Sunday, November 12, 2000

County merger not likely here

By By Ken Alltucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati and Hamilton County may decide to combine some operations and share services, but a full-fledged merger like the one Louisville voters approved last week seems out of the question.

        Too many municipalities and groups within Hamilton County fear losing power and aren't convinced that one government is better than a bunch of smaller ones.

        “I don't think it's going to happen in my lifetime,” said Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin. “I don't believe in it.”

        But community leaders are willing to explore combining services as a way to make Cincinnati more competitive and to lower costs. They're searching for a strategy to stem the flow of people from Cincinnati and older suburbs; only six cities nationwide lost more people than Cincinnati has since 1990, according to a U.S. Census estimate.

        The prospect of Lexington passing Louisville as Kentucky's largest city was enough to galvanize the support of Louisville and Jefferson County voters last week. They agreed to merge governments in 2003, creating a countywide mayor and 26 council members to be elected in 2002.

        Like Cincinnati, Louisville has grappled with retaining its residents, losing 6.2 percent of its population since 1990. With the merger, Louisville is expected to have a population of more than 527,000 and improve its ranking among the largest U.S. cities to 23rd from 65th.

        “You had this recognition that something had to happen or we would just become a small town,” said Carl Bensinger, a Louisville attorney who campaigned for the merger. “It's also a psychological issue. Businesses wanting to come into the community feel this is a much more efficient way of running a city.”

        Former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson threw his support behind the merger to persuade voters, who had rejected the merger twice before.

        Louisville is the region's third major city to combine city and county governments as a way to save tax dollars, slash bureaucratic layers and spur economic development. Indianapolis combined with Marion County in 1970, and Lexington merged with Fayette County in 1972.

        Cincinnati-area leaders say it would be politically impossible to form a metro or regional government for an area that spans three states and more than 300 jurisdictions.

        “Since a high percentage of African-Americans are in the central city, they are going to be very reluctant to give up a share of the power they have built over the years,” said Duane Holm, director of the Metropolitan Area Religious Coalition of Cincinnati.

        Cincinnati City Council members Alicia Reece and Paul Booth echoed Mr. Holm's assessment.

        “An important thing to consider is diversity (of leadership) from age to race to gender,” said Ms. Reece, a Democrat.

        Mr. Dowlin, a Republican, said there would be little appetite among Hamilton County townships and municipalities to join.

        “It would take a vote of the people,” Mr. Dowlin said. “I don't think they would support it. Most of the people who left Cincinnati and went to the suburbs have left because they don't like Cincinnati.”

        In Indianapolis and Louisville, an influential mayor rounded up needed political support.

        U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Indianapolis, provided the muscle behind Indianapolis' merger with its surrounding county. As the city's mayor in the late 1960s, Mr. Lugar successfully lobbied the state legislature to combine the city and county.

        Mr. Lugar has become one of Indiana's most successful politicians, easily winning re-election again last week to his Senate seat.

        Indianapolis' combined government has won points among business leaders who want a strong voice, not political infighting.

        “The feedback from the business community is that Indianapolis generally gets high marks for a strong local government,” said Joe Kramer, vice president of economic development for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.

        When searching for a place to establish a maintenance hub in the early 1990s, United Airlines' top executive sat down and cut a deal with the Indianapolis mayor.

        “You have one champion, one cheerleader,” said John L. Krauss, senior fellow at Indiana University's Center for Urban Policy and deputy mayor of Indianapolis from 1982 to 1991. “Cities have to develop their own signature, their own uniqueness.”

        Mr. Abramson contends that Louisville lost a chance at landing the Houston Rockets professional basketball team when the city and county couldn't agree on terms.

        “There were always situations like that,” he said.

        Mr. Holm said Cincinnati “works against charismatic solo performers” and instead designates power to smaller political jurisdictions.

        Mr. Booth and Ms. Reece agree that the region needs to explore sharing services. A good start, they said, was when Cincinnati City Councilman Todd Portune last week became the first Democrat elected to the three-member Hamilton County Commission since 1964.

        The county has historically been Republican and Mr. Portune comes to the commission from City Council, which has more Democrats as members. His presence may be a catalyst for the groups, Ms. Reece said.

        Patricia Timm, executive director of Metropolitan Growth Alliance, said Greater Cincinnati first must recognize it has one economy and one network.

        “It's critical we establish a regional mind-set,” she said.


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