A Dickensian take on a municipal merger

Councilman Mark Tumeo
As Dickens said: It is “the worst of times.” We all know we are in an economic downturn the likes of which has not been seen since the Great Depression, and every community across Ohio is feeling the pain. As a city councilman in Cleveland Heights, my council colleagues and I have worked to stem the impact of falling income tax returns so we can continue to provide the type of services and quality of life our residents expect and deserve.

In Cleveland Heights, over the past two years, we have cut our budget by over $2 million, and we will probably have to cut more as income tax receipts continue to fall. Like cities all around, we have frozen wages, cut services and programming, increased fees and laid off employees. More cuts will further reduce our ability to serve our citizens.

Sadly, these hard times are not new to our region, and for several years there has been a concerted effort to “regionalize” as a way of making government more efficient and effective. However, since my election to council in 2005, I have wondered aloud to my colleagues how far regionalization, as currently conceived, could really go. We already work closely with surrounding communities in purchasing and fire dispatch.

The real question is overall economy of scale. Governments in cities with shrinking populations – like almost every jurisdiction in Cuyahoga County – are facing an uphill battle. Our citizens deserve and expect quality services – but the population base being served, and hence the income base supporting those services, is shrinking while the cost of services and personnel continues to rise.

In business, such situations are typically met by consolidating core services and working to increase the customer base. For a local government in Northeast Ohio this has traditionally meant working on “economic development” – bringing in new businesses to provide jobs and building new housing projects to draw residents. But when the overall population of the region is shrinking, and state and federal policies continue to promote urban sprawl and out-migration from the inner core, these efforts are insufficient.

However, I believe that as a leader, despair and resignation are not options. Instead, desperate times call for new ideas and bold visions. I have thought for several years that the economics of government in our fractious region would be greatly improved if cities moved beyond the “sharing of purchasing and services” that our current model of regionalism represents to true consolidation – or in business terms – merger.

This is where the politics of local government gets tricky. I have mentioned this idea for years, and as a new councilman, I got the distinct impression that fear of the potential emotional backlash from even mentioning the idea kept council members and mayors across the region from speaking the idea out loud. But to me, leadership means more than maintaining the status quo and working for re-election. I think leadership requires willingness to take risks, especially in times as serious as these. Therefore, I am stepping forward and publicly advocating that we discuss the idea of merging Cleveland Heights and University Heights.

Why these two cities? First, we already have long and proud mutual histories; we are already joined through our school district and library.

Second, the benefits seem obvious. The merged city would be well over 60,000, and economies of scale in police, fire, sanitary services, snow plowing and the like would mean that the overall cost of operation per resident would decrease, potentially allowing a decrease in income tax, or at a minimum, no need to consider increases for a very long time. Recently, the idea of merging the fire departments of Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights and University Heights was proposed. It was estimated that this merger could save between $3 and $5 million. Imagine what a merger of all the services of two cities could save through economy of scale.

Discussion of the idea by political leaders does not mean the idea will or even can move forward. Merger can only be initiated by the actions of citizens. Neither a city council nor a mayor can begin the process. The only way cities can merge under Ohio law is for the citizens of each city to develop and circulate a petition asking if a merger should be considered. The petition requires 10 percent of the registered voters from each city; only then can the concept of a merger be placed on the ballot.

If the idea is approved by a majority vote of both cities, then a joint commission is formed to develop a proposed charter. That charter must also be placed on the ballot and approved by the majority of both cities. Only then can a merger happen. At any point in the process a No vote by either city ends the process.

My main reason for raising this topic publicly at this time is because someone must stand up and say it is OK to talk about new, seemingly radical ideas. Conserving the status quo, while providing stability and comfort, also sometimes acts as a cage that prevents us from moving forward. I hope that by stepping forward, by taking this risk, the creative and entrepreneurial talents of the region’s citizens can also step out.

Perhaps other configurations can be discussed. Should the merger concept include Shaker Heights – and the new city be called The Heights (with a population approaching 100,000)? Are there other potential mergers in other areas of the county?

Perhaps by discussing real mergers the ideas of shared revenue, governance and joining services such as police, fire and sanitation won’t seem so radical. Smaller steps such as joining fire departments might be the first and easiest way to go – but issues of how to manage a single fire department when three councils and mayors are involved is not that easy either. What have we got to lose by at least discussing these ideas openly and honestly?

I am convinced that it is only through moving beyond our fear of risk that we can move from “the worst of times” to “the best of times.”

Mark Tumeo is a member of Cleveland Heights City Council and will run for re-election this fall.
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Volume 2, Issue 5, Posted 2:50 PM, 04.22.2009