Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Asking the wrong questions about a county charter form of government for Lucas County

Since April 25, The Blade has been publishing articles and editorials (15, if my count is right, and many on the front page of the paper) promoting a charter form of county government.

A charter form of county government is basically a home-rule structure with an elected County Executive and a multiple-member county council. In the two counties that currently have this form of government (Cuyahoga and Summit), several elected official positions are eliminated in favor of appointed individuals who serve the same function under the direction of the County Executive.

Why are we suddenly seeing all these articles? As I'm often told, that's a good question - and one that is vital to any decision about changing our form of government.

There really isn't anything in any of the articles that detail the problems with our current 3-member commissioner form of government.

The current board is highly restricted in the types of actions it can take, being governed by the Ohio Revised Code. Under our current structure, if the ORC is silent on an issue, the commissioners have no authority to act. The most-often used example of this deals with the Dog Warden. The ORC details the duties of the Dog Warden, but never mentions cats - hence the inability of the County Dog Warden to deal with cats.

In a charter county government, however, the county council has the ability to pass laws and step outside the limitations of the Ohio Revised Code. This is a structure similar to a home-rule township, like Sylvania Township here in Lucas County.

So what is the problem we're trying to solve by changing our form of government? It's important to remember that a change in government does NOT equate to a change in behavior. In fact, as we can see from Toledo's change from a city manager to a strong mayor form of government, we've gotten pretty much the same types of decisions we'd previously gotten and Toledo is STILL heading downhill in terms of population, job growth, etc... while heading up in terms of government costs, spending, taxation and fees.

So we have clear evidence that a change in government structure does NOT mean we'll get a change in the philosophy of those being elected to govern.

So, absent a reason to change the structure, why is the paper pushing this?

Well, to the elected officials worried about keeping the paper happy, that's really not an issue. In fact, the modus operandi is for elected officials to fall all over themselves to promote the paper's position and ensure their desired changes happen. This is what happened with the United Way building and the South Branch YMCA. And it's not confined to just local politicos, either.

In fact, Commissioners Pete Gerken and Ben Konop were so anxious to comply that they presented competing plans for implementing a charter form of government.

The major problem with county government is not the form or the structure - it's the people we elect and the policies they promote. I cannot emphasize enough: those two things are not going to change if we change the structure.

(Though, many of the truly negative policies Ben Konop has promoted might have found traction, due to support from The Blade, had they not been outside the authority of the Board of County Commissioners. Perhaps this is why the paper is suddenly promoting the change?)

In fact, under a charter form of government, the county would be able to implement laws, just like a city does (think smoking bans and living wage requirements). This would be an expansion of government when the majority of Americans are so frustrated with bigger government that requires more of their money to operate.

And there really isn't going to be much in savings. You can figure that an elected county executive would make as much as the current county administrator ($105,684), perhaps more. Cuyahoga's County Executive earns $175,000 per year.

Our county's auditor's pay for 2009 was $90,428.48. Do you think we'd be able to hire a CPA to perform this function for less? The county coroner's pay for 2009 was $117,459.31. However, the deputy coroner pay ranges from $140,000 to $147,000. Do you believe we'd be able to hire an appointed coroner for less than what the deputies are earning?

Under most of the charter forms of county government, the Prosecutor remains a separately-elected official. So let's take a look at the other elected officials' pay for 2009 (which may include reimbursables):

Clerk of Court: $72,892.38
Engineer: $103,658.88
Recorder: $70,896.40
Sheriff: $99,789.19
Treasurer: $72,892.39

The salary for a commissioner is $86,836.36, times three for a total of $260,509.68. So the total for these elected officials is $680,638.92.

Would we save any money by having a county council and appointed individuals? I don't believe so, and here's why...

As we've seen in city governments, the elected officials have a limited compensation because they must vote on their own pay and any increases. But if you look at other positions within city governments, you'll find specialized positions like Chief of Police, Engineers, etc., often earn significantly more. The 'logic' being that the governmental entity is competing with the private sector to hire the skills necessary. So I would expect that the wages for the Sheriff, Engineer and Clerk of Court to be similar and probably more than what we pay the elected officials.

So that really leaves the Commissioners. In Cuyahoga, the members of the county council earn $45,000 per year and the president of the county council earns $55,000 per year. There are 11 members total so their yearly wages are $495,000.

Cuyahoga's council pay of $495,000 versus Lucas's commissioner pay of $260,509.68 per year.

Now, there may be some reductions in staffing by combining the duties of the auditor, recorder and treasurer, but how much additional staffing would you need for 11 members of council? Would there need to be more than three assistants (the number currently on staff for the commissioners)? Probably. Would we save roughly a quarter of a million dollars by going to the charter form of government? Based upon my experience in Lucas County government, I doubt it.

Even if we decide that the costs of county county will remain roughly the same should we switch, we're still back to the question of why?

But the most important question is not 'should we switch to a charter form of county government.' The most important thing to do is to determine what the problems are with our current form and then evaluate ALL options to address those problems. Upon such evaluation, we may find that the solution to problems in county government have absolutely nothing to do with the structure.

In fact, I'd wager that most problems identified will be a matter of decisions being made by individuals - which has absolutely no relation whatsoever to the government structure.

But let's not allow facts, logic or even proper evaluation get in the way of what The Blade wants. They've pushed the concept of 'uni-gov' for years, only to be rejected by too many municipalities for all the right reasons: concern about the failed policies of Toledo which would tend to dominate any newly-formed uni-gov structure and loss of local control over issues and actions. The only thing different in this latest push to grow county government is the fact that the council council members would come from 'districts.' But since Toledo is the largest municipality and contains the most number of people, how could districts be drawn that wouldn't give an advantage to Toledo?

Strange, but that concern isn't even addressed in the current discussions.

Fortunately, the commissioners have decided to hold two public hearings to discuss a charter form of government. The first one is at 6:30 p.m. on June 8 at the Downtown Public Library. The second one will be June 22, though the time and location have not yet been set.

My concern is that we'll get 'wonderful' presentations from proponents without any real evaluation of the problems they're trying to solve and the other potential solutions to address those problems.

This is being rushed because of pressure from the paper - and while there are legitimate reasons to reject changing our form of government, the fact that The Blade and local politicians are fast-tracking it should be enough for most people.

I urge you to attend the hearings and ask the following questions:

* What specific problems exist in county government?

* Why do we have these problems? Is it because of decisions by individuals or some structural problem?

* Where is the fiscal analysis showing the costs of the current government structure versus the cost of the proposed government structure?

* If there is no fiscal analysis of the cost comparisons, shouldn't that be done prior to any discussions on the matter so we're acting from an 'informed' point of view?

* If the problems with our county government have been identified, what are the other possible solutions to address them?

* Is there any type of documentation of the other potential solutions?

* Why are the commissioners rushing this? In the only two other Ohio counties to make this decision, it took them several years.

* Who are the other proponents of the idea - besides The Blade and certain politicians?

* Who are the opponents of the idea?

* What outreach have the commissioners done to the other municipalities in the county before proposing their new form of government? What was the reaction of the other municipalities?

* What new authority or powers would a charter form of government give the elected officials? What are the pros and cons of such new authority?

* What will be the taxing/fee authority of the charter form of government versus the limited taxing/fee authority of the current board?

* The Blade has done numerous articles promoting their perceived advantages of a charter form of county government. What are the disadvantages? Where are those documented and how will the commissioners share both sides of the issue with residents?

And anything else you can think of....


historymike said...

I would be open to a consolidated or uni-gov system like Indianapolis or Jacksonville that eliminates duplicate services and streamlines local government, but I doubt I will live long enough to see petty local and county differences be set aside for the larger benefits associated with consolidation.

In a cursory look at both plans I just see an expansion of elected and appointed positions, meaning higher expenses and taxes.

Hooda Thunkit (Dave Zawodny) said...

If the Blade is so keen on this form of government what advantages or gain (to the Blade) does it perceive it will obtain?

I'm asking based on the Blade's past demonstrations of pure altruism and self sacrifice (Note: heavy sarcasm...)

Maggie Thurber said...

Mike - I think a discussion about consolidation and streamlining government is a good thing. My experience in those discussions in Lucas County, however, have never had anything to do with the goal of efficiency or cost savings.

Hooda - I have no idea. It could be that they think it's easier to get their agenda passed if they have only one county executive. Or maybe they think they can get a majority of a county council to fall in line like so many of Toledo city council members. Or maybe they want the county to be able to pass laws. That's always been a bone of contention with the paper - that so many things they want implemented county-wide couldn't be done by the commissioners because there was no authority.

But anyone else's guess is a good as mine - why does The Blade do any of the things it does????

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