities, mergers are about as popular as tax increases.
 
After Amelia Village Council decided to consider enacting an earnings tax three years ago, a group of citizens managed to get a proposal on the May 2009 ballot to dissolve Amelia to enable it to merge with Pierce or Batavia townships.
 
Before the vote, Amelia officials dropped the earnings tax idea. Nearly seven out of 10 Amelia voters rejected the proposal to dissolve the village.
 
“I like the small, hometown feel of Amelia,” said Debbie Ferguson, who moved to the village 24 years ago. “I don’t know if it would have the same feel to it if it became a part of Pierce.”
 
Amelia resident Harvey Johnston said he didn’t vote on the merger referendum, but doesn’t see the harm in exploring the ramifications of dissolving the village and becoming a part of Pierce Township.
 
“The township might be better managers than the village,” he said. “I’m open-minded about it.”
 
Economics has forced Amelia, which has 4,801 residents, to consider abolishing its police department and contracting with the sheriff’s department.
 
“I don’t like the thought of the police having to come here from Batavia,” said Linda Male, who has lived in Amelia for 49 years.
 
Mayor LeRoy Ellington has said the village’s future is uncertain without more revenue.
 
Based on population and financial circumstances, there would appear to be no shortage of potential merger candidates in the area. Here are a few examples:
 
Warren County has three communities - Pleasant Plain, Butlerville and Corwin - with populations under 500.
 
Butler County has two other communities, Somerville and College Corner, with populations under 500.
 
Butler County’s Lemon Township has been the subject of merger discussion for years. Established in 1803, the same year Ohio became a state, Lemon Township once consisted of 35 square miles. Over the past few decades, Lemon has been annexed nearly to the point of extinction by Middletown and Monroe.
 
Lemon now has six small, disconnected pieces, with a population of less than 2,000 in its unincorporated areas.
 
Lincoln Heights, founded as an all-black village in 1946 in central Hamilton County, has suffered economic setbacks, a high rate of administrative turnover and financial scandals. With a median household income of only $20,000, the village is beset by poverty and crime.
 
There have been 10 village managers in the past 11 years and four police chiefs in four years. Ron Twitty resigned as police chief last October, two weeks after it was revealed that he was not a certified police officer.
 
Over the next two years, Lincoln Heights’ financial condition will be hurt by losing $70,000 in state funding and by declining property tax revenue because of plummeting property values, Mayor Laverne Mitchell said.
 
Mitchell, who has lived in Lincoln Heights for 50 years, said there has been no discussion of merging with another community or of abolishing its police department.
 
“I’m sure our residents would like to keep our autonomy,” she said. “We have been on fiscal emergency at least twice and we have risen above that.”
 
Elmwood Place, a community of 2,188 residents in Hamilton County’s I-75 corridor, suffered a 21.6 percent drop in assessed property value from last year, the largest decline in the county.
 
“I’m trying to keep the village afloat and this is going to devastate us,” Mayor Stephanie Morgan told The Enquirer last month after the reassessment figures were released.
 
Virginia Thomas, who has lived in the village for 30 years, doesn’t want Elmwood Place to merge with another community. She said she likes her neighbors, but acknowledged that the general condition of property in the village has slipped.
 
“It was a nice town when we moved here,” Thomas said. “It’s gone downhill.”
How Louisville convinced voters merge with county was right
 
Michael Shea, who served as the lead strategist in the referendum campaign to merge Louisville and Jefferson County governments, understands the widespread resistance to community mergers. He consults on community mergers and consolidations throughout the country. He spoke at a recent Montgomery County summit meeting on regionalism at the University of Dayton.
 
“People don’t like change - any type of change,” said Shea, who is a partner with Government Strategies, a private consulting firm with offices in Louisville and Frankfort.
 
Voters rejected referendums proposing the Louisville-Jefferson County in 1956, 1982 and 1983. Shea said the reason for the successful campaign in 2000 was that it uncovered and addressed the merger concerns of the many different segments of the population.
 
Shea and his colleagues conducted more in-depth research about the voters’ concerns and desires than those heading the two failed campaigns had.
 
The blue-collar sections of the Jefferson County had different needs and worries than the white-collar areas. Shea said the research showed that young women were concerned about creating jobs so their children wouldn’t have to leave the area when they became adults.
 
“We appealed to the young women by stressing how a merger would bring in better businesses, and would improve the chances of their children and grandchildren staying there to work and raise families,” he said. “You can’t use broad-brush messages in a referendum of this type. You have to get down to the nitty-gritty and see what the small groups of people are concerned about.”
 
Under this Louisville-Jefferson County government consolidation, there is a metro mayor and a metro council. But the 80 suburban cities within Jefferson County maintain some autonomy. They still elect their own mayors and councils, and they can enact taxes.
 
The merger saves Louisville and Jefferson County $3.4 million a year, according to Louisville’s website. It attributes the savings to moving metro departments from leased space into government-owned buildings; eliminating overlapping functions in the city and county executive branches; and outsourcing functions performed by custodial services, security guards and youth detention food service.
 
But the biggest benefit of a metro government has been a more unified and focused leadership, said Joe Reagan, president and CEO of Greater Louisville Inc. That’s been extremely important in attracting big businesses and launching regional projects, he said.
 
“It has allowed us to get things done,” Reagan said. “Our merger campaign was never about just improving government efficiencies or saving costs. It was about leadership and direction, speaking with one voice, trying to be more competitive as a community to attract jobs.”
 
The regional approach, he said, helped in negotiations that resulted in the Ford Motor Co.’s decision last year to invest $600 million into its Louisville Assembly Plant.
 
“Merging governments is not a panacea,” he said. “It’s only one step in building a great community.”
 
But many residents in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky still fear mergers, especially smaller-scale mergers involving villages and townships.
 
For the past 15 years, Randy Altman has lived in Moscow, a village of 185 residents along the Ohio River. He and his wife, Tammy, live in a two-story house near the place his father was born.
 
One of their three grown daughters and her husband are moving to a rental house close by. A second daughter is house-hunting in Moscow.
 
When people have family cookouts in their yards, they routinely invite neighbors who are walking or driving by to join them.
 
“It’s like living in a little town from the ‘50s,” said Randy Altman, who builds hearses at the Eagle Coach Co. in Pierce Township, north of Moscow. “Everybody looks out for each other.”
 
Moscow is financially healthier than most towns with populations under 200 because of tax revenue it receives from the Duke Energy’s Zimmer Generating Station. Of Moscow’s annual general fund revenue of $250,000, 75 percent comes from Zimmer and Ohio’s local government fund, said Bill Gilpin, the village fiscal officer.
 
Altman worries that if Moscow dissolved and merged with Washington Township, the village would lose some of its charm.
 
“This is a perfect little town,” Altman said. “We like it the way it is. If you dissolved our village and made us part of a township, we would be no better than any other town.”
 
Addressing concerns about losing the intangible benefits of a small community are as important to the success of a merger referendum campaign as convincing voters of the cost savings and improved services that a merger could bring, Shea said.
 
“People need to have vision,” he said. “Too often, it’s all about protecting your turf. You have to get past that. Governments are strapped.”

Read it at the Cincinnati Enquirer


 
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