October 7, 2013 [Thomas Ott, The Plain Dealer]
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Gus Frangos, president of the Cuyahoga Land Bank, calls it “back-door regionalism,” the ceding of responsibilities that cities once zealously guarded for fear of losing control and, ultimately, independence.
In the case of the land bank, he is referring to the acquisition and maintenance of vacant, abandoned and tax-delinquent properties. But the trend, driven by tight budgets, extends well beyond the handling of problem parcels.
Cities started long ago to farm out garbage collection to private companies. Twenty-two of the 59 communities in Cuyahoga County still pick up garbage — Shaker Heights, University Heights, Rocky River and Pepper Pike even continue to get it from the back yard — but the rest have passed the job to private haulers.
More recently, communities began turning to the private sector for building inspection. Municipal Building Inspection Solutions, formed early last year, acts as the building department in Bentleyville, Bedford Heights, Maple Heights, Moreland Hills and Walton Hills and supplies the chief building official in Euclid, Lyndhurst and Orange.
“We recognized that building departments typically are run in the red,” said Jeff Filarski, president and co-owner. “Permit fees don’t cover the cost of having the department internally.”
Cuyahoga County is aggressively hawking services it will provide to cities for a fee.
Varying numbers of cities are taking advantage of specialties that include website design and other information-technology services; inspection and maintenance of sewers, bridges and roads; engineering; printing; and public-safety and human-resources training. The county also is offering to put records on digital files and microfilm and let cities join in purchases.
Ed Jerse, the county’s director of regional collaboration, said buying services from the county provides an alternative to the politically sensitive city mergers. And the benefits are clear without conducting an exhaustive analysis — just compare your cost against what you would pay the county.
“You’re one on one with the county,” he said. “If you choose to back out after a year, that’s an easy thing to do.”
Four suburbs — Orange, Moreland Hills, Woodmere and Pepper Pike — have talked about merging into a single suburb with 13,500 people in an area spanning 18 square miles. But with the help of consultants, they are also considering the smaller step of sharing services.
Pepper Pike Mayor Richard Bain said residents are eager to explore collaboration, but he does not sense broad support for a merger. Bain said Pepper Pike has saved significant amounts of money by appointing “working” police and fire chiefs who also have duties in the field. The city also has contracted with Beachwood for dispatching.
Nonetheless, he is willing to work with the three other mayors in considering all options, including a merger. But he also will entertain less dramatic possibilities, such as collaboration among service departments or sharing expensive, seldomly used equipment.
“Merger is one of the topics that the study is evaluating, but that is not the purpose of the study,” Bain said. “The study is about how the sustainability of the communities can be achieved.”
Orange Mayor Kathy Mulcahy is adamant that merger should remain part of the discussion until current operations are thoroughly appraised.
“What I want to know is what is that dollar cost my residents are paying to keep the community small and close to them?” she said. “We should not be pooh-poohing it before you see the data.”
Job losses and reductions in property values have cost Northeast Ohio cities substantial tax revenue, said Kevin O’Brien, a Cleveland State University urban studies professor who concentrates on public finance. As a result, he believes restructuring of services is inevitable.
But will woes ever lead to countywide services or even a metro government? That depends on whether a move results in economy of scale and officials can successfully bridge fragmentation that is deeply rooted in the older Northeast and Midwest sections of the country.
Maybe consolidation of unwanted services like those provided by jails, or benign collaboration among some neighbors is the farthest the pendulum will shift for now, O’Brien said. But he said a single breakthrough could change everything.
“All we need is one example that works really well,” he said. “One of these examples is going to be the thing that opens the doors.”