Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Regionalism needs details and dialogue to succeed in NE Ohio

Now that Cuyahoga county voters have passed a reform of county government, the focus will turn to regionalism, the reform of municipal government in our region. But this is one change that will likely never come before voters. If history is any indication, it’s also very unlikely to ever receive a vote before any city council, township board or county commission before becoming law. But when it is enacted, this regionalism plan will fundamentally reshape the way Northeast Ohio lives, works, and governs.

The public has a positive view of regionalism in general. Polls tells us voters want our local governments to collaborate more, to reduce waste and inefficiency, and to work together to promote a more prosperous region.

Four years ago a group of mayors and community leaders began meeting to explore ways to achieve these goals. The Northeast Ohio Mayors and City Managers Association has admirably taken the first big steps to working together –sitting down and discussing solutions. Unfortunately, the result of their meetings is a proposal, the Regional Prosperity Initiative, or RPI, that is long on tax redistribution and a new central land use planning authority, but short on cost savings and economic benefits.

The solution is due in large part to where the mayors went for their answers. Myron Orfield, a former Minnesota legislator and urban planning consultant, was one of the group’s early advisors. His philosophy is simple –regions like ours have a bad economy because their central cities are failing. Cities are failing because their suburbs have sapped them of their economic strength. Restore their strength by diverting taxes from prospering suburbs back to cities, and redirect new development back to those same urban areas through centralized land use planning. This form of regionalism started over 30 years ago in his hometown, the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

RPI members have presented their ideas, based largely on the Twin Cities model, before local leaders throughout the 16 county region. The local response -- “We’re in favor of regionalism in principle, but we need more details.” Which cities will be asked to give up future tax revenues? Who makes the decisions on which cities receive the extra tax money? Who will make the decisions on where new developments will be permitted, and how much say will the affected communities have? And most importantly, will we get a vote on the final plan?

Instead of answering these questions, RPI members point to the Twin Cities results as an answer and call to action. “The Cleveland area is failing,” they say, “because we don't plan growth and cooperate (share taxes) the way they do in the Twin Cities.”

The Twin Cities area has experienced growth, but this is due in large part to their white-collar economy compared to our dependence on manufacturing. We can’t change our economic base, but in the aspects the RPI says it can control – sprawl, poverty and government costs, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area is far from being a model. In fact, Cleveland outperforms the Twin Cities in these categories -- our region has less sprawl (Brookings, 2009) a lower poverty rate among African-Americans (Census, 2002) and has a lower cost of municipal government (Gund-Miller, 2002).

The RPI seeks local endorsements, while it remains frustratingly unclear on the most basic question – how will regionalism come to NE Ohio? The only published answer is that the RPI will be enforced on the region by a state mandate. RPI Chair Mayor William Currin told an Ashtabula audience “the group wants to enact the plan from Columbus, through state government, so that each one of the 571 municipalities in the 16-county region would not have to sign on individually.” The Twin Cities plan came into being this way, as an emergency measure, tacked on to an unrelated bill in the Minnesota legislature.

Regionalism doesn’t have to be forced on unwilling cities. Denver communities were given an opportunity to join or leave their regionalism plan by a local vote. Regionalism had to be sold to skeptical city governments, based largely on results. In the past eight years, Colorado municipalities representing over 87% of the Denver area have joined. Results will answer skeptics and reduce distrust faster than predictions from experts.

Fear of ceding control can only be overcome by open, honest dialogue. Our municipal leaders should insist on all the details and the right to a vote on a regionalism plan. It has taken a long time to get us to this point. Let’s not miss the opportunity to do this right.

Originally published in Crain’s Cleveland Business as “Regionalism cannot be Universally Applied”-- Nov. 30, 2009

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