Keep an open mind to possible regionalization

Regionalization of government and local agencies to create better efficiency, reduce costs and shrink the size of government is the right attitude, as long as it doesn’t adversely affect the types of essential services that government was created to provide.

This year’s state budget bill would require cities of fewer than 50,000 people to possibly merge with county health departments after an evaluation of the effectiveness of such a merger. The bill passed the state House and moved on to the Ohio Senate.

The proposed state budget bill first mandated the departments merge, but after going through the House Finance Committee, the language was changed to require a study in these cities to determine if the department should merge with the county districts.

As passed in the House, HB 110’s language required “each city with a population less than 50,000 served by a board of health of a city health district to complete a study evaluating the efficiency and effectiveness of merging with the general health district that includes the city for the administration of health affairs in the merged general health district,” according to a summary of the bill produced by the Ohio Legislative Service Commission.

The language now indicates the state director of health and the state auditor will be required to develop criteria to determine whether a merger between the city and county departments is “advisable” and requires the city itself to conduct an evaluation using the criteria.

The cost to conduct the study “may” be covered by a $6 million earmark, the summary states.

Unfortunately, the bill hasn’t even passed yet, and it already has begun receiving pushback from some local officials.

In Warren, for example, John May, deputy health commissioner, said both the county and city health districts are aware of the language. Neither sees a reason to merge, and they feel it would be a detriment.

May said he fears a merger would decrease accessibility and response time.

Certainly, that’s a possibility. But how does anyone know for sure without serious analysis of services, employees and residents? (And, to be clear, a reason to avoid merging never should include the possible loss of jobs or local control.)

Let’s face it, Ohio has not been known for its regionalized approach to services and operations. Just look at the numerous small school districts that make up most Ohio counties, including the dozens in Trumbull and Mahoning counties.

This health district regionalization attempt could be the first strong effort to combat the problem that includes the massive management expenses at the top of each individual organization.

Regionalized efforts also have the potential to reduce expenses not only by shared management teams, but also by sharing purchases and increasing buying power. Locally, it already has been proven that the idea can work as a cost saver. The city of Niles, for example, already gave up its individual health department when facing fiscal emergency in recent years. Now, even former opponents of the measure in Niles have acknowledged newfound support of the conversion.

Indeed, this idea should be examined closely on a larger scale.

We urge all cities affected by the language to approach the idea willingly and to study it with open minds before refusing to think outside the box.


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