Mayors, township trustees and police chiefs, among other local officials, regularly assure they are operating as efficiently as possible, responding to community needs while keeping a sharp eye out for waste, fraud and abuse.
Some citizens disagree. One need go no farther than Norton or the Medina City School District to find accusations of bloated bureaucracy, out of control spending and incompetent elected officials.
Such debates certainly enliven local politics. But from a broader perspective, they are increasingly meaningless.
The reason? Unless the region adopts new strategies to manage growth and development, its local governments will find themselves on a fiscally unsustainable course, costs exceeding revenues, with little help (and perhaps further cuts) coming from state and federal governments.
The work being led by a group called the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium is providing the perspective and tools for local governments to work together to change course.
Largely funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the consortium recently concluded a series of open houses in the 12-county Northeast Ohio region as part of a planning process called Vibrant NEO 2040.
The goal is to develop recommendations that will alter longstanding trends in the region, where, essentially, the same number of people have spread out farther and farther into the suburbs.
That, says consortium director Hunter Morrison, stretches the ability of suburban governments to provide services, when much of the infrastructure needed to support development is already in place — in urban centers and first-ring suburbs that are being abandoned. “We don’t need to leapfrog into the cornfields,” says Morrison.
Scenarios developed by the consortium to show future trends indicate that even with fairly robust job and population growth from 2010 to 2040 (the region adding 875,000 people, with an additional 501,000 jobs), local governments in Northeast Ohio would still face severe financial pressure, overall costs exceeding available revenues by 6.4 percent.
If the region continues with relatively flat population growth and continues to sprawl, it would be even worse, costs exceeding revenues by 34 percent. What happened to Detroit would begin happening to local governments in Northeast Ohio.
What if we did things differently?
By differently, members of the consortium mean steering growth back toward the central cities, where roads, bridges, water and sewer lines, other utilities, housing and public transportation are already available.
During open houses, Morrison said, many residents expressed concern about the erosion of older core communities, while bemoaning the loss of farmland and open space to suburban subdivisions.
Adopting smart-growth policies, even with virtually no overall population growth, would lead to a turnaround, local government revenues exceeding costs by 10 percent. Add 875,00 people and 501,000 jobs by 2040, and revenues would exceed costs by 14 percent.
The trouble is, the level of coordination necessary to steer growth back into urban centers is mind-numbing. Embedded in the 12 counties of Northeast Ohio are some 700 taxing entities.
What’s more, there are almost no incentives available to encourage partnership among local governments, let alone the creation of full-scale metro government with control over entire counties.
Creating pressure to cooperate are the brutal financial realities of cuts in state and federal revenues, the mounting costs of sprawl, voter resistance to higher taxes (and service cuts) and statutory requirements to balance budgets.
Other forces are at work, too. Some agricultural areas want to stay that way, and there is a growing recognition of the environmental and recreational benefits of preserving open spaces.
Without drastic changes to Ohio’s legal tradition of home rule, progress will be slow. The scenarios and policies offered by the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium clearly show the dangers of the status quo and the advantages of more cooperation.
Hoffman is a Beacon Journal editorial writer. He can be reached at 330-996-3740 or emailed at email@example.com.