A statewide bill which would establish a commission to develop recommendations on restructuring local government is meeting stiff opposition before even coming out of committee.
"Local governments were created for a reason," said Truro Township Trustee Chairman Dennis Nicodemus of the legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Larry Flowers. "I don’t know much about the bill, but I think they’re making a mistake. It could throw a monkey wrench into what is now a simple process and it could slow down response time."
State Representatives Larry Flowers, and Larry Wolpert sponsored House Bill 521 with the goals of increasing efficiency and effectiveness in local government and saving taxpayer dollars.
If the legislation is approved and the commission created, nine voting members would have until July 1, 2010, to report on their findings in consolidating, reorganizing, or eliminating local government offices and tax-levying entities such as schools and libraries to reduce overhead, administrative expenses, and provide cost savings.
Flowers said the idea is to streamline local government by eliminating duplicate police forces, creating joint fire districts, and weeding out inefficient governments in struggling small towns.
It could also lead to revamping school districts by consolidating small districts and by breaking down large districts to reach an optimal number of students. He said such actions would reduce administrative costs.
Joint fire districts could be created by combining several fire departments in an area to reduce administrative costs and to share equipment.
Flowers, a Madison Township fire chief for many years, said Southeast area fire departments from Madison, Truro, and Hamilton townships could form one joint fire district.
He said consolidations could provide local tax relief by creating new public service models that remove layers of government.
"Southeast Franklin County is ripe for a joint fire district," Flowers said.
Flowers added the state could try to create incentives in the form of grants to reward communities that consolidate services.
Despite the legislation’s intent, local entities, including Truro Township, are speaking out against the bill, saying it could erode the ability to provide service swiftly and locally.
As an example, Nicodemus recalled that a student was injured at a Reynoldsburg athletic field that was split between two jurisdictions-Truro Township and Southwest Licking fire departments.
The emergency call was made in Southwest Licking, but went out to both departments. Truro showed up, and when they pulled out to transport him 20 minutes later, Southwest Licking showed up.
"If they want to combine departments, who are they going to combine? Southwest Licking, Truro, Madison, and Hamilton Townships?" Nicodemus questioned. "I don’t think someone stationed in Groveport would know enough about Reynoldsburg. Locally, we’re in good shape and we work very hard on our response time."
Nicodemus said multiple jurisdictions applying for grants together makes sense, but combining entities does not.
"The MECC (multi-jurisdictional emergency communications center) is an example of entities working together and it’s working well, but we made the decision to join it ourselves. Nobody forced us," reported the trustee. "I won’t say there aren’t townships out there that are so small they can’t be sustained by their taxpayers, but to absolutely do away with entities and local government is a bad idea."
Fellow Truro Township Trustee Barb Strussion agrees that keeping services localized is a good idea.
"From our township’s point of view, we are so close to the people, they can get a hold of us pretty quickly and easily. I feel we can move faster at our level of government," said the trustee.
Strussion has heard that Indiana is interested in exploring a similar proposal.
In December, the Indiana Commission on Local Government Reform, co-chaired by former Gov. Joseph Kernan and Chief Justice Randall Shepard, issued the results of a six-month study recommending county governments be led by a single county executive backed by a strong county council and professional administrators.
According to the Indiana report, services provided by townships should be transferred to county governments and only elected officials should have the power to levy taxes.
Kernan and Shepard said the present system is more expensive than it needs to be and is so complicated that voters and taxpayers have extreme difficulty maneuvering their way through it.
The co-chairmen admitted the transition would be disruptive, even painful in the short run, and those invested in the status quo would resist the change with great vigor.