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Published: Monday, 8/23/2004

City, county merger of job efforts a distant goal

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A merger is about saving money and improving services, said Bob Pongtana, a director with the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department.

He lauded the 2000 merger that produced his department as a victory for customer service and Lucas County taxpayers.

"If you have two restaurants, one across the street from another, instead of sending two health inspectors, we just send one person, now," he said. "It saves money."

But functions like restaurant inspections and flu shots are proving easier to consolidate than the more nebulous work of economic development.

Talk of unifying the Toledo and Lucas County economic development offices has been in the air since completion of a report by Hammer Siler George Associates of Silver Spring, Md. The study, com

missioned by the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, the Regional Growth Partnership, the city, and the county, pilloried efforts as fragmented and ineffective.

But despite excitement about the report, which suggested a unified, one-voice approach to creating jobs, the port authority and the growth partnership boards chose in a joint meeting last Monday to leave unification on a back burner.

Former Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, who is a member of the port authority board, presided over the merger of the health department as mayor at the beginning of 2000, said politics is the obstacle.

"I think the Hammer Siler report is visionary and would eliminate overlapping budgets," he said.

He noted that Toledo Mayor Jack Ford supports the Lucas County Democratic Party's nominee for county commission, City Councilman Peter Gerken, against the Democratic incumbent, Harry Barlos, who is president of the commissioners. Mr. Barlos is running as an independent.

Mr. Ford has said he wants a merger, but recently hired his own economic development director, former Dana Corp. executive Bill Carroll, who starts Sept. 1. The appointment appeared to undercut hopes of a rapid combination of city and county economic development efforts. In his merger proposal, Mr. Ford made it clear the mayor of Toledo should be in charge - a stand not calculated to win support outside the city.

Mr. Ford's public information officer, Mary Chris Skeldon, said, "Mayor Ford is a proponent of regional cooperation," citing his initiation of meetings on a city-county government merger. And in appointing Mr. Carroll, Mr. Ford stressed he wants the city and county to work together.

Mr. Barlos said the highest priority for him would be to promote cooperation among the counties of the region and promote a multicounty port levy.

"I truly believe, in the best interest of this community, there needs to be an amount of time for all the community entities to reach a level of comfort, so we all can work together. Unfortunately, we've reached the point where we're viewed as adversaries," Mr. Barlos said. "We are not adversaries."

The boards encouraged merger in the future but did not view it as realistic in the short term, said Tom Palmer, chairman of the port board.

The general plan the joint boards endorsed would create a Toledo Lucas County Coordinating Council with senior officials of the city, county, port authority, and the growth partnership reviewing projects, he said.

The port authority, which finances economic development projects and operates Toledo Express Airport and the Port of Toledo, collects $2.5 million a year from a 0.4-mill levy, up for renewal Nov. 2. The port directs $1.35 million of the levy to the growth partnership for job creation work in an 11-county region that includes Lucas County.

To woo Lucas County voters, the boards decided last Monday to split up that growth partnership share and set aside $650,000 just for Toledo and Lucas County and $350,000 for competitive grants for the 11-member of the Toledo Community Development Corp. Alliance. The other $350,000 would go for regional efforts in the 11 counties.

The boards also asked Ken Dobson, a member of both boards, to talk to the city and county about how to achieve some sort of merger in the future.

"It will probably take some years to overcome the distrust," said Terry Glazer, executive director of the Lagrange Development Corp. and head of the CDC alliance.

Contact Christopher Kirkpatrick at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6077.



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