Obstacles abound in merger plan

Dayton officials absent from 20-member Dayton Together working group.

The type of merger being considered for Dayton and Montgomery County would be a first in Ohio and a rarity throughout the country, as such mergers are fraught with legal questions and often opposed by voters.

Of more than 3,000 counties in the country, fewer than 40 have successfully merged with a city government.

The group Dayton Together, led by Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley, is exploring an extreme change in the way the city and county operate. The proposal calls for consolidating Dayton with the county while leaving intact all other townships and cities, such as Kettering, Centerville, Huber Heights, Vandalia, Englewood and other incorporated areas.

Much about the plan is undetermined as yet, though officials made clear last week that schools would not be part of a merged government. But the consolidation could impact a wide gamut of government functions: law enforcement, fire protection, economic development, tax collections, water and sewer service and road maintenance.

Any changes would have to be approved by voters.

The effort has already encountered opposition from some Dayton officials, with Montgomery County Democratic Party Chair Mark Owens accusing Foley of disenfranchising “140,000 people living in the city of Dayton” and Mayor Nan Whaley saying the city wasn’t invited to participate in the formation of the proposed new government structure.

When asked who from the city was asked to join the Dayton Together group, Whaley said, “no one.”

Foley said the rollout should be viewed as an open invitation for anyone in the community — Dayton city politicians included — to participate in the discussion, but he wanted to give local officials ample time to contemplate the ideas the charter development committee generates.

“I don’t want to assume right now that any elected official has made a decision,” said Foley, a Democrat who was re-elected to a four-year term last fall. “I did not call the mayor and ask her to attend because elected officials need space to trust this process.”

“Nan is a friend and I respect her,” he said of his fellow Democrat. “She’s keeping an open mind and I didn’t want to put her in a bad position.”

Foley said none of the other city commissioners were extended an invitation for the same reason. He hopes the commissioners will ultimately support the plan.

“This is a marriage of equals: city government and county government,” he said. “The two biggest governments in Montgomery County have an opportunity to come together and be more strategic, more unified, drive the economy and push some costs down.”

A step beyond

A merger of the type being talked about would be novel in Ohio. Only two counties in the state — Cuyahoga and Summit — have strayed from the traditional statutory form of county government rooted in the Ohio Constitution and a 200-plus-years agrarian past.

But neither of those two counties has a “metro” government like the one being proposed by the Dayton Together group. While both conduct government fundamentally differently than the other 86 counties, they operate more like incorporated municipal governments. Both also were bred from voters’ contempt of mass political corruption.

“This is a conversation not precipitated by scandal, as it was in Cleveland, and certainly not by the fact that our local public officials are in any way lacking in integrity, dedication to the public and ability,” said U.S. District Court Judge Walter Rice, an officer of the nonprofit Dayton Together group, which currently has about 20 members. “Rather, it is a discussion, a conversation based on reality. The reality that our community is losing population, that it has lost solid middle class jobs over the past few decades, that our manufacturing base has eroded, that our per capita income for many of us has declined and that increasing numbers of us and their children are mired in poverty with diminishing hope of improving that condition.

“We simply are falling economically behind other communities of our size and losing our economic clout and squandering our potential and our ability to create new jobs relative to other communities of our size. It’s also part of that reality this conversation with the community can no longer be delayed.”

The plan, if realized, would make the new entity the second largest municipality in Ohio behind Columbus, according to Foley.

Benefits debated

At a launch event Thursday, those leading the effort said it’s imperative the community act deliberately but quickly to stop the region’s economic and population slide.

County population has dipped from about 565,000 15 years ago to 533,000 today; Dayton’s from about 170,000 to 143,000 during the same period.

“We must decide how to best govern ourselves to maximize our economic clout and economic potential in relation to our region our state our nation,” Rice said. “If we delay this conversation and decisions that come out of this conversation we lose control of our future and our destiny.”

Businesses consolidate, form partnerships and joint ventures — and sometimes merge — for similar reasons, said Phil Parker, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce and another officer in the Dayton Together group.

“We do that all the time for a number of reasons, one of which is efficiency,” said Parker. “How do we get value? How do we take those combined resources and reinvest them back into our business to make us better, stronger and more competitive? That’s not such an outlandish idea for what this is all about.”

But Parker emphasized that much work needs to be done before the idea can be presented to voters.

“I’m going to be honest with you, I don’t even know whether I have all the questions yet, let alone all the answers,” he said.

One person who might is David Rusk.

“I could save them a lot of time and expense and agony,” said Rusk, founding president of the research group Building One America. The former Albuquerque, N.M., mayor wrote “Cities without Suburbs,” a study often described as the bible of government regionalism.

Measures like the one proposed by the Dayton Together have proved difficult to get past voters, Rusk said. Of the 175 times it’s been tried since 1900, nearly 78 percent failed.

Rusk said consolidating Dayton and Montgomery County would likely provide little benefit to citizens and save few if any dollars for taxpayers.

“City-county consolidation is only meaningful and has only worked in ‘big-box’ states where you have a city, largely surrounded by an unincorporated area where the county government is the general local government.”

The model touted by Dayton Together is the merger between Louisville and Jefferson County in Kentucky that took effect in 2003. Rusk said there’s little comparison.

Not one of the 93 smaller municipalities surrounding Louisville initially joined in that effort, but the remaining unincorporated areas of Jefferson County made up about 45 percent of the county’s population to add to Louisville, which had about a third of the population, he said.

“Jefferson County still had a pretty sizable dowry, if you will, to bring to the marriage,” Rusk said.

By comparison, statistics show about a fifth of Montgomery County’s citizens living in unincorporated areas. And Paul Leonard, a former Dayton mayor and co-chair of the local effort with Foley, said not a single other Montgomery County municipality besides Dayton is being asked to take the leap, either.

“In effect Dayton city hasn’t received any dowry from the marriage. It hasn’t received a square foot of additional territory. It hasn’t picked up population. It hasn’t picked up any tax base,” Rusk said. “In effect it has simply swapped a governing body that’s elected solely by the residents of the city of Dayton for a governing body that’s elected by everybody in Montgomery County.”

Roadblocks ahead

Some legal and significant procedural hurdles could lay ahead.

Shannon Martin, a Bellbrook attorney hired by the organization to navigate the legal shoals, said, “Ohio law has a couple different avenues, processes we could follow, to accomplish consolidation.”

Either process would require the county to adopt a new charter, Martin said.

The two entities could merge once the county gets home rule authority following a successful charter election. The process would require multiple rounds of elections — first to adopt a charter, then others by county and city residents to approve any merger.

The model that’s conceived by the group would have the city hand its municipal authority to the new metro-county entity empowered by a new county charter.

“The electors could approve the delegation of municipal powers by the city of Dayton,” Martin said. “Procedurally, that would be one vote on the ballot.”

But the vote would be “counted through three lenses,” she said.

“Did the majority in the city of Dayton approve it? Did the majority of the county approve it? And then did the majority of the electors outside the city approve it?” she said.

All three vote counts would need to favor consolidation for the measure to pass, she said.

Owens, who is the Dayton Municipal Court clerk in addition to being the county Democratic Party chairman, came out swinging against the plan last week before it was even announced by Foley.

“I think Dan sincerely believes that some form of regionalism is important and he’s kind of bought the Kool-Aid that this is the right way to go,” Owens said. “He wants to compare us to Louisville. We’re not Louisville. We have 86 counties in Ohio that have our kind of government. If there’s something wrong with that kind of government, it ought to be done on a statewide basis, not making Dayton and Montgomery County some type of a test tube or laboratory to figure out what’s going on.”

Whaley: Keep focus on jobs

Whaley said she is learning the details about Dayton Together plan right along with the public.

The city has always been willing to partner on a regional basis with other governments, she said, but the focus of any effort should be on growing jobs, not necessarily redrawing municipal boundaries.

“It’s really about the economy,” she said. “When Fuyao opens in Moraine … it means jobs for our folks and people don’t pay attention to city lines based on where they work. I think we have to get to the heart of the matter, that we are a manufacturing community. Manufacturing has changed significantly. We have to be really aggressive about driving talent and making sure we have the workforce we need in the next 20 years and that’s where the community’s focus should be.”

Preserving diversity is a concern in any consolidated government structure, she said.

“I do worry about diversity and that’s something that’s really important to the city of Dayton,” Whaley said. “On our commission I’m proud of how diverse we are and come from so many different places. I do worry on a county-wide system that inclusivity and diversity will not be paid attention to.”

Commissioner Joey Williams was active at the table with an earlier iteration of the Dayton Together group (called OneDayton), but stopped taking part when a broader conversation narrowed to a discussion of combining the governments of only Dayton and the county.

Williams said he is willing to listen but questions what the merger would accomplish.

“Combining the city and the county is not what I had a vision for,” he said. “It would have to be something talked about by not just the city of Dayton but other municipalities and townships.”

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