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Making less government would show guts



Published: Sun, March 19, 2017 @ 12:00 a.m.

By Todd Franko (Contact)


President Trump’s budget wishes that rolled out last week strummed some familiar tunes in Ohio.

We’ve become veterans of this fiscal-gutting game.

In 2011, then newly elected Gov. John Kasich tightened funds to various local governments because his own budget was at a $6 billion shortfall.

(CLICK: READER REACT TO COLUMN)

So the kitty that, since 1935, has kicked state sales-tax funds back to local governments, became a state budget fixer. To date, about half the annual $375 million that used to go to local governments now stays with Kasich.

Such gubernatorial privilege is set to repeat this year when Ohio must end its sales tax on Medicaid managed-care firms – per the federal government (how generous of them).

That tax currently yields $800 million for all Ohio governments (split as $600 million to the state and $200 million to locals). Kasich’s new budget has a tax proposal that would create about $600 million to replenish only the state portion. There is no solid answer for the $200 million that locals receive.

So as I said with Trump’s cuts this week: We’re pros at this in Ohio.

Thus, when Mahoning County Commissioner Dave Ditzler a few weeks back yelled at state officials to “show some guts,” it was kind of a long time coming.

He said it about a state plan to let counties take the political hit and raise taxes for roads instead of the state doing it themselves.

“The [state] Legislature has to get some guts, and they have to increase the gasoline tax to distribute back to the county engineers. They have to do something proactively to assist with our crumbling infrastructure.”

He’s right. But so is Trump, Kasich, the legislators and more. Just ask them.

They all say there is a government revenue and spending problem. They all say government can get smaller. But ironically, they say it’s the “other governments” that can – not theirs.

Kasich was brilliantly sarcastic of local governments in a 2014 visit to the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper.

“Are they spending less? You sure? I’ve not heard of any places here where, my goodness, we couldn’t put a fire out. If I saw that, I’d be concerned. The problem that a lot of politicians have is they don’t want to upset the apple cart. They don’t want change, because change is hard.”

That last part is what I’m most intrigued about in all of this: Upsetting the apple cart.

In seven years of Kasich tightening, what we’ve not seen once in the Mahoning Valley, or much anywhere in the state, is a merger of government to any great significance.

Well, correct that.

There was a shared purchase of a monster paving machine between Mahoning County and another municipality.

And there is some consolidation of county 911 services into just Boardman and Austintown operations. But our speculation is that was fueled in part by a timely retirement and cherished encryption technology that blocks scanner calls. Merger by convenience, you could say.

But that’s pennies compared to the thousands needed.

Kasich himself has not reduced government. He chided in the Enquirer story: “Cities and townships should cut spending and share services such as police departments, trash collection, 911 call centers and vehicle fueling with neighboring municipalities.” But his current budget plan of $66 billion for two years is up from his 2011 proposal of $55 billion.

The nickel-and-diming and hypocrisies of our government will not work until citizens mandate a fix – as in combined school districts, combined police, combined finance, streets, etc.

Check this out:

In 2012, voters of East Syracuse, N.Y. (3,000 people), rejected a proposal to dissolve their police department and merge it with neighboring DeWitt (25,000 citizens). In 2013, property taxes rose 22 percent, prompting another vote. In 2014, the merger was approved by a margin of 333 to 199.

In a USA Today story out of Midvale, Utah (population 30,000), “unthinkable” was what police chief Tony Mason said of merging police departments of four neighboring suburbs. But they did, and his reaction after six months of it was: “Couldn’t be better.” His city saved $1 million annually; another city is saving $500,000.

I’m not necessarily a fan of merging only law enforcement, even though it seems to be the national rave right now. (Pennsylvania has seen 33 cities dissolve/merge policing since 2010.)

I live in Poland Township – 55 miles of roads for about 12,000 folks. We’re just south of our older, albeit much smaller sister, village of Poland – 15 miles of roads for 2,400-ish folks.

We have a combined school and combined fire department (and combined parade for Memorial and July 4th celebrations). We’ve not had a border war at least since Jesus walked the Earth. (It came close during the epic township sidewalk construction a few years back. But alas, no guns were drawn as they agreed who would fill the last 6 feet of grass between the two competing sidewalks.)

As one, Poland is about 15,000 people. Yet it is managed by two governments and groups of two for police, streets, zoning, finance, legal and more. Lots of wages; lots of pensions. There’s not been a new whisper of “one” anything in the decade I’ve been here.

While we won’t talk “one” of any of this, our biggest topic right now is our one school district. Talk is a tad testy.

The state will give us millions to incentivize building new Poland schools. What the state won’t incentivize, however, is any talk of school mergers. They have not done that for the millions upon millions spent on Ohio school construction in the past 15 years.

If you got above the trees on the northern edge of Poland schools, you can literally see the districts of Boardman, Youngstown, Struthers and Lowellville – similar in theory to Midvale, Utah, seeing four police departments from a perch above their trees.

Only Boardman, like us, has yet to leap at the Ohio school construction incentivizing plan. Yet.

Could not one school administration oversee two, three or four of those school systems? You could still have different high schools so as to maintain separate and sacred football teams. Similarly, those four Utah “police departments” are now “police precincts” having their original identity while saving funds.

This is just me hip-shooting of a place I know most. There are probably better examples of locations or operations – whether schools, or streets, or finance, or zoning, or water.

There was a time in our history when we did such logical consolidation. Jackson and Milton were two separate school districts. There was a Youngstown Township. There was an East Youngstown. Canfield was once the county seat.

Faced with logical realities, those leaders got above the trees and looked at the forest.

Showing guts in government today would be sitting down and creating less.

If state and federal officials are going to hold funds hostage, and local governments and schools want those funds, then create a plan that rewards more for less.

And if they can’t muster the political courage to do what their grandparents did, then voters should make it happen as has happened in other places.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.


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