By Stephanie Warsmith
and Rick Armon
Beacon Journal staff writers
Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder told a group of Akron-area government and business leaders Tuesday to brace for cuts in state funding for local governments.
Ohio now provides strong support to local governments, he said, but ''that's going to have to be diminished during this next session, unfortunately.''
Batchelder and other Republican leaders have discussed eliminating or severely cutting local government funds a major revenue source for cities to help address a projected $8 billion state budget shortfall.
''I'm a strong supporter of local government,'' Batchelder, R-Medina, said at a conference in Akron focused on improving the local economy. His remarks were among his public statements since becoming speaker of the new GOP-controlled House.
Batchelder's comments confirmed the fears of many of the political, business and community leaders in the room, as they struggle with their own revenue losses and
explore how to rebound in the continued sluggish economy.
The daylong conference, Building Prosperity in Greater Akron Forum, featured panel discussions with more than 20 business, political, educational and think tank leaders from around the country. Topics ranged from the importance of local partnerships to creating a talented work force.
The forum was attended by about 200 people at the John S. Knight Center in downtown Akron. It was organized by the Greater Akron Chamber, University of Akron, city of Akron, Summit County and Greater Ohio Policy Center.
The event was timed to take place as newly elected state leaders start discussing the next two-year budget. City and community leaders are worried about the state passing along deep cuts and making other changes that would negatively impact local communities, including legislation introduced in the General Assembly to do away with estate taxes.
''We have to have a state government that responds to the needs of metropolitan areas,'' Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic said.
Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, who is from Green, praised Plusquellic and his efforts in her brief remarks during the conference, saying the two of them have talked about working together.
Afterward, she said the state will encourage local governments to share services and decrease the ''duplication of costs.''
''We must decrease the size of government,'' she said. ''Everything's under the microscope.''
Against tax increase
Batchelder said the state can't raise taxes and can't afford to ''keep funding things we had in the past.''
''We need to emphasize a teamwork approach to bringing jobs to the city,'' he said.
Batchelder said the state may provide incentives to cities like Akron that have done a good job of collaborating with other local governments.
The successes of the Akron area and how to build on them in the future were the focus of the conference, which follows the release of the 2008 report Restoring Prosperity: Transforming Ohio's Communities for the Next Generation by the Greater Ohio Policy Center in Columbus and Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. The groups also took a close look at the Akron area.
Praise for Akron
''We want to draw attention to great attributes and challenges of our cities and metropolitan areas,'' said Lavea Brachman, executive director of the Greater Ohio Policy Center and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. ''What better place to do that than in Akron.''
One of the morning sessions focused on the region's successes, such as the Austen BioInnovation Institute, University Park Alliance, University of Akron Research Foundation and attracting companies from overseas. Experts from outside Akron praised local political and educational leaders, saying they have been effective in pushing the economy here and collaborating.
''On a national level, Akron and this region is beginning to get a lot of attention, good attention, and is a model for others to follow,'' said Diane Palmintera, president of Innovation Associates in Reston, Va.
The forum also featured experts offering ideas on how to improve the local economy, including regional partnerships, educational attainment, additional civic involvement from philanthropic foundations, retention of talented young professionals and state investment.
• Ned Hill, dean and professor of economic development at the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, offered three radical proposals: reduce the number of counties in the state by setting a minimum population of 750,000; review the cost of the judicial system, which he called ''out of control;'' and return the oversight of welfare programs to the state instead of counties. The state could create six super centers around the state instead of having management in each county, he said.
The outspoken Hill also urged communities to stop focusing on ''quality of life'' issues. Every region has amenities such as an orchestra to tout, he said. Instead, concentrate on product development and jobs, he said.
People move to a community for a paycheck and not the orchestra, Hill said.
• U.S. Rep. Betty Sutton, D-Copley Township, who served as one of the speakers, said she wants to do away with the term ''Rust Belt.'' ''I think we deserve better than that,'' she said.
The congresswoman, who pushed the popular Cash for Clunkers program, said she is now focused on infrastructure deterioration, such as corroding bridges, water and sewer lines, which costs taxpayers about $400 billion a year. She cited a new corrosion engineering degree at the University of Akron and how the Akron region can be a leader in that emerging technology.
• Carol Coletta, who heads CEOs for Cities in Chicago, warned that if ''educational attainment is not at the top of your economic development agenda, you don't have an agenda that is relevant.'' She said increasing the percentage of college graduates in a city boosts income levels and spurs more innovation.
• Keynote speaker Paul Grogan, president and chief executive officer of the Boston Foundation, spoke about how his organization has refocused its mission on city issues.
Grogan is author of the book Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival.
Akron may be the next comeback city, he said.
''What couldn't we accomplish together?'' he asked. ''The answer is: There's nothing.''