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Role of local government in question

Published Mar. 12, 2009 | Discuss this article on Facebook
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Buckeye Farm News

As a state commission rethinks local government in Ohio, some township trustees are bristling at notions to consolidate or eliminate the office they hold.

 “There is a movement, and that movement is to do away with townships,” said Jeff Knowlton, a township trustee from Washington County.

Knowlton, who spoke  to Ohio Farm Bureau's AgriPOWER Institute, emphasized his office’s responsiveness to constituents.

“If there’s a tree that goes down across the road in the middle of the night, the local people know my number,” he said.

Steven Bradley, a township trustee in Muskingum County, compared local government to the bottom rung of a ladder.

“It is solid,” he said. “You look at our federal government right now and it’s pretty shaky.”

The Commission on Local Government Reform and Collaboration was formed by Ohio lawmakers last year, and it began its work in January. It is charged with examining ways to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of local government and facilitate economic development.

Reformers argue there is too much overlap in local government. For example, neighboring townships might invest in their own equipment, such as fire trucks, instead of sharing resources to reduce costs. Residents may also be confused about which elected officials are accountable for specific issues.

Athens County Commissioner Lenny Eliason said residents often turn to his office to solve problems that aren’t under his jurisdiction.

“People don’t realize that county government is a maze,” he said.

Mark Partridge, Ohio State University’s Swank Professor of Rural-Urban Policy, hopes the state commission recommends fundamental changes to governmental structures and outdated tax policies. In a report from Ohio State Extension, Partridge noted that no elected official is looking out for an entire region’s interest. As communities vie for income tax dollars, it can hinder economic development, he suggested.

“The system gives individual communities an incentive to poach from each other,” Partridge said. “If taxes were collected on a regional level and dispersed on a per-capita basis, leaders would focus on making the pie bigger for everyone, instead of competing with each other.”

Partridge says reforms that encourage collaboration on purchases or services do not address the systemic problems in local government.

The commission must present its findings by July 1 of next year. For now, township trustees are standing behind their accountability to local residents.

“(Policymakers) need to keep the township government viable so you know whose door to go hammer on,” said William Shaw, a township trustee in Athens County.



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