2 county commissioners don’t support merger plan with city

Nonprofit group backing effort says work is in early stages.

Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley is leading the effort to develop a charter outlining how to merge the city of Dayton and the county.

But his two fellow county commissioners at this point do not believe the proposed merger is a good idea, and their lack of support would block one path for the charter to appear on the ballot.

County commission President Debbie Lieberman said she does not see the benefit of a city-county merger, and she’s concerned about its operational and taxation structure and disenfranchising minority voters.

“I have immense respect for Commissioner Foley — as a commissioner and a friend — and I know Dan has good intentions, but right now, as I understand it, I don’t agree with this strategy,” Lieberman said.

Commissioner Judy Dodge questioned how a merged government would improve the region’s economic competitiveness, influence or appeal. Dodge, Lieberman and Foley are all Democrats.

“I’ve been a county commissioner for nine years now, and what I know about this, I don’t think it’s the way to go,” Dodge said.

The charter proposal has faced backlash from other local leaders, including Dayton City commissioners and the president of the Dayton Unit NAACP, who have complained about the initiative’s lack of transparency.

But Foley said development of the charter is in the early stages, and public feedback and criticism will be considered while shaping the structure of a unified government.

“Debbie and Judy and I work really well together on the commission, and there is no daylight between us on the core issues of county business, economic development, criminal justice and human services delivery,” Foley said. “But we are just beginning this Dayton Together public dialogue … and there’s plenty of room for not only my colleagues, but anyone in the community, to hold a divergent opinion.”

Earlier this month, Dayton Together, a nonprofit group of which Foley is an officer, announced it would host a series of meetings in coming months to gather feedback about a city-county merger.

The charter initiative is the work of a private organization, and the county and city of Dayton are not involved.

Dayton Together says it will use public input to produce a charter detailing how to combine the two operations into a new structure, creating a metro government, akin to the merging of Louisville, Ky., and Jefferson County.

The group hopes to release a draft of the charter document in December and put a merger proposal on the ballot, possibly November 2016.

Members of Dayton Together said the county and Dayton region need innovative ideas to adapt to a changing and increasingly competitive economy.

They say a combined government could wield greater economic clout and would have a stronger, more unified vision and voice.

A charter proposal can be put on the ballot if petitioners collect enough valid signatures from voters.

Another option is for the majority of the county commission to approve directly placing the measure on the ballot.

The second scenario seems unlikely to happen since two of three commissioners have expressed dissatisfaction with concept.

Lieberman said cities and counties traditionally provide different services and, therefore, a Dayton-county merger would not create many opportunities for savings and more efficient service delivery.

She said most of the city’s and county’s responsibilities do not overlap.

Lieberman said she believes merging some area cities and townships could have advantages, but that is not the proposal under consideration.

And she noted that local jurisdictions and their residents seem not to favor consolidation.

The region endured one of the worst economic downturns in modern history, and yet local governments did not end up combining for the sake of cutting costs or maintaining services, Lieberman said.

“People … are fiercely loyal to their cities and jurisdictions,” she said.

Lieberman said the main reason she does not support the charter initiative at this time is she cannot envision how creating a metro government will be economically beneficial and save taxpayers money.

She said she remains unconvinced that a combined government will be more attractive to site selectors and companies looking to relocate or expand.

And Lieberman said she does not know how increasing Dayton’s population by merging with the county would aid economic development activities.

“I don’t want to say the book’s closed on this, but I haven’t yet heard why,” she said.

Dodge said businesses want to expand in or relocate to places that have workforces, infrastructure, geography and economic incentives that meet their needs.

Companies and site selectors do not typically care about the structure of local government, she said.

“This not the merger we should be talking about,” she said.

Dodge said she was elected by the citizens of Montgomery County, and she may have to reconsider the initiative if the community strongly favors consolidation.

But right now, she said, the proposition raises important questions.

She said it is unclear how a merged government would operate, what its tax structure would be and whether making the change could negatively impact state and federal funding awards, such as Community Development Block Grants.

“Until it comes out and spells things out, I think the citizens will be confused,” she said. “That’s what I’m hearing from people: What is it?”

Dodge and Lieberman said Foley has good intentions, but both commissioners said the details known about this plan are not inspiring confidence.

Dodge said the county is successfully attracting new jobs and companies, and the county regularly collaborates with local communities for the betterment of the region.

“People don’t want change for change’s sake,” Lieberman said, later adding, “I am a believer in regionalism, but I’m not sure this is the right path.”

Foley said he’s pleased the charter initiative is being talked about and debated.

He said the community for years has discussed creating a new structure of government, and the process that is getting underway will — possibly for the first time — produce an actual framework for a unified government.

He said public input will be used to craft the details of the charter, and when finished, the document will provide clarity so the community can make informed decisions.

“Again, the most important job in front of us is to build this charter with a lot of public input and then provide it to the community and ask them to weigh in at that point,” Foley said.

Foley said Dayton Together plans to petition voters to put the charter on the ballot.

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