Regional collaboration has always been one of those phrases that got tossed around a lot in conversation but it was always tough to get much traction for anything beyond talk. But that being said I actually think Bob Dylan was right – the times they are a changing. I’ve seen cities that used to only get together in courtrooms to sue each other are now sitting around tables with their sleeves rolled up next to their economic development directors, their fire chiefs, and the rest of their operations staff to see if they can come up with ways to pool resources, save money and improve services together. Necessity may indeed prove to be the mother of this invention since nearly every city in our region is struggling to keep up in these struggling economic times. It turns out that a sense of urgency can be a great motivator to leaving parochial baggage at the train station.
I think most everyone sees the benefits to be had from partnerships between cities, towns, villages and counties but like many good ideas the devil has always been in the details. Things get tricky when you start trying to cross political boundaries in the name of progress. It’s tough enough to get things done within your own jurisdiction but try getting 7 or 8 villages, towns and cities to agree on something and that’s a whole new ballgame.
The good news is that our region is already on the field. Thanks to some old fashioned political courage a couple of Mayors have stepped up and out of the political boxes of parties and jurisdictional boundaries to get people talking about the common sense realities of regional collaboration. A couple of Mayors set the table and I am pleased to report that the rest of the region is pulling a chair up too.
The Mayor of Ravenna has played a lead role in Portage County and the Hudson Mayor has done the same to our northwest in Summit County. Then along came Mayor Grimm of Tallmadge who sent out an invitation a few weeks ago inviting representatives from the cities, counties and towns in both counties to join him for a couple hours of brainstorming on regional opportunities.
The Mayor of Tallmadge hosted the meeting that ended up attracting some 30 different participants including township trustees, county staff and yours truly just to name a few. We shared lunch and then we got down to the business of coming up with a plan to shift gears from talking about regionalism to actually doing it.
We talked about combining our buying power to help get better pricing on common items like rock salt and office paper. We talked about exploring ways to share health plans to buy our employees better coverage at better prices. We talked about being smarter in our large equipment purchases, like fire ladder trucks which can run $1 million per truck, and looking to have a fleet pool that we might all be able to share. We talked about ways to jointly contract services, like trash collection or asphalt paving, so again we can benefit from volume savings. We discussed strengthening our political influence at the statehouse in Columbus by lobbying together on issues of importance to our region and speaking in a more unified voice. And these days no meeting is complete without some reference to economic development and on that topic we all agreed that we have to stop competing with each other and start competing as region to attract and grow businesses in our region.
I had a sense of optimism walking out of the meeting. It seems that reason may indeed have a chance here and we all agreed to start doing our homework to see what small steps we might be able to take soon to get started. Kent staff have actually been talking with a small group headed by the Mayor of Ravenna to look at opportunities to pool fire department resources for over a year. This relatively small working group has been wrestling with the issues of sharing apparatus and pooling resources and they’ve found plenty of examples of how it might work better; now we just need to work our a plan for how to get there.
To borrow the Army’s battle-cry, it seems that everyone genuinely wants the region to be all it can be and that’s going to mean doing more together because none of us can afford to do it alone.
It appears that we’re not alone in our reasoning, I came across two news articles from recent weeks that referenced some of the progress being made in our region and in the Columbus region. My sense of regionalism is already kicking-in as I want northeast Ohio to beat Columbus to the punch. Yeah, I know, we’re actually part of a Super-Region that stretches from Cleveland to Columbus but at the moment I’m feeling proud of what we’re trying to do in the higher latitudes so forgive me Columbus.
Mayors propose sharing revenue
Northeast Ohio leaders say local governments should stop competing
By Rick Armon
Beacon Journal staff writer
Published on Friday, May 16, 2008
INDEPENDENCE: Northeast Ohio mayors voted Thursday to pursue joint land use planning and sharing of new tax revenue in a 16-county region, arguing that local communities must change their ”go-it-alone, winner-take-all” mentality toward economic development.
The Northeast Ohio Mayors & City Managers Association is calling on local governments to support the proposals, which it said could boost the region’s anemic economy and address other longstanding problems such as stagnant population growth, urban sprawl, retention of college graduates and poverty in the major cities.
”For too long communities in our region large and small have competed with one another as well as the rest of the country and the rest of the world for economic growth, new employers and jobs, and for maximum use of resources,” said Hudson Mayor William Currin, chairman of the association.
”This has resulted in an inefficient and competitive environment where services are duplicated and valuable resources and funding is diminished.”
Currin, Richfield Mayor Michael Lyons and Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers announced the association’s support for the effort at a news conference at the Independence Civic Center. They called it a ”historic vote” coming in response to a demand
by residents for more governmental cooperation.
The Regional Economic Revenue Study — an offshoot of the mayors association and a group of elected officials, business leaders and educators — has been analyzing the issues for a year. Modeled after an established, successful program in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the regional effort would discourage urban sprawl and protect rural, undeveloped land while offering a financial incentive to local governments for participating, the group said.
By cooperating, the region could see a rebirth of vacant commercial and industrial buildings in Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Warren and Youngstown, and reduce stress of overdevelopment in suburban and rural communities, according to a new report released by the group Thursday.
The group now plans to finalize specific details such as who would do the planning, research how to implement such a program, raise money for additional study and gather state legislative support. It also will seek to answer questions about how school funding and existing tax revenue sharing agreements such as Joint Economic Development Districts would be affected.
The region encompasses 487 cities, townships and villages and it will not be a simple task, the mayors said.
”If it were easier, it would already be done,” Currin said about the work ahead of the group.
The goal is not consolidation or a way to raise additional taxes, the mayors said. Instead, it’s an effort to correct a dysfunctional system that has neighboring communities competing against each other for development and even stealing companies to boost their tax base.
The regional land use planning would not override local zoning. It would instead encourage companies to locate in existing facilities with utilities and infrastructure, reducing unneeded development in suburban and rural communities, the group said.
Asked whether large cities like Akron and Cleveland would roll over smaller communities, Akers said everyone would benefit.
”You must have a strong core city for the suburbs to survive, whether it’s Cleveland or Akron, Canton or Youngstown,” he said. ”If not, the cancer that affects so many of our inner cities today will grow out and eventually take on all the suburbs — the Richfields, the Hudsons, the Pepper Pikes and all the others.”
The proposal doesn’t call for new taxes or sharing of existing revenue. Instead, new commercial and industrial tax revenue would be pooled, with 40 percent of the new taxes and 20 percent of the income taxes being shared. The revenue would be distributed to communities based on the number of households and age of housing, according to the current proposal.
Currin said the group is still working on specific details.
Under the similar program in Minnesota, a seven-county region shared $600 million last year. That region also was able to boost its family income to fourth in the nation and has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, Currin said.
”Regions that combine their planning and revenue sharing are growing at a faster and more efficient rate than in Northeast Ohio,” Lyons said. ”In order to compete nationally, internationally for business and industry and to attract high-quality jobs for working families in our region, we need to work cooperatively to improve our competitive position.”
For more details or to read the entire report, go online to Regional Revenue Study.
To encourage that thinking, the Ohio Department of Development is putting together incentives, as mayors in 16 northeastern Ohio counties, including Richland, work on a plan to share new tax money.
“The department is reviewing a variety of options to get communities to work together and prevent competition,” said Mark Barbash, chief economic-development officer for the Development Department.
The state announced a grant last week to provide $1 million to communities to study how to combine services.
State officials also are discussing rewarding groups of communities that collaborate on economic development, perhaps through revenue sharing or additional incentives such as tax breaks, Barbash said.
The goal is that businesses see cooperation rather than competition between communities that might push them out of state, Barbash said. Many community leaders understand that their success depends on the success of their region, he said.
However, Jeff Green, who is Groveport’s development director and president of the Mid-Ohio Development Exchange, acknowledged that a lot of parochialism remains among central Ohio’s elected officials. And although local leaders have discussed tax sharing, “we realized that’s a long way off.”
Last year, development directors for Columbus and eight of its suburbs — Dublin, Gahanna, Groveport, New Albany, Obetz, Upper Arlington, Whitehall and Worthington — pledged not to initiate attempts to poach jobs from other central Ohio communities.
That agreement has generally worked, Green said. “There’s always going to be instances where a company is looking around purely for business reasons.
“We have to learn to play well together, and that’s happening.”
Matthew Shad, Upper Arlington’s deputy city manager for economic development, agreed. “We still have to think of Columbus as a whole first,” he said.
That happened when local officials met with Norfolk Southern representatives recently in Norfolk, Va., to discuss the $150 million Heartland Corridor, which includes a new train-truck terminal near Rickenbacker Airport.
The Columbus Chamber printed business cards for all local officials that read “The Columbus Region,” Franklin County economic-development director Jim Schimmer said. “We’re stronger in our marketing efforts as a region than individual locations.”
In northeastern Ohio, officials are talking about sharing income and property taxes to boost a regional economic-development plan and projects.
Communities would put 40 percent of new property taxes and 20 percent of new income taxes into a pool they would share, said Hudson Mayor William A. Currin, who heads that region’s group of mayors and city managers.
The money could be used to pay for public services as well as development, said Kerry Smith, a spokesman for the mayors group.
That plan might need state legislation to make it happen, Smith said.
In the Dayton area, Montgomery County communities share property-tax money generated by development anywhere in the county.
Communities also can apply for economic- development grants funded by a countywide sales tax, so a township, for example, can benefit from taxes generated by new projects in a neighboring city.
“There is much more collaboration,” said Jack Dustin, director of the Center for Urban and Public Affairs at Wright State University.