There’s no harm studying a merger of public entities

Strident reaction from fire- fighters in Liberty Township and the city of Girard to the mere mention of a study on a joint fire district prompts this question: What gives?

Other than the prospect of funding the study with state dollars, nothing is etched in stone.

In fact, officials from Liberty and Girard don’t even know who will perform the assessment and how much it will cost. They have talked about seeking money from the state’s Local Government Innovation Fund. Grants of up to $50,000 are available for such initiatives.

Yet firefighters who attended a recent meeting of Liberty and Girard officials made it clear they oppose a joint fire district. They were so vocal in their reaction to just the exploration of such a plan that two of the three Liberty trustees, Stanley Nudell, the chairman, and Jason Rubin, decided it wasn’t even worth considering.

That was a mistake.

We believe the third trustee, Jodi Stoyak, is absolutely right in contending that the elected officials should cast a formal vote on this rather innocuous question: Should a study be conducted on a Liberty-Girard joint fire district?

We use the word innocuous because other than a “yea” or “nay” from the trustees, there’s nothing at stake.

Stoyak, who has demonstrated a willingness during her tenure in office to tackle politically risky issues, told Vindicator reporter Sarah Lehr she intends to place the question of a joint district study on Monday’s meeting agenda.

She also said the 100 or so people from Liberty and Girard who attended last week’s meeting were not representative of the populations of the two communities.

“It was not a well-run meeting,” she said. “If the firefighters want to make decisions for the township, they should run for public office. I feel an obligation as a leader of the community to think about the long term.”

Indeed, that’s what this and other such government consolidation ideas are all about: the future.

Region’s population

The reality of what confronts communities in the Mahoning Valley was reflected in a recent story in The Vindicator about the region’s population decline.

A shrinking of the population, especially among working-age residents, means a contraction of the tax base at all levels of government.

And given that most of the revenue generated by taxes is sucked up by public-employee wages and benefits, the question must be asked: Can we afford the amount of government we now have?

Republican Gov. John R. Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly don’t think so. That’s why they created the Local Government Innovation Fund. The idea is to give local officials a financial incentive to find ways of doing more with less.

But there also was a reality check issued by state government: The Local Government Fund through which dollars from Columbus are funneled to counties, municipalities and townships is not getting a significant boost in revenue from the upcoming biennial budget. Indeed, the fund has been cut over the years, resulting in less money for local services.

As we’ve repeated time and again, the status quo in the public sector is no longer sustainable. Ways to reduce spending must be found because many revenue streams are drying up.

Public employees need to disabuse themselves of the notion that private- sector taxpayers will grant their requests for more money whenever the state and federal governments tighten their purse strings.

The idea for a study on a joint fire district made up of Liberty and Girard isn’t just about two communities. It has to do with the mindset of those in the public sector.

Change is not easy – especially change that could result in the restructuring of government agencies.

But as private-sector workers found out during the Great Recession of 2008, when times are tough, belt-tightening is demanded.

Employers eliminated jobs, sought wage concessions, froze pensions and changed health-insurance coverage – if the benefit was even offered.

Trustee Stoyak is right for wanting to focus on the future and to explore ways Liberty Township government can become more cost-effective.

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