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Published: Sunday, 8/17/2003

Rumbling heard for city, county to unite services

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Every day, law enforcement crisscrosses Toledo and Lucas County on patrol.

The officers pass each other on the roads and in courtrooms. They enforce the same laws, and the people they arrest go to the same jail.

Yet some of them wear Toledo police blue, others, Lucas County sheriff black.

Every week day, a man leans over his desk on the eighth floor of One Government Center and pores over the county's budget, while another man 12 floors up struggles with the city's balance sheet.

And trying to lure businesses to the area are at least three different directors with three different offices and three different staffs - all within a few miles from each other.

Now - very cautiously, very deliberately - there are rumblings in government hallways about merging such services.

A single Toledo metropolitan government, proponents say, could mean saving taxpayers a lot of money.

“We've done things in the county and city the same way for many years,” said Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak. “If we're open to challenging the way we think, we're going to find some areas of savings.”

Though complex, the concept known as “Uni-government” could mean the eventual streamlining into one government and buying less equipment, paying fewer staff, and eliminating the overlapping services.

“We have something like 22 different jurisdictions in Lucas County,” Mayor Jack Ford said. “On the face of it, that sounds like too many. That's 22 different leaders, and different fire departments and police departments.

“You have system upon system,” Mr. Ford said, “and you have duplication and in some cases overlapping, and in some cases fragmentation.”

It's certainly not a new concern.

The National Association of Counties reports that voters in communities across the country have been asked more than 140 times since the early 1900s to merge with neighbors - 21 times since 1990.

In Toledo, the issue bubbled to the surface recently when Mayor Ford refused to extend city water services to parts of western Lucas County, where wells have run dry.

His concern is that development springs up around water services, in turn, gutting the urban core. Though the county has practically begged for water, Mayor Ford didn't budge, insisting instead that the governments first study “uni-government.”

Take the county and the city's health departments that merged in 2000, or the county and city's joint library and park systems. Then there's the Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commissions and Port Authority. And planners from different townships, villages, and cities have sought ways - together through the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments - to streamline transportation and environmental issues.

“There are obvious first steps [to consolidation], and we have already taken them,” Ms. Wuest said. “Maybe it's time we start patting ourselves on the back for the ways we already cooperate and collaborate.”

Three years ago, researchers at the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia examined budgets for Athens and Clarke County in Georgia in the years before and after they merged and compared them with budgets from three other communities. They suggested that it's impossible to guarantee savings from a merger, but it appears that a unified government eventually slows down the yearly escalation of costs.

But more importantly, there are savings in those things that can't be quantified, Harry Hayes, an associate with Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.

He said an Athens-Clarke public services supervisor estimated he spent about 15 percent of his work week in meetings coordinating services between the two entities before they merged.

Agreed Jeff Montgomery, a spokesman for Athens Clarke County: “A lot of consolidation benefits are not necessarily as tangible or as easy to quantify as they are from [the standpoint of] ease of use and customer satisfaction.”

Still, consolidation isn't easy or popular.

Jobs will vanish. Elected officials are unseated for good.

For all those attempts at consolidation nationwide, only 34 consolidations have been approved since New Orleans and Orleans Parish merged in 1805.

Since 1990, voters have approved only seven of the 21 mergers.

“It's very difficult thing to do politically,” Jacqueline Byers, research director at NACo said. “Someone has to lose. Who runs the show? The sheriff or the police chief? Who does the money? The elected treasurer or the city's finance director?”

“Nobody wants to give up their power base,” UT's Ms. Wuest said.

Indeed, it's about maintaining power - but on the part of the big players, agreed Michael Cochran, executive director of the Ohio Township Association.

“Is there a doubt in anyone's mind that Toledo wants to control everything in northwest Ohio?” Mr. Cochran said.

Moreover, rural dwellers and suburbanites worry that consolidating with cities means inheriting the urban problems they fled: crime, poverty, a struggling school system, and unemployment.

Like the water issue, it goes back to protecting the city's core, Mr. Ford said.

“Right now, [ceding authority over the funds] would be just be taking from the city and diluting the little [allocation] we have,” he said.

But doesn't that sound like a distinct lack of cooperation from a man pushing for cooperating government bodies?

“Maybe some of it makes sense, and maybe some of it doesn't,” he said. “But I think we can at least look at it.”

It was the same thought that led to the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County eight months ago. Twice, voters had turned down a merger, and it's still a difficult process, acknowledged Jennifer Brislin, spokesman for the new Louisville Metro Council.

“It's never easy to start over,” Ms. Brislin said, “and there's no rule book.



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