Some say merger plan doesn’t go far enough

Chamber president calls for ‘adult conversation’ about Dayton, Montgomery County merger.

In-depth coverage

The Dayton Daily News interviewed more than 15 people for this story, including local community leaders, university experts and residents of Nashville and Louisville, where merged governments already exist.

Even the architects of a charter proposal to merge the city of Dayton and Montgomery County governments agree with one criticism leveled against the plan: It makes more sense to include other suburban communities.

The charter, as currently written, would combine only the city and county to form a metro government, but it would allow other municipalities and townships to consolidate at a later time.

The lead members of the committee that authored the charter have signaled they want a more aggressive model that makes Trotwood, Riverside and Harrison and Jefferson Twps. part of the merger.

Some committee members say it should include all 32 cities, villages and townships in Montgomery County, though several cities legally couldn’t do this with their current boundaries because they straddle two counties.

A new metro government structure would allow participating communities to pool resources, work toward a common vision, grow the economy and tax base and reduce poverty, said Dan Foley, a Montgomery County commissioner who has spearheaded the charter initiative.

“We at least want to merge the city and the county, but we’re willing to look at more jurisdictions with the initial question,” said Foley, with the nonprofit group Dayton Together. “We are willing to be bolder, but at the right time we’ll figure out how much bolder we can be.”

Meanwhile, the single-city/county merger proposal faces a barrage of criticism from many city and county officials whose elected offices would be wiped out.

“We didn’t want to be Dayton, and to throw us together to be part of Dayton again would be something that I am almost 100 percent sure my residents don’t want,” said Riverside Mayor Bill Flaute.

Sheriff blasts plan

Phil Plummer, whose job as Montgomery County sheriff would be eliminated by the charter, said Friday the plan would rob voters of local control. He also serves as chairman of the local Republican party.

“The structure of our government is not the problem. What we have is a leadership problem,” said Plummer. “The structure of government has functioned fine in this county for years and years.”

Detractors contend the charter proposal is unrealistic, fundamentally flawed, could disenfranchise voters and minorities and has no obvious economic benefits.

But others say it makes practical sense. This includes some former local officeholders, business groups and academics in two U.S. cities that underwent similar kinds of mergers. They say consolidation greatly eliminated bureaucratic hurdles that make easier to attract businesses and has improved government services.

Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce President Phil Parker said he hopes people take the time to study and consider the proposals before discounting them out of hand.

“We stand for good and efficient government,” he said. “If we can’t justify some really good conclusions like taxpayer savings, the opportunity for some diversity of leadership and other things we hold important and critical, I don’t think it should go forward.”

“But can’t we have just a little bit of time to have an adult conversation about this rather than people saying, ‘The answer is no, no matter what you do we don’t like it.’?”

Lessons from Louisville, Nashville

Supporters of the charter point to Louisville and Nashville as consolidation success stories.

Both cities are hot destinations for young people and new businesses and boast strong job and population growth.

In 2003, Louisville and Jefferson county dissolved their governments, which were replaced with a council and a single mayor.

The merger has given the community a unified voice and sense of direction that certainly has helped attract new businesses and expand development, said Deana Karem, vice president of economic development with Greater Louisville Inc., the metro’s chamber of commerce.

Karem worked on the task force and a study that decided a merger was needed.

The merger cut the red tape and got rid of bureaucratic obstacles, making it far easier to serve and help companies set up shop and expand, she said.

“We were trying to create jobs and promote economic development, and the business model we were using at that time was not effective,” she said. “The business model that we merged into and have today is much more effective.”

Karem said government cost savings was not a main benefit of the merger. She also said community input and support were important to merging the governments.

Nashville and Davidson County merged in 1962 after an unsuccessful attempt five years earlier, said Carole Bucy, a professor of history with the Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tenn.

The merger idea grew out discussions seeking to addressing the record numbers of people who were moving out of the city and into the suburbs while the county struggled to provide needed services.

Bucy said the consolidation has removed service duplication and stopped political fighting between jurisdictions competing for investment. She said the government is accessible and elected officials are invested in the well-being of the greater community.

“Everybody who’s involved in any part of government, I think, really agrees that the metro consolidation made Nashville what it is today,” said Bucy, Davidson County’s historian. However, the consolidation was all-encompassing and included the schools and all but a small handful of jurisdictions.

The Dayton Together plan doesn’t include schools.

UD prof: Payoff no guarantee

Joshua Ambrosius, assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton, said three common benefits are cited for city-county mergers: efficiency, economic development and equity.

He said research shows the economic development component resonates most with the community, while the equity argument can scare suburban voters into thinking their money will be redistributed to poorer areas.

And while areas have cited success with such mergers, he said research hasn’t shown a massive cost-savings or benefits.

“The evidence is mixed, but for the most part, it doesn’t make as big of a difference as people imagine,” he said.

But it’s a monumental task. He noted Louisville, the popular success story, was a change that effectively took decades.

Support largely came because of the city’s desire to compete with Lexington. And perhaps most importantly, Kentucky doesn’t have townships. So merging the city and unincorporated county actually combined two population centers in a way that wouldn’t happen here.

“While it comes up from time to time, it has seen little to no success in areas that have townships,” he said.

Dayton: Ohio’s second largest city?

Foley said the consolidation would make Dayton Ohio’s second largest city, only behind Columbus. Foley said this would give the region more economic clout and put it on the radars of more site selectors and companies looking to move.

Currently, Dayton is the 183rd largest U.S. city, putting it population wise behind cities such Syracuse, N.Y.; Savannah, Georgia; and Mesquite, Texas, according to the U.S. Census.

But if the city suddenly became the county, its population would be 533,116, making it the 33rd largest city, ahead of Tucson, Ariz., Fresno Calif., and Sacramento, Calif.

On Thursday, members of the charter development committee with Dayton Together released a draft of a charter document that spells out how to merge the city and county governments. The group is not affiliated with the city or county, though Foley is a prominent member.

In an exclusive interview with this newspaper, committee members outlined how a consolidation would work. They argued that it would eliminate service duplication, strengthen the region’s ability to lure new investment and make strategic investments benefiting the community at large.

The new structure would eliminate the city and county commissions and create a new mayor elected by voters countywide.

The charter creates a new metro council consisting of 10 representatives. One would be an at-large seat, and the other nine council members would represent newly created geographic districts.

The charter is being shared with the public and will not appear on the ballot this year, committee members said. It could appear next year.

Include Trotwood, Jefferson Twp.?

Merging all 32 local jurisdictions in the county is not currently feasible because cities including Kettering, Huber Heights and Centerville extend into other counties, which under state law make them ineligible to participate in a government consolidation.

But committee members believe the merger should go far beyond just Dayton and Montgomery County.

Both Foley and Paul Leonard, previous Dayton mayor and former Ohio lieutenant governor, advocate including Jefferson Twp. in the merger off the bat to provide more land to develop.

And Foley favors merging Dayton, the county, Riverside, Trotwood and Harrison and Jefferson Twps.

The new metro structure will help parts of the county that have been neglected and left behind, because council representatives will have to work together with their colleagues to get things done to benefit their districts, Foley said.

The political give and take leads to “creative tension” that makes elected leaders collaborate and compromise for the greater good of everyone, he said.

People want government to work well, and combining local governments will lead to asset and resource sharing and increased cooperation to make investments and decisions that benefit the larger region, said Valerie Lemming, the former Dayton city manager who served on the committee.

Brice Sims, former Jefferson Twp. trustee who served 30 years, said the township doesn’t have the tax base to fund needed improvements. He supports the merger concept.

“I think it would be a wonderful idea,” he said.

Sheriff Plummer said there are likely opportunities for efficiency and consolidated services, but they shouldn’t be rushed into.

“If you want to do this, let’s take it small and do it step by step. But Commissioner Foley hasn’t done a feasibility study; we don’t’ know if this is going to be better or not.”

Dayton Together committee members who included written opinions in proposal documents noted just merging Dayton and the county comes with political peril.

“A full page could be devoted to the pitfalls of this option e.g.; least chance of cost savings, continued economic development competition, claims of disenfranchisement, social/racial unrest, and new political battles,” wrote committee member William Gillispie. “Suffice to say, that this option would be doomed to failure if (it) is presented to the electorate.”

Gillispie and committee members Paul Porcino and Maria Oria strongly prefer merging all area governments.

Porcino suggested another option: restructuring county government only, and trying to merge city governments down the road.

“In some ways, this may be the most acceptable to voters and perceived less like a ‘county take-over’ of the city of Dayton,” he wrote.

Montgomery County Commissioner Debbie Lieberman said the release of the charter document has not changed her opposition.

Lieberman said she remains unconvinced that the merger would save tax dollars and improve services.

She said local governments work together effectively every day and she rejects the notion that the region is in crisis and needs a major change in government structure.

“This particular charter, I’m not warming up to,” she said.

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