Report urges Springfield, county to look at merged government options

The city of Springfield plans to research if it can save money by sharing services following the recommendations of an independent committee that included looking into a countywide government in the future.

The recommendations come as cities across Ohio face budget squeezes due to losses in state funding, prompting state Rep. Kyle Koehler to propose legislation that will make it easier for governments to investigate sharing services.

House Bill 5, sponsored by Koehler and Rep. Stephanie Kunze of Hilliard, gives two or more state agencies or local governments the ability to request a free feasibility study from the Auditor of State. It would examine whether combining resources would save money.

“We don’t want duplicative services,” Koehler said.

The bill, awaiting Gov. Kasich’s signature to become law, would use the Leverage for Efficiency, Accountability and Performance fund to pay for the studies. That money has previously covered only efficiency studies to evaluate how well governments are performing and get ideas for streamlining.

The bill allows half of that fund, about $500,000, to be instead used for feasibility studies.

Springfield and Clark County leaders said they would consider such a feasibility study and expressed a desire to move several shared services ideas forward — including a long-discussed countywide 9-1-1 dispatch center and building inspection services.

The resident committee that examined Springfield’s finances recommended an outside firm conduct a study of the city’s books and benchmark it against other communities to find savings.

Its final report also said Springfield should, “seriously promote countywide shared services where efficiencies can be obtained.” Suggested areas to look at include law enforcement, fire, inspection and code enforcement, purchasing, maintenance, marketing and economic development.

“I’m a firm believer in saving the taxpayers money by consolidating services,” Clark County Commissioner John Detrick said.

But it’s not an easy task to pull off — especially merging into one countywide government. Recent merger talks between Dayton and Montgomery County fizzled out, current state laws complicate uni-governments and the sharing of revenue can lead to disputes.

“I personally favor doing it but I understand the complexities of pulling it off,” Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland said of a countywide merger.

Different cultures, policies

Clark County and Springfield have twice before attempted to hammer out an agreement for sharing building inspectors, but it never came to fruition, according to Springfield City Manager Jim Bodenmiller.

Plans for a shared 9-1-1 dispatch center have likewise been held up for years. In 2013, the city and county said they were close to making it happen. Then in September, a county commissioner said it was on “indefinite hold.”

As of this week, both parties say they still want to see it become reality.

“It is difficult sometimes to have multiple organizations joining together, Bodenmiller said. “You have different cultures, different policies, you’ve got union agreements, all of those things have to be worked through.”

Both parties need to be able to see the financial advantage to pull the trigger on any merger, Bodenmiller said.

“The two forces that come together need to be equal,” Detrick said.

The downfall of shared agreements is sometimes as simple as clashing personalities, Detrick said. Andy Bell, a principal with Brower Insurance and the author of the committee’s report, called it “turf wars.”

“We had a deal (on building inspections) and it was our director at that time,” Detrick said. “(He) could have been a little more diplomatic and the deal fell apart.”

The city currently makes good money off of commercial permits, he said, while the county makes more off of residential building, so splitting that revenue has been a point of contention.

“We’re willing to share the revenue, consolidate,” Detrick said. “Springfield is in the county, it’s part of the county and we should be working together.”

Success stories

Bodenmiller said the few areas where the city and county have failed to come to agreement shouldn’t overshadow the numerous ways in which local governments are already sharing services.

He highlighted city police officers working in the schools, a road maintenance agreement with the county, a joint GIS agreement with the county auditor’s office, water treatment plant lab services done by the city for the county, the Clark County Combined Health District and several other programs.

Last year Clark County entered into an agreement to share building inspection services with the city of London and now does commercial building inspections in most of Madison County, which previously contracted with a private company in Columbus.

Madison County wasn’t making any revenue off of building permits and the quality wasn’t what they wanted, County Commissioner Paul Gross said.

“(Clark County) had more staff than what they needed but they didn’t want to lay folks off as a first resort,” Gross said.

Now Clark County inspectors work in both counties and Clark County gets between 30 and 75 percent of the building permit fees from work performed in London.

Since March 2015, Clark County inspectors have done more than 600 inspections in Madison County and received about $65,000 in revenue from permits there, according to Clark County Chief Building Official Tom Hale.

“It’s been fantastic,” Gross said. “Our service level has been improved, our residents are happier, our contractors are happier, the quality of the work is spectacular.”

County-wide government in the future?

The city finance review committee also made a long-term recommendation to explore the feasibility of a countywide or uni-government.

Dayton and Montgomery County recently explored this option when a nonprofit group called Dayton Together proposed a merged government.

The proposal faced swift backlash from some local elected officials and community leaders, who characterized the consolidation as a takeover of the city that would disenfranchise residents, especially minority voters.

The proposal was withdrawn in May after the city annexed land in Greene County to block a merger.

“They went ballistic. The city didn’t want to do it, the county didn’t want to do it, because everyone likes to have their own little turfdom,” Detrick said.

“Politically it’s awful tough,” Bell said. “But with a county our size (it makes sense to) not have all these individual pockets of government.”

Bell would like to see the option seriously considered and Mayor Copeland is also a supporter, saying that approach allows leaders to focus to what’s best for the entire region.

The committee acknowledged some barriers to executing this kind of government in current state law as well as that politics comes into play.

It can be difficult to convince areas outside of the urban center to want to combine with the city, Copeland said, but there can also be concern from cities that their specific needs, like housing issues, will get less attention in a countywide government.

“The various jurisdictions lose control of their own destiny and are subject to whatever the whole county agrees to,” he said.

Some uni-government structures also call for the elimination of elected officials at the county level, like the treasurer, auditor, sheriff and engineer.

“There are a lot of people who want to elect the various county officials,” Copeland said.

When urban policy expert David Rusk visited Wittenberg in 2009, he discussed the idea of uni-governments and said the concept is almost impossible to pull off in Ohio, Copeland said.

“And he very much favors it,” the mayor said. “He’s the one that kind of convinced me, not just personally but reading what he’s written, that it would be a good idea.”

Bodenmiller would rather see the city and county focus on specific services that can be combined in the short term.

“It’s more of a challenge than people realize,” he said. “But I do think there are certain services that make sense and I hope we continue to work on those.”

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