Newspaper Sparks New Regionalism
In late February, Cleveland’s newspaper, The Plain Dealer, began a yearlong series examining regional government. The first article delved into fire protection. The newspaper is leading the debate with staff-written articles, reader editorials, and an online forum. Needless to say, this topic has caused quite a stir.
At the most contentious level of debate, a group of Cleveland politicians decry the possible loss of recently gained power, and certain suburbs refuse to pay for “ Cleveland’s mistakes.” There are widely varing opinions on regional government, but one thing is certain: both sides are firmly entrenched.
Discord aside, the articles have had some positive impact on the region. More than a dozen of Cleveland’s southern and western suburbs are considering working together to save money on fire protection and other services. Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti organized a recent meeting to discuss a regional approach with the mayors from three bordering communities: Brook Park, Middleburg Heights, and Parma.
These four municipalities protect populations ranging from 15,500 to 85,600, with department budgets ranging from $2,500,000 to $8,500,000 million*.
The meeting was scheduled just days after Middleburg Heights Mayor Gary Starr was notified that his community’s 1979 aerial fire truck with an 85-foot reach was in need of a $500,000 refurbishment. The truck was used six times in 2003. A replacement truck could cost nearly $1 million. Refurbishing the community’s truck would consume nearly half the money available in 2005 for capital projects. At the same time, Middleburg Heights is surrounded by fire departments with ladder trucks— typically the most expensive equipment at the fire station.
The procurement “department” in Middleburg Heights is made up of one full-time person, with a second person available for backup as needed. Both are employees of the city’s finance department. The time required to purchase one aerial fire truck, let alone the vehicles and equipment needed to support the city’s fire department, is reason enough to consider merging some operations.
If and when an environment of cooperation is achieved, the devil of regionalism will be in the details. By starting with an aerial tower truck, a few Cleveland suburbs may build the trust needed to improve the efficiency of regional government while providing the most cost-effective fire protection. Any reform plan needs input, guidance, and advice from both city officials and the electorate. Only time will tell the outcome of this contentious issue.
To date, none of the groups discussing resource consolidation have included Cleveland. Resistance from within Cleveland may be one reason that the city is not at the table. Then again, when was the last time you invited a “500-pound gorilla” to your party? This may be one economic solution that Cleveland may have to observe rather than participate in.
I wonder at the motive behind The Plain Dealer series, but if the suburbs, and possibly Cleveland, reap some benefit from regional government, the articles may have a lasting, positive impact on the area.