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One for All, All for One

By Joe Wessels · March 26th, 2008 · Wessels
  Simon Leis makes sense of it all.
Simon Leis makes sense of it all.

Throughout the 413 square miles of Hamilton County there are 49 separate political jurisdictions. Nearly all have their own fire, public works and parks departments, and quite a few have their own police forces instead of using Hamilton County Sheriff's Department patrols.

What if all of these duplicate services could be combined into countywide departments run by one big, giant government entity? Well, it sounds kind of scary.

A proposal first floated by Hamilton County Commissioner Pat DeWine and Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Bortz in fall 2006 sought a combination of services of local governments in order to save taxpayer money. Though the two -- and others -- are reluctant to say it out loud, the writing is on the wall.

The mergers would likely start steering a political supertanker toward shores of mergers across many government levels. That could mean that instead of, say, dozens of fire departments in the county there would be one big one that covers all of Hamilton County.

Many smaller municipalities have had dwindling tax bases for years, thanks in large part to the demise of the manufacturing sector, and have fallen on lean times. It's time to think of ways to consolidate to save money and keep government effective.

DeWine and Bortz have also suggested other benefits of combining government services, such as having one economic development department focused on development over the entire county and not just one political jurisdiction.

Regionalism has been a buzzword around here for years now. Dogs and cats -- in this case, Cincinnati, Newport and Covington -- have been sleeping together thanks to efforts led by their respective mayors.

The cooperation extends northward, too, with other smaller city leaders meeting with Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory on ways to work cooperatively. He's fond of saying Cincinnati isn't competing with Blue Ash or Florence or West Chester for economic development but with Tokyo or London or Frankfurt.

What's good for Blue Ash, Mallory says, is good for Cincinnati, and vice versa. The next logical step would be to start actually becoming one government.

This isn't the first time regional government has been proposed. According to former Cincinnati Vice Mayor Jim Tarbell, he and others pushed for the same thing back in the early 1970s when cities around the region were considering it. Eventually Columbus, Indianapolis, Lexington and Louisville all adopted city/county governments.

Tarbell says it nearly happened here when the chairmen of the county Republican and Democratic parties, along with the chairman of the Charter Committee, agreed that change was needed. Cincinnati City Councilman Myron Bush, a Charterite and an African American, helped convince local black leaders the change would be productive and beneficial.

As Tarbell and Republican Hamilton County Sheriff Simon Leis Jr. remember, Bush's death -- he suffered a heart attack in the summer of 1971 -- literally killed the deal. Several leaders in outlying governments -- including then-Delhi Township Trustee Dusty Rhodes, a Democrat, and then-Sharonville Mayor John Dowlin, a Republican -- were against it.

The subject was hardly ever mentioned again. Until now.

Other cities used things like water service -- often provided by the largest municipal entity in a region -- to coerce smaller governments to join in on the process if they were hesitant. Ohio law has subsequently been changed, taking that strong-arm tactic off the table.

"You have 50 or 60 (police) chiefs in this county sitting on their thumbs," Leis says. "It just makes so much God-damned sense."

The reluctance of local officials to support regional government might be attributable to foolish pride and the "power" that having your own fiefdom provides. But there's still hope.

Citizens realize that local government in this area just costs too much. Pools are closed in the hottest months of the summer due to budget problems, and we live with a less-than-adequate public transportation system and mediocre schools, among loads of other problems.

Imagine if collectively we could buy fewer police cars and fire trucks, have fewer emergency communication centers, buy less road salt and employ fewer pot hole-filling crews and lawn mowers. The list goes on and on.

Yes, there would be many important questions to answer -- how to save jobs and how to keep response times by emergency personnel as good as they are now -- but the regional government concept is worth exploring.

If we fight it, our foolishness might be scarier than getting your street fixed by a city worker if you live in Colerain Township. We might run out of the taxpayer money needed to keep our area great, all over foolish pride.

CONTACT JOE WESSELS: joe@joewessels.net



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