Depressed property values, a still-struggling economy, and Draconian cuts in state aid to local governments have undercut the ability of Ohio cities, villages, and counties to deliver even the most essential services. One partial solution is to do more with less by sharing services.
In an era of permanent austerity, municipal boundaries will mean less and less, as local governments cooperate to deliver services more efficiently, and even consider merging with other municipalities. Taxpayers don’t care who plows their roads, answers 911 calls, or picks up their trash. They just want the job done.
Change is never easy, and local officials sometimes need a push to do the right thing. Ohio’s Department of Development wisely started to provide such incentives last year: Its Local Government Innovation Council approved more than $3.4 million in grants and millions of dollars in loans to nudge Ohio communities to consolidate services and operate more efficiently.
The Local Government Innovation Fund awards as much as $100,000 in competitive state grants for project studies. Loans for demonstration projects have a $500,000 cap.
Locally, the court clerks in Lucas and Wood counties secured a $90,000 grant from the Innovation Fund to look at marketing their electronic imaging services to 20 other northwest Ohio counties. The two counties shredded more than 165,000 pounds of paper last year, including divorce and court records.
The regional records center the counties propose would scan and index documents. It could eliminate much storage space and save smaller counties the expense of buying imaging equipment or contracting with a for-profit vendor.
The Department of Development received more than 100 grant and loan applications for innovative joint ventures, including technology, public safety, economic development, and public works projects. It has awarded grants and loans for regional composting in Toledo, a regional water district in northwest Ohio, a water and sewer authority in Meigs County, regional public safety dispatch in South Euclid, a library and cultural arts center in Kettering, salt storage and joint purchasing in Trumbull County, countywide dispatch and emergency operations in Marion County, and other projects.
The state should evaluate these efforts and continue to promote successful projects as models of best practices. It should continue to award grants and loans to encourage collaborative efforts.
The Local Government Innovation Program is no substitute for the hundreds of millions of dollars local governments have lost through recent cuts in the traditional local-government fund. Still, by providing incentives to collaborate and share services, Ohio is encouraging local governments to change how they do business permanently.