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Local Governments Struggle To Manage Budget Cuts

Friday, May 27, 2011 at 4:18 PM

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Perhaps no group got hit harder in the proposed state budget than local governments - the fund that supports them is taking a 25 percent cut in the first year and a 50 percent cutback in the second. Ohio Public Radio's Karen Kasler sat down with the leaders of three groups representing local government to ask them how they're handling it.

Ohio’s 37 hundred units of local government are struggling to plan for the future with the proposed budget cuts. And they’ve heard the criticism that local government is too big and unsustainable over time. Matt DeTemple is the executive director of the Ohio Township Association, representing 1308 townships. That total is often noted as an example of too much local government which some say can’t and shouldn’t be propped up with state dollars. 

DETEMPLE:  “There are plenty of townships in Ohio where there are no employees. The only people who are there are the three locally elected trustees and the fiscal officer. So people ask me, ‘Are there going to be layoffs?’ Well, in some townships there’s nobody to lay off. The people who are actually plowing the roads and maintaining the roads are the trustees themselves.”

One proposal that Gov. John Kasich and his supporters have talked up to help local governments get leaner and cost less is sharing services such as administrative operations. Sue Cave, executive director of the Ohio Municipal League, says that’s not such a new idea. 

CAVE:  “They are working together and have worked together for years before there was this I think recent trend to say shared services are going to solve a lot of our problems.\”

But the executive director of the Ohio County Commissioners Association says it’s tough for counties to do shared services sometimes because of unique constraints on their budgets. And Larry Long says that’s just one thing that needs to change in this budget. 

LONG:  “The governor says they’ve given us a variety of tools in the toolbox to try to become more efficient and effective and yet we think maybe they gave us a tack hammer and a little punch, but we need more tools in that toolbox to make things work at the county level.  And there’s been a lot of reluctance on the part of the administration and the legislature to give those because that really does not please some of the other independently elected officeholders.”

There is a proposal to from auditor David Yost to allow mergers of townships and possibly counties. Detemple and Long say they\’re not says he thinks it might take a constitutional amendment to make that happen, and surely voters would have to approve any mergers. But DeTemple with the Township Association says it’s something to think about. 

DETEMPLE:  “Obviously it’s not a preferred result. We’d rather have these things funded appropriately and be able to maintain a level of services that the residents have come to expect. But if we are going to experience the cuts that have been proposed and you have to think the unthinkable, then fine - we’re willing to work with folks to devise something that again, where the local people make the decision where it makes sense locally.”

The budget also includes $100 million to encourage local governments to share services and work together. But Sue Cave says she’s not encouraged by that. 

CAVE:  “It seems to promote studies. And I would hate to see this money all go for studies. It should be regulated in such a way that only a portion of it should be available for that. Implementation I think is much more important.\”

But if shared services and mergers don’t happen - the next logical step would be tax increases or serious cuts in services. Long says over half of Ohio’s 88 counties have in place the highest sales tax rates they can impose, and are want lawmakers to give them the authority to ask for more. But if not - Long has a dire prediction. 

LONG:  “You’re gonna see significant cuts in counties - in law enforcement, in human service areas. Frankly, there’s some language in the budget that allows us to reduce work weeks. You may see some counties working three-day work weeks underneath this proposal. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but there’s going to be significant cuts in most counties around the state.”

The budget has passed the House and is still in a Senate committee, but it’s expected to be in place well before the current budget expires at the end of June. 

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Government/Politics, Statehouse News Bureau

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