A decade ago, a city like Solon would have never merged any of its departments with neighboring towns. Voters and residents would not have allowed it.
Why should they? People were moving to Solon for its top-notch services, funded by a sprawling industrial district with high-paying jobs. The city was flush with income tax revenue and savings.
In 2010, Ohio significantly reduced the amount of money it sent to municipal governments, and eliminated a handful of taxes that helped cities. Even Solon felt the pinch.
Then came the topper: Ohio mandated that counties drastically reduce the number of emergency dispatch centers by 2018. The target number for Cuyahoga County was four or five. Communities that did not cooperate would face reductions in their 911 funding, which pays for upgrades to dispatch systems.
So in April, Solon City Council — after five years of research and bargaining with various regional dispatch centers by the city’s administration — voted to join Chagrin Valley Dispatch, which already serves 14 East Side communities.
Former Solon Vice Mayor and current Councilman Ed Kraus, the county’s director of regional collaboration says that although Solon is still doing relatively well financially, the city’s thinking toward regional collaborations has changed, due to the economic crash and subsequent loss of revenues in neighboring communities due to the Local Government Fund’s reduction.
“We have more common-sense approaches to local government,” Kraus says. “So when you find ways to regionalize and provide high-quality services at a lower cost, both the government and public are much more willing to do that now.”
Solon Police Chief Christopher Viland says the city will contribute an estimated $745,600 annually to CVD, an amount based on Solon’s projected number of emergency calls. Also, Solon will pay a buy-in fee of about $425,000 to help cover equipment costs. It sounds like a lot, but Viland says Solon eventually will save about $300,000 a year by joining.
Cost isn’t the only factor. Viland says CVD, compared with Solon’s dispatch center, offers a larger on-duty staff and more powerful computer and radio systems. CVD can more efficiently call for mutual aid among its communities and provide more information to first responders. Also, Solon officers will be able to write reports in their cruisers, which will keep them on the streets longer.
All of this adds up to faster response times, not worse, as some opponents to regionalism fear. And, although Solon will lay off its dispatchers, CVD will offer all of them jobs, Viland says.
So far, seven regional dispatch centers, serving nearly 40 communities, have emerged in Cuyahoga County. Kraus hopes that number will remain steady — and it’s not a bad number, considering that 49 or 50 dispatch centers once dotted the county.
The county is helping by providing millions of dollars in grants toward equipment in regional dispatch centers.
But can such mergers extend to other municipal departments, like fire, trash collection and even police? And must the state wield a stick — like the potential loss of 911 funding — and the county dangle grants like carrots to inspire action?
Past regional efforts — including a proposed joint fire district on the West Side and a merger of municipalities on the East Side — have failed, partly due to politics.
“No political entity is willing to give up control or share power, period,” says Tom Sutton, professor of political science at Baldwin Wallace University, which has completed at least two regional-collaboration studies. “If you ask a mayor or city council person, ‘Is that why you oppose regionalism?’ they will tell you no. It’s a little too raw and rough to admit that power is what this is all about.”
Other regional proposals flounder because projected benefits aren’t impressive enough. Studies show that cities can postpone tax increases and merely maintain services and costs, and that’s a tough sell, Sutton says.
Some cities — including Cleveland Heights and Lyndhurst — have raised taxes to avoid layoffs. But Kraus says tax increases are not a long-term solution.
The State of Ohio, in its 2012 Shared Services Action Plan for Ohio Schools and Governments, opposes tax hikes and supports regionalism.
The action plan states that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, government spending in Ohio rose from $47.8 million in 1993 to $107.2 million in 2009, “far outpacing growth in Ohio’s population and gross state product.” The plan lists several ways that municipalities can reduce expenses.
Even the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, which focuses mostly on transportation and environmental planning, calls for government collaborations in its Vibrant NEO 2040 study, released in 2014. That’s because the region’s population isn’t growing, as projected in the 1960s and 1970s, just spreading out.
“Because the same number of people will be paying for increased services and infrastructure required from an expanding footprint, the tax burden will be higher on those individual people,” says Grace Gallucci,
NOACA’s executive director. “None of the  counties in the study would be better in 2040, if this continues, than they are today, even the ones that are doing well.”
Former Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti, a regionalism activist, says municipalities must take action.
“Cities in the county, I believe, in 10 years, are going to face the same problem as East Cleveland is now — potential bankruptcy,” Zanotti says. “Revenues are shrinking and voters are not going to entertain tax increases. Cities that have great industrial bases will continue to do well, but Brook Park lost thousands of jobs at Ford, and Parma had to cut services.”
“The longer they wait, the closer they will get to financial ruin,” Zanotti says. “The cities that have said no to collaboration, their services have been degraded.”
On Fire for Regionalism
In 2008, when Zanotti was Parma Heights’ mayor, he entertained the idea of merging Parma Heights with Parma. However, he knew he would never gain the political support.
So instead Zanotti devised a plan to forge a joint fire district — consisting of one regional fire department — with Berea, Brook Park, Brooklyn, Middleburg Heights, Olmsted Falls, Parma and Parma Heights.
For Zanotti, it was a no-brainer. At the time, police and fire service were 50 to 60 percent of an average city’s operating budget, and the percentage was rising.
“Brook Park had a paramedic-fire station across the street from Parma Heights,” Zanotti says. “It didn’t seem to make sense because capital costs were substantial — fire trucks and ambulances are expensive. And 75 percent to 85 percent of calls were paramedic runs, yet every city has their own fire truck and stations.”
The cities hired Baldwin Wallace University — then called Baldwin Wallace College — to study the feasibility of a joint fire district. The study, when finished in 2008, gave two thumbs up, finding that revenues among the seven cities were stagnant while fire protection costs were climbing.
The study said a joint fire district would mean an increase in the minimum number of firefighters on duty, from 61 to 74, in the seven cities. Response time would shorten, and the number of firefighters responding to calls would increase. The cities wouldn’t need as many ladder trucks, engines and squads, and the cost of replacing equipment would “substantially decrease.”
The seven cities, by joining forces, would save a total of about $645,000 a year in operating costs. Over 10 years, the cities would save a combined
Meanwhile, in a survey, residents said they didn’t care which city was on the firefighters’ badge, as long as they showed up promptly when called, Zanotti says.
But the fire chiefs balked. Most of them, along with assistant chiefs and other supervisors, would have different titles and roles.
“They may have couched their reasons in something else, but they wanted to protect their own turf,” Zanotti says. “And once the chiefs opposed it, elected officials had the ammunition they needed to turn it down — but Mayor DePiero and the City of Parma were willing to still discuss it.”
Pierre David, a Baldwin Wallace business professor who helped write the study, added that city councils worried they would lose control over their fire departments and budgets.
“It was very frustrating,” Zanotti says. “There was a significant amount of work, and the report was solid, but the political landscape was against it.”
Shaker Heights Mayor Earl Leiken experienced similar aggravation when his city looked at forming a joint fire district with University Heights. A consultant, Emergency Services Consulting International, estimated the two cities could save a combined $750,000 a year by collaborating, according to a 2012 cleveland.com article.
“They determined at the administrative level it would bring significant benefits to both communities,” Leiken says. “It would have improved the quality of service in both cities and would have given us a bigger staff and big savings in dollars. Over time, we wouldn’t have needed as many firefighters — no layoffs, but through attrition.”
But the University Heights firefighters’ union opposed the merger, saying the consultant’s study was filled with inaccuracies. Firefighters said the joint district, as proposed, would eliminate firefighter positions and would not improve response times, according to cleveland.com.
Nevertheless, regionalism has since gained a foothold in the Heights area. Just recently, Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, South Euclid and University Heights have agreed to form a joint dispatch center. Leiken says projections show his city to save about $100,000 a year through the deal after startup costs are paid, and the county will provide $1 million to help with startup costs.
Orange You Going to Merge?
In 2011, Moreland Hills, Orange, Pepper Pike and Woodmere put forth a more radical proposal — a complete merger of all four communities. Former Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers created the proposal, and approached the other three mayors, who were willing to explore it and conduct a study.
“The cost of government kept going up,” says Akers.
History supported the idea. At one time, the four municipalities, plus Hunting Valley, made up one large Orange Township. But in the first half of the 20th century, residents wanted services closer to home, so the township broke up.
Akers was encouraged when Ed FitzGerald, the first executive in the new county government, took office in 2011.
According to Akers, FitzGerald's jaw dropped when the four communities told him about their merger idea. At a press conference, the county and municipalities announced that a study, later deemed the Shared Services/Merger Study, would be conducted to see what benefits the four communities could reap by combining services or merging. A similar study conducted in 2010 by Baldwin Wallace between Moreland Hills, Orage, Pepper Pike and Hunting Valley already revealed that these communities would realize lower costs and higher efficiency by consolidating police, dispatch and service departments. But projections for fire and emergency medical services were less definite — cost savings would occur only under certain conditions, including converting full-time firefighter positions to part-time.
Ultimately, the mayors involved in the merger discussions didn't believe the cost savings was significant enough. Moreland Hills Mayor Susan Renda said her residents opposed a wholesale merger. And new Pepper Pike Mayor Richard Bain, who took office in 2012, said he and his residents didn’t believe a merger was appropriate or necessary. The four municipal leaders agreed to examine ways to share services without merging.
Akers was disappointed, but says he is encouraged today with the formation of regional dispatch centers, although progress is slow as an iceberg.
“But the iceberg is beginning to melt. Revenues are declining, as the state tax was eliminated and the Local Government Fund was cut in half by the governor,” Akers says. “You can either raise taxes or cut services, neither of which is a good option.”
Under the Radar
While high-profile, regional efforts succeed and fail, others are, and have been, occurring on a smaller scale for years.
For eight years, officials from Brecksville, Broadview Heights, Independence, North Royalton and Seven Hills have made up a group called RIBBS, an acronym of the communities’ names. They share ideas and work on joint projects, like charitable fundraisers.
More recently, RIBBS started meeting monthly to brainstorm ways to improve senior services. Almost simultaneously, the county announced it would award grants to organizations that came up with innovative ways to help senior citizens.
In May, RIBBS was one of four organizations to win a $25,000 county grant. The group will use the money to create programs that will help seniors prevent falls, eat and live healthier and learn about computers.
“We’ll teach seniors not only about Medicaid and Medicare but also about avoiding scams on the Internet,” says Steve Paciorek, Brecksville’s human services director. “We’ve had people taken for thousands of dollars because all these lowlife people are trying to bilk them out of their savings. They are easy targets.”
Today, communities work together to negotiate prices for road salt, which becomes expensive during snowy winters. One consortium between communities consists of Beachwood, Brecksville, Broadview Heights, Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights, Independence, Lakewood, North Royalton and Valley View. The county is also a consortium member.
And local police departments — like those in Beachwood, Euclid, Shaker Heights, South Euclid and University Heights — share SWAT teams.
But is there an appetite to merge fire departments? Police departments? Even cities?
Kraus says those types of collaborations will become more likely as the groundwork is laid for joint dispatch.
“Residents are starting to demand that cities look at their costs,” Kraus says. “If it makes sense from the cost standpoint, and the quality of service is good, residents expect it.”
Leiken says combining police forces is more challenging than forming fire districts because each community has unique crime issues. Shaker, on the border with Cleveland, deals with different types of crimes than Beachwood, which is packed with retail and industrial businesses.
And forget about merging cities, Leiken says. “In Shaker, people strongly identify with our community. They’ve grown up here, they come back, their families are here. I think people are very reluctant to give that up.”
But North Royalton Mayor Robert Stefanik, whose city is part of the Southwest Regional Dispatch Center in Strongsville, is up for anything.
“As elected officials, we have an obligation to explore these opportunities,” Stefanik says.
As to whether communities need pressure from the state, former Parma Mayor Dean DePiero says it’s not necessary or wanted.
“The state has does enough damage through their cuts in funding,” DePiero says. “The cities need to comes to that realization on their own, and, if they don’t, residents will hold them accountable.”