As officials in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties battle to keep their governments afloat financially, they would do well to take a close look at a provision in the state biennium budget passed last week by the House of Representatives. The Senate is currently working on its version of the spending plan.
The provision is designed to soften the blow of cuts in the Local Government Funds that Republican Gov. Bob Taft proposed and the Republican controlled General Assembly is expected to adopt. Indeed, reduced funding to counties, cities, townships, villages and libraries are included in the House version of the budget and can be expected to be adopted by the Senate. That's because the state is in such poor economic condition, cuts in spending across the board are the only way the budget can be balanced.
Local communities have long depended on allocations from the Local Government Funds to help pay for day-to-day operations; any reduction will be difficult to absorb, given the financial turmoil all public entities are experiencing. Indeed, the state has frozen local government aid for the past four years, which makes the proposed cuts even more injurious.
In the biennium budget passed by the House on a 54-45 vote -- eight Republicans voted against it and one Democrat supported it -- cities would be hit with a 20 percent reduction, while townships and villages would have to make do with 10 percent less in funding. Public libraries would suffer a 5 percent cut.
'Weird Santa' play?
Counties, on the other hand, would experience a 20 percent freeze, but House Republicans "decided to play its version of 'weird Santa,'" in the words of the Ohio Municipal League. Here's how the league interprets the provision as it applies to counties:
If by Oct. 1 the auditor of a county submits a report to the state auditor detailing what the county has done, is doing and plans to do in the future to implement consolidation of services in the county, the Local Government Fund allocation to that county would be cut by 10 percent, rather than 20 percent. The report is also required to describe the county's future plans to cooperate with one or more of its neighboring political subdivisions to finance services available to all the political subdivisions of the county.
The league points out that neither the state auditor nor anyone else is required to confirm that the county auditor is telling the truth.
Given that this reward-for-efficiency provision is expected to survive in the Senate, officials in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties should start thinking about what consolidation moves they can make that would pass muster with the state auditor.
While the Ohio Municipal League has expressed reservations about the provision, contending that it would be impossible to determine how the extra money allocated to a county should be distributed, we believe local officials must do whatever they can to attract additional state dollars.
There is a benefit to pursuing consolidation on the local level: the cost of government will go down. That's what the taxpayers want.