Chamber summit looks at consolidating services

Mahoning County is to start talking about
combining 911 centers.



GIRARD — Regional Chamber leaders tried to convince about 80 government officials and public employees that collaboration and consolidation is crucial to reviving the Mahoning Valley economy.

The chamber presented experts during a Regionalization Summit at the Holiday Inn MetroPlex on the concept. They urged local officials to get behind its effort, which aims to consolidate local school district administrations and to establish a county legislature.

“We’ve lost 10 percent of our population and hundreds of good-paying jobs,” said Tony Paglia, the chamber’s vice president of government affairs. “The government has grown in the last 20 years, while the population has continued to shrink.”

The cost of operating a myriad of autonomous government entities has contributed to high tax rates, putting the Mahoning Valley at a competitive disadvantage in attracting new business, Paglia said. The area ranks in the Top 10 nationally in government fragmentation, according to summit speaker David Y. Miller, a dean at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

“This is a region that is facing stagnant growth, aging infrastructure and sprawl,” Miller said. “The future doesn’t look bright.”

Miller told the audience about a range of options open to communities considering regionalization, including mergers and consolidations, tax base sharing and annexations.

These are scary words in the public sector, Paglia acknowledged, but nevertheless necessary. “We’re basically asking that people take leadership and move forward,” he said.

The chamber hoped to jump-start the process with a panel discussion about combining 911 dispatch centers within Trumbull and Mahoning counties, Paglia said.

By the end of the morning, county commissioners had committed to studying the possibility of merging Mahoning County’s eight 911 centers, Paglia said. But the concept was not without its detractors, even among the panelists.

From Trumbull County, Niles Police Chief Bruce Simeone said he agreed with the concept but felt his city’s 911 center was better equipped to dispatch emergency service than a county center.

“Until the time is right,” he said, “we need to function as what we are now.”

In Youngstown — the political entity that handles the highest volume of emergency calls — reception to the idea was warmer. Capt. Joseph Fergus of the Youngstown Police Department said the city “looks forward to the idea of a city-county call center.”

A merger of dispatch centers is long overdue, according to Chip Comstock, chief of the Western Reserve Joint Fire District. Comstock called the current arrangement, in which some call centers take fewer than 4,000 calls per year, antiquated, redundant and inefficient.

“If I was a taxpayer, I’d be up in arms about it,” he said.

Struthers Mayor Daniel Mamula, a summit participant, said it was natural for some government officials to initially feel uncomfortable with the idea of consolidation.

“There’s resistance there,” he said. “People have got to understand that we have got to find ways to merge certain functions, not your identities.”

Mamula said Struthers has already benefited from regionalization through economic development projects undertaken with the cooperation of Youngstown and Campbell.

One of the summit’s speakers, Delaware County Commissioner Glenn Evans, talked about his community’s lengthy legal battle to combine its city and county 911 centers. The effort was eventually successful, Evans said. But one of the biggest obstacles was fear of job loss, he said.

“If the cause is right, persevere,” he said.

Miller emphasized that regionalization is not an easy process. But he said areas that are able to do it more effectively will be the regions of the future.

Though individual governments compete for resources in the Mahoning Valley, he said, infrastructure is deteriorating and the gap between rich and poor communities is growing, he said.

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