By Nicole Hennessy
Collaboration between cities can mean more efficiency. It can also mean a slow and arduous change in structure.
While change is necessary for growth, it is difficult. Cities have individual economic, population, legal and geographic issues to consider, even for those seemingly similar, like the six that make up the Westshore Council of Governments (WCOG): Bay Village, Fairview Park, North Olmsted, Lakewood, Rocky River and Westlake.
Mayor Dennis Clough of Westlake and Mayor Michael Summers of Lakewood, two admittedly different mayors representing two very different cities, sat next to each other April 16 at a Bay Village League of Women Voters meeting, the second such to discuss regionalism.
The forum started out on the topic of all the WCOG has achieved – a shared SWAT team, an enforcement bureau that operates in areas pertaining to narcotics, prescription fraud and stolen property, a HAZMAT team, bomb squad, young leaders’ network, a mulch and leaf site and tree stumping.
But it is hard to stay on topic when there is so much to be considered in terms of creating a unified regional government.
The issue of shared fire and emergency services surfaced multiple times, but there really isn’t much new information beyond what’s already been discussed in public meetings. Consolidating is a complicated process involving different pay scales and policies from city to city, not to mention response times to figure out and where and when to dispatch responders.
While in October 2012, Bay Village council members passed a resolution supporting charter amendments, on the November ballot Bay Village voters failed both language changes at that time.
Where the terms collaboration and regionalism differ is a progress-halting gap.
Summers said, at this point, the WCOG is “more at the shared-services level,” rather than full-on regionalization; but he admitted many times that it’s not just a common desire to operate more efficient cities that is driving these collaborations and discussions. There is a great deal of pressure from the state to outsource services to them and the county rather than hire similar personnel in each city or work privately to obtain things like health insurance.
WCOG finance officer Steve Presley, who joined the mayors on the panel, summing up his impression from the state, said it seems like everyone’s being told, “We want these cities in Ohio to look more like townships,” as limited local government.
Summers also pointed out there is the threat of reduced financial assistance to cities that refuse to makes efforts toward collaborations and regional government.
Though it is clear to him that it’s not all about an individual suburb like Lakewood, there is the bigger picture to consider – reinvesting in the core (Cleveland) so that the inner- and outer-ring areas that make up the Westshore can continue to grow.
Like Chicago has successfully done, Summers said, the best way to ensure a strong region is to continue investing in the city and cycling outward again.
“Suburbs’ success cannot be at the expense of the inner core” and be treated as gain, he commented.
One way he suggested this could be done is in terms of housing.
While population in Cuyahoga County has been on the decline for more than 10 years, more new houses keep being built, to the point where there are more houses than residents in the area. These neighborhoods, farther and farther away from Cleveland, require new schools and infrastructure – all because acreage is cheaper farther from the city.
Among the problems this creates, the most pressing is the fact that the city’s infrastructure doesn’t get the attention it needs. As a result, poverty continues to expand into inner- and outer-ring cities like Lakewood and Fairview Park.
The only entity that would be able to pay Cleveland acreage prices near downtown is the government, Summers continued. So, by working together to receive grants and develop the land for some sort of public use, all the cities are being helped, no matter where the development is actually taking place.
Squirming a bit at the mention of Cleveland in relation to Westlake, Clough pointed out that some of his city’s tax dollars do go to Cleveland. “We are investing in the inner-city,” he claimed.
“And that’s good,” Summers replied, grinning.
As attendees continued to ask questions, some starting to become repetitive, but nonetheless deserving of answers and consideration, Clough said simply, “We don’t have all the answers at this point and time.”
Lakewood (2010) population: 52,131; housing units: 28,498; persons below poverty level, 2007 – 2010: 17.1 percent; land area in square miles: 5.53 .
Westlake (2010) population: 32,729; housing units: 14,843; persons below poverty level, 2007 – 2010: 3.8 percent; land area in square miles: 15.93.
Bay Village (2010) population: 15,651; housing units: 6,436; persons below poverty level, 2007 – 2010: 3.0 percent; land area in square miles: 4.57.