Playing Ball

The Billy Beane of local government is changing the game. All he needs is someone to trade with.

Earlier this year, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald offered to put local city councils and mayors out of business.

He told an audience of some 900 people at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel on Public Square that he had a "practical strategy for creating a functioning, countywide metropolitan government."

Hardly a soul blinked. His vision was met with applause and editorial page accolades.

Metropolitan government brings to mind places such as Indianapolis and Louisville, where the city and county governments have merged — not Cuyahoga County, which includes 59 local governments.

But Cuyahoga County's first executive isn't talking about merging any government entities. He's talking about making them irrelevant, and we should listen.

I met FitzGerald in his spacious, sparsely decorated fourth-floor office to find out precisely what he has in mind.

"Take the services a city provides — trash pickup, leaf pickup, sewer maintenance, road maintenance, building inspection — say there are about 30 of them," FitzGerald says, reaching for a pen and ticking off an imaginary list.

"If you take those, and the county starts offering the same level of service at a cheaper price, and if every year we're expanding the menu of options, now you have the county providing more and more of what the cities used to provide." He pauses and asks, "At what point does the county become the de facto government?"

This is a fiendishly clever way of changing how we talk about regionalism. In the past, the idea that we have too many local governments (we do), and that they ought to collaborate and maybe even merge (they should), has been stymied by our loyalty to our hometowns and our elected councils and mayors. No one wants to think about giving up that sense of identity.

FitzGerald has traded all of that for a conversation about the best deal residents can get for their tax dollars. "This is the only conceivable way you'd actually have a reduction in local tax burden," he says.

That's something Northeast Ohio badly needs. Our region spends about $20 billion every year on government, according to research from the Fund for Our Economic Future. Chris Thompson, who works at the Fund, has a nifty analogy about all of this: Ed FitzGerald as Billy Beane of Moneyball fame.

"Just as Billy Beane re-examined what it takes to build a baseball team, Ed FitzGerald is re-examining what it means to deliver services on the county level," Thompson told me on the phone. "What he is doing is finding value where others haven't found it and delivering value in ways the county historically has not provided to the suburbs."

Where Beane saw players on the Oakland A's in terms of on-base percentage, FitzGerald sees local government as its constituent parts — individual services provided to residents — and he is trying to identify where those costs can be lowered.

Just as Beane argued with his scouts about the irrelevance of how handsome a player might be or how cute the player's girlfriend is, the county exec is saying local government has nothing to do with hometown pride or how much you may like your mayor. It's about whether you're paying a fair price for snow removal.

To make his vision reality, Beane needed trading partners. So does FitzGerald.

Right now, the executive and his staff are busy pitching 59 mayors and city councils on the services they might hire the county to provide. The county is starting with sewer maintenance and information technology. Sexy stuff, I know. It gets sexier.

Next year or the year after, it may be road repair, trash pickup or building inspection. When you think about sharing the cost of an IT department, sewer maintenance equipment or a garbage truck, it begins to make sense for the taxpayer.

Yet you won't hear about this unless you ask your mayors or council members. And they won't take the county up on it unless voters ask them to, repeatedly.

See, if I'm a mayor, the incentives are in the wrong place. Buying sewer maintenance or IT from the county may be cheaper, but it will likely mean laying off workers, which is seldom good for my re-election prospects. So, while I may cut labor costs through attrition, I'd be loath to cut my entire public works department, which I would have to do if I were to buy their services from the county.

Some local officials are thinking bigger. The Civic Commons (where I work) has been helping to grow the EfficientGov Network, a group of 60 or so Northeast Ohio public officials interested in figuring out how collaboration can make local government cost less. Leaders in this group have saved money by sharing dispatch services, mapping technologies and fleet maintenance services. They're talking about potential mergers of fire departments, police departments, even entire towns.

Mergers are tough, however, and unlikely.

On the East Side, the towns of Orange, Pepper Pike, Moreland Hills and Woodmere are studying whether to merge into one suburb. It's a bold idea, maybe even an obvious one. The four towns used to be one — they were all part of Orange Township a century ago. Yet the merger idea may be destined for the dustbin.

Ohio law makes it very difficult for towns to combine. A majority of voters in all four towns will have to approve a study commission in 2013 and then approve a merger in 2014. If either measure fails just once in one town, the whole effort falls. For that reason, backers have shifted the conversation to sharing services, so that if a merger fails, the whole effort isn't seen as pointless.

Orange Village Mayor Kathy Mulcahy meets me in what is essentially downtown Orange, which is to say the Eton shopping center on Chagrin Boulevard in Woodmere. The bookstore cafe we sit in is a product of our regional economy. It wouldn't exist if it only served Woodmere (population 884).

Mayor Mulcahy describes herself as the person who is keeping the word merger in the conversation. She is effusive in her praise of FitzGerald. Awesome is the word she uses to describe both his leadership style and his ideas. She is impatient with the pace of change.

"I wanted us to debate metro government," she says, "and I understand that you've got to walk before you can run, but I'm tired of crawling." 

But even the biggest advocates of regionalism can be territorial. When I ask Mulcahy what services she would buy from the county, she doesn't have an answer. IT services? The county's offerings are too rudimentary, she tells me. Road maintenance? We have our own levy for that, she says.

"We have a lot of expertise built up over the years," she says, referring (I think) to all of the departments in Orange's government. "I'd have to see the numbers."

In Fairview Park, Mayor Eileen Ann Patton is considering the county's sewer maintenance offer. Last year brought surprising floods to the suburb.

Cutbacks at NASA Glenn Research Center, part of which was in Fairview, have cost the city some $800,000 in yearly revenue. The service department has gone from 40 employees in 2000 to 24 today. Since 2009, residents have picked up most of the tab for their garbage service. Patton has turned to other West Shore towns for help with sewer maintenance and dispatch services. They're considering a four-community fire department merger.

I ask Patton which one other service she might buy from the county. Leaf pickup, she says. "I know it sounds almost juvenile, but we struggle," she says. "They all fall at the same time, and trucks are expensive, vacuums are expensive and manpower is low." 

It's not at all juvenile. At its heart, after all, city government is just a set of services that we pay for with tax dollars.

Mergers may come off the table, but value shouldn't. Right now, the political incentives are geared toward maintaining the status quo for as long as possible. But our own Billy Beane of local government may be changing those incentives. We should give him trading partners.

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