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
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
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
“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
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,
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
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
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
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
“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’
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
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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Read it at the Cincinnati Enquirer