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Published: Thursday, 3/4/2004

Skepticism greets Unigov summit

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The issues of trust and fear surfaced early in a two-hour summit held yesterday in Toledo to explore area interest in a regional government.

Almost all of the 23 political jurisdictions in Lucas County were represented at the meeting, which was requested by Toledo Mayor Jack Ford. And while the mood was polite, the response to Toledo s invitation was wary.

“Our cities have long memories,” said Maumee Mayor Tim Wagener. He pointed out that Maumee writes a $277,000 check to the city of Toledo every year “for nothing in return” because of a lawsuit over property Toledo owns in Maumee.

The meeting produced no consensus, but it did create a countywide discussion on the topic for the first time - and an agreement to meet again in 30 days.

“We are a regional economy and there are not just millions, but billions of dollars represented by the people lined up here today,” Mr. Ford said. “This is just the beginning. I don t know where it s going to take us, but I m just pleased with the turnout.”

Mr. Ford announced the initiative to save money and improve the region s economic competitiveness during his State of the City speech last month. He has not endorsed any model of merged government, which he has referred to both as metropolitan government and “unigov.”

If the other local governments agree to form a metropolitan government, Mr. Ford said, Toledo could offer a regional water system, joint bonding authority, and adoption of an urban county designation so the county could share in the $10 million federal block grant now awarded only to the city.

Held in the Central Union Terminal on the neutral turf of the Toledo Metropolitan Area Council of Governments, the meeting drew about 60 people, including elected officials, private individuals, agency representatives, and state Reps. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo) and Lynn Olman (R., Maumee).

The two-hour session was facilitated by James Lindeen, a University of Toledo political science professor. The program included a short primer on regional government, and a discussion of examples of how the area s communities already cooperate. Those included the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, the Toledo Area Metroparks District, and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

During the meeting, some officials expressed pride in their autonomy, as well as resentment over past scrapes with Toledo.

“It s too early for agreement. We are stark, white-faced frightened,” said John Warkentin, chairman of the Swanton Township trustees. “The whole thing we re here to discuss all wraps around money.”

“This is a good jumping-off point,” he said, “but I certainly am not ready for a referendum.”

Washington Township Trustee Camille Hammer boasted of quick response times by her community s police and fire departments and of the good condition of roads there.

“I do believe we provide services to our constituents that they want, or they would not keep approving our levies,” Ms. Hammer said. She said Washington Township would not agree to participate in a steering committee until township officials have a chance to talk about it.

Andy Glenn, a Springfield Township trustee, said he just wants to make sure his community is not taken by surprise. “I d be extremely opposed to any outcome that would put control under one body,” he said.

Others expressed doubts about what would be gained by merging.

Oregon City Councilman Mike Sheehy questioned whether places where metropolitan governments have been created - including Indianapolis, Louisville, and Jacksonville, Fla. - have better services and lower taxes than nonmerged communities.

“That would be the threshold question before this issue can survive,” Mr. Sheehy said.

There was some long-harbored resentment expressed over Toledo s decision in the 1970s to abolish income tax reciprocity with suburban neighbors. Starting in 1973, the city phased out refunding to other Lucas County cities a share of income taxes collected on people who worked in Toledo but who lived in those other cities. Toledo officials at the time said they stopped the practice because the city was losing about $500,000 a year through refunding.

Harry Barlos, the president of the Lucas County Board of Commissioners and a former Maumee mayor, has said that the ending of tax reciprocity contributed to the creation of Arrowhead Park, a business park which has created serious competition with Toledo by offering substantial tax breaks to businesses that locate there.

Oregon Mayor Marge Brown recalled that Oregon was converted from a township to a city in the 1950s “because Toledo wanted [to annex] us. They wanted our refineries. We have a history of not trusting Toledo.”

Ms. Brown emphasized that “Mayor Ford and I do have a good working relationship. But we have to remember our history and why we became Oregon.”

Despite tension between Toledo and Maumee over a long-running lawsuit that ended in 2002 with Maumee agreeing to share a portion of the income tax that is generated from Toledo-owned land in Maumee, Mr. Wagener also spoke of a trusting relationship with Mr. Ford.

Sylvania Mayor Craig Stough, citing the issue of trust, said the term “unigov” should be dropped when discussing mutual municipal cooperation.

“We need to see how we can expand the list of shared services” rather than abolish local governments, Mr. Stough said.

Mr. Wagener and Monclova Township Trustee Keith Trettin cited the cooperation which resulted in the newly created joint economic development zone between their jurisdictions and Toledo.

The zone resulted in development of a new Dana Corp. research center and hundreds of high-paying jobs.



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