With shrinking budgets and an economy that shows little sign of returning to its past vitality anytime soon, cooperation and collaboration between local governments has taken on a new urgency. After years of mulling over the idea with no real action taken, many local governments are now eagerly seeking collaborative solutions that will lower their costs and improve efficiency. That was the focus of a conference held Thursday in Akron. Ideastream's Bill Rice reports.
Not long after its founding some seven years ago, the regional development group Fund for our Economic Future began urging local governments to collaborate with each other. Now, that idea finally appears to be getting some traction. John Hoornbeek directs the Center for Public Administration and Public Policy at Kent State University. For the last two years he's been tracking intergovernmental collaborations in the 16 county Northeast Ohio Region.
HORNBEEK: "We've identified about 250 efforts of some kind, and then over half of those efforts have actually culminated in some ongoing collaboration that is occurring."
Hoornbeek's study counts about 150 such collaborations on services like vehicle maintenance, police and fire functions, stormwater management and economic initiatives - either sharing staff or resources or merging completely. Cuyahoga County has the most, followed by Summit and Portage. The highest number of collaborative actions are in public safety, with economic development coming in second.
HORNBEEK: "Economic Development is getting a lot of attention because people are concerned about jobs and they're concerned about growing the economy in NE Ohio, so that is obviously a priority for just about everybody. Public safety is a core function of local government and in that sense, when local governments think about doing things often it police and fire and emergency response that are key parts of the puzzle of the services that local governments provide."
Another area many governments are considering for collaboration is public health, and one success story comes from Gene Nixon, Health Commissioner in Summit County. He presided over the merging of the Akron and Barberton health departments with that of Summit County, and he says so far it's going well. But it wasn't easy. He says the idea was kicked around for some years, but it never seemed to be the right time.
NIXON: "I think the economy though presented the right time. With the challenges of funding for local communities and the requirement and the need to look outside the box about how we can do things differently."
The drive for increased collaboration isn't coming just from local governments; the Kasich administration is getting involved. Randy Cole, President of the Ohio Controlling Board and Policy Advisor to the Kasich administration, elaborated on two state initiatives during his conference keynote address. One is the creation of regional shared service centers. Details are still sketchy, but the idea is to take a detailed inventory of all governmental service centers in the state, and then integrate them in a way that allows any government that chooses to use them.
COLE: You tell us the barriers, and we will work to change laws, policies, or develop programs to expedite breaking them down so you can collaborate in shared services together.
Cole says surveys are being sent to all 3700 Ohio government entities this week. And, he says …
COLE "All 3700 government units are expected to respond to the survey.
The second initiative is the Local Gov't Innovation Fund - a 45 million dollar fund to provide grants and loans for collaborative projects.
COLE: "We hope that this very quickly provides a catalyst to see this movement take off and identify the best projects around the state, so that we can replicate them and find optimum levels of service delivery and the right economies of scale."
Governments can begin applying in January, and Cole says the money - up to a half million dollars per project - should begin to go out by next July.