The efforts of state representatives Larry Flowers (R-19) and Larry Wolpert (R-23) to streamline local government have cleared the first hurdle.
Flowers’ and Wolpert’s House Bill (HB) 521, which is designed to study ways to restructure, reform, and streamline local government, was added to the the capital appropriations bill (HB 562) as an amendment and passed by the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House. HB 562 is now awaiting Governor Ted Strickland’s signature.
Flowers said HB 521 was revised prior to being added to HB 562.
"We worked with the Ohio Township Association, the County Commissioners Association and the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission to revise and soften the language of the bill. We’ve removed words like ‘eliminate’ and ‘replace’ and changed them to ‘restructure,’ ‘reform,’ and ‘collaborate,’" said Flowers.
Originally HB 521 proposed creating a nine member commission to develop recommendations on restructuring local governments and to look for ways to make government more efficient. However, the bill was revised to increase the number of commission members to 15. The commission will be made up of members consisting of: three appointed by the State Senate president; three named by Speaker of the Ohio House; three appointed by the governor; and one named by each of the following organizations – the Ohio Township Association, the Ohio Municipal League, the Ohio School Boards Association, the Ohio Library Council, the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, and the Ohio Association of Regional Councils.
The commission is to report its findings and recommendations to state officials by July 1, 2010.
Flowers said, once the governor signs the bill into law, work can began on appointing the commissioners. He said if all goes well the commission can start its research by this fall.
"The commission will do important work in improving the business climate in the state, enhancing efficiencies in the public safety sector, and saving taxpayers money," said Flowers. "Our goal is not to eliminate anyone; our goal is to save money and be efficient."
Background of the bill
Flowers cited Ohio’s more than 1,300 townships, 900-plus municipalities, 615 public school districts, 88 counties, and hundreds of other taxing authorities and questioned the need for so many layers of local government.
He said the commission’s goal will be to come up with recommendations to streamline local government by resolving the duplication of police forces, collaborating services, creating joint fire districts, and weeding out inefficient governments in struggling small towns. It could also lead to revamping school districts by combining small districts and by breaking down large districts to reach an optimal number of students.
Flowers said streamlining local government could help the state’s economy and he used Indiana as an example of how such efforts help businesses.
"A businessman can go to Indianapolis and in one day get what he needs to start a business in Indiana. In Ohio it would take him six months, and that’s if he had connections," said Flowers. "If a company is a statewide operation, it’s challenging for them to have to deal with more than 900 possible sets of rules. Because of this, the business community is very interested in our legislation."
Restructuring could provide local tax relief, according to Flowers, by creating new public service models that combine layers of government.
Flowers noted that most rural counties do not have a duplication of services.
"The urban areas is where the duplication comes in," said Flowers. "For example, where I live I pay local taxes for three different law enforcement agencies. There’s one fire department. Why couldn’t there be one police department?"
He added, the police situation described in the above scenario would not result in the loss of police protection, rather the three entities could be reformed into one police department.
However, Flowers said, if a community insisted on paying the extra money involved in maintaining a duplication of services, that was up to the community.
"If they want to pay for it, more power to them," said Flowers.
Flowers noted that, while he was Madison Township fire chief in the 1980s, he consolidated his department’s dispatching services to save money.
"We (Madison Township) were paying $30 per call in dispatching services," said Flowers. "We changed and contracted out the dispatching services to Columbus and the cost dropped to $3 per call. I took the $150,000 a year we saved and hired three firefighters. We got more bang for the buck that way."
Flowers noted the commission set up by HB 521 could make several different recommendations such as:
•Tiny villages could be absorbed into a larger township government, such as when the village of New Rome’s government was dismantled and Prairie Township became the presiding entity.
•Some townships could be restructured and their services taken over by the county.
•Joint fire districts could be created by combining several fire departments in an area to reduce administrative costs and to share equipment.
•Duplicate police forces could be combined.
•Combining school districts would reduce administrative costs and could further save money by merging transportation systems and sharing food services.
"Taxpayers are tapped out," said Flowers. "Now is the time to look at this."