Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Does Local Government Consolidation really lower operating costs? Not necessarily.

Like those of us changing over to our summer wardrobes, “smart growth” advocates like Greater Ohio have switched their garb of concern for the environment and “economic equity” with the current government fashion trend in Columbus – savings taxes through consolidation. Consolidation in this case means reducing the number of local “inefficient” governments in favor of regional control.

Like any fad, however, this one can quickly be proven to be more style than substance.

We are lead to believe that we inherited an 18th century system of government, needlessly duplicating efforts, or worst still, working at cross-purposes, leading to higher taxes and less growth. We hold on to these governments for vanity reasons, like preserving school mascots, ignoring the savings offered by consolidation.

Advocates would further have us believe that coordinated regional control like that of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Met Council would create lower operating costs and provide better service to the taxpayer. A close examination of the facts proves this is counterintuitive, and really a guise to restore urban political power and union control.

The Met Council is held up as one the national standards of regional cooperation. Formed over 30 years ago, the Met Council encompasses seven counties in the Twin Cities area, handling everything from sewer and water projects and transit, to functions normally left to local control, such as parks and libraries. As such, it is a good yardstick with which to measure the relative savings of consolidation over our own local model.

The “ruler” in this case is a June 2008 report -- A Cost of Government Study for Northeast Ohio by the Center for Governmental Research. http://www.scribd.com/doc/8529075/Cost-of-Government-Study-for-Northeast-Ohio-Focus-Cuyahoga-County

As stated in the executive summary, the Twin Cities has hardly been reaping the benefits of shared services. “Based on the data provided to the Census of Governments, in 2002 the per capita cost of government in the regions studied varied from…a high of $4,336 in the Twin Cities…. Northeast Ohio’s per capita spending (was) $3,750 .”

While the Twin Cities has a per capita government cost structure 16% higher than ours, a closer comparison of some traditionally “local” expenditures highlights the real contrasts. The Twin Cities spends 131% more on Parks per capita than NE Ohio, 50% more on Transit Services, and 14% more on Housing and Community Development.

The higher costs of administration and labor is one reason regional control is expensive. Each of these Twin Cities functions is represented by a public union – and though they represent different units, they work collectively to shut down many aspects of government when any one of the unions has a dispute.

My position as Trustee of my local library helps me understand one reason why Twin Cities taxpayers pay 33% more per capita to deliver library services than our local independent libraries.

We are one of six library systems operating outside of the Akron/Summit County Library System. Advocates for regionalism and costs savings have held that Ohio should have a single system of schools and libraries in each county for the sake of efficiency.

Our library receives about 25% of its operating funds from the state; the remainder is from a local operating levy. Consolidating us into Akron would only drive our costs up and drive down the quality of our local service. The Akron system’s starting salaries are 30% higher than the average of the other six county libraries. The benefits and pensions in Akron are also higher. The employees at the local libraries under a single county system would be subject to the same agreement, eliminating any potential savings and possibly raising operating costs..

The assets we have acquired may be dispersed throughout the county, and given the smaller size of our town relative to Akron, we could face the threat of a reduction in service and shutdown with little or no say in the matter. Consolidation advocates only seek to redistribute our assets and our tax base to urban control. That is the essence of “Smart Growth. “

Poll after poll shows that local government is one of the few forms of government receiving positive support from voters. It’s no surprise, since local government officials must be responsive to local needs to stay in office. Most local governments were not formed by riders on horseback, but in the 20th century, by voters who carefully chose their local form of government. Regional entities, like our NE Ohio Regional Sewer District, formed by court order, are free to pass on rate increases or create new fees like stormwater with non responsibility to voters. This is the type of government we would get under consolidation.

Cooperation and mutual efforts to save money should certainly be explored. But blanket statements about replacing antiquated local government systems are not constructive in helping Ohio with its economic future.

There’s an old saying –“if it ain’t broke – don’t fix it.” In most cases, local governments ain’t the ones that are broke. To the bloated state and regional governments who seek to tell us in local government that its time to lose some weight, there’s another old saying – “sweep your own doorstep.”