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Regionalism: A continuing conversation

By Nicole Hennessy

Westshore

A city is only as good as the region in which it is located.

Luckily for Westshore cities, Northeast Ohio offers lake access and ports, a nationally recognized hospital, art museums, universities and restaurants, as well as a growing core city – downtown Cleveland – where developers can’t build apartment buildings or redevelop long-abandoned warehouses fast enough.

These are all things that attract business and economic developers. They also look to government efficiency, population trends and education rates within regions, not individual cities.

While there are still significant population decreases in many Cuyahoga County cities, the 2014 census should paint a much different picture than the 2010 census. With success stories like Ohio City, Gordon Square and most recently North Collinwood, where serious investors and developers are working to re-energize forgotten sections of the city while keeping the neighborhoods’ identities intact, and high-dollar projects like the downtown Global Center for Health Innovation (formerly the Medical Mart), there’s no doubt the region, like many Midwest cities still coughing up the remnants of post-industrialization, is in the middle of a renaissance.

Certainly, suburbs and cities face different sets of challenges, but in many ways they are symbiotic, functioning as one entity.

That’s why Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald advocates for regionalism – or, more simply put, cities sharing services or outsourcing to the county to provide them.

Some aspects of regionalism are easy to consider and implement. For instance, why have five cities with five separate Web developers or animal wardens? Might it be simpler if the county employed a few and the cities could use them at a lower cost? Then there are areas like EMT and fire.

The intricacies of condensing fire departments could take decades to work out, as the Westshore Council of Governments found out after failed executive orders and several cities backed out of the initiative to unite the safety services of seven suburbs.

Continuing the conversation on regionalism at the League of Women Voters meeting March 5, Cuyahoga County’s director of regional coordination, Ed Jerse, told voters, “We’re beginning to develop a portfolio of products and services we can offer to communities.”

“And why that works is because it’s a one-on-one relationship,” he added. Cities in need of a service could go to the county and ask what it offers in terms of tasks like human resources work, which could amount to a savings of as much as $30,000. Cities could even sign on to receive county health benefits rather than city plans. Jerse said county health benefits have already been expanded to nine different entities, and another 25 communities are considering following suit.

These are small changes cities can make now, as opposed to more complicated mergers that could take decades to complete.

Filling in for Councilman Dave Greenspan, who was on vacation, Dale Miller, member of the Cuyahoga County Council, added, “As long as we steer clear of mandatory approaches, we can usually discuss regionalism and collaboration in a calm and reasonable manner.”

None of these county efficiency initiatives require cities that sign on to use their services. They simply offer them, allowing the city in question to pursue private services where they see fit. Though, critics do see giving the county too much power as a drawback to county and city collaboration.

Miller continued, “There’s been a great deal of collaborative efforts in Cuyahoga County. But there are challenges,” such as self-interest and cost savings.

One of the more complicated areas that’s being worked on is the consolidation of emergency dispatch centers, of which the county has almost 50. Miller said Cuyahoga County could easily operate efficiently with as few as four or five larger centers.

Yes, there are issues of unemployment, but if collaborations are implemented over a long enough period of time, and effectively, the theory is that more private businesses will stay in or move to the area, providing jobs for those who are no longer being hired in the public sector.

“Cuyahoga County is currently providing sewer maintenance services by contract to more than 30 communities,” Miller said, using the collaboration as an example of successful consolidation. He explained that it is much easier for the county to operate and maintain expensive equipment needed to provide these services. He reiterated that nine cities and communities are currently using the county’s health care system, adding that not only is it a benefit for the cities that choose to sign on, it is a benefit for those in negotiations with private providers, too.

These efforts both generate money for the county and allow the communities to not only invest their savings but utilize the county’s funds.

“The reason Cuyahoga County has (a) $100,000 development fund is because in restructuring the government and reducing the payroll, there were savings,” said Jerse. These savings were turned into bonds made available to communities and businesses.

In closing, Miller encouraged communities to “think outside the box and do something not everybody else is doing.”

 

 

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