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Outside the Box: Making the Case for the Three C’s

Three C's
Photo by ralphbijker

Many of us are familiar with the $64,000 question.

Toledo’s version is a bit more serious: the $78 million question. That’s the combined deficit of Toledo city government ($48 million) and Toledo Public Schools ($30 million).

That’s the painful price taxpayers will either pay or see cut in the next few weeks. The end of March is looming for both governmental bodies—one facing a state-mandated budget balancing deadline, the other a self-imposed deadline, which buys time to sell an income tax levy.

Mayor Mike Bell has challenged us all to think “outside the box” and come up with solutions. A few original ideas surfaced, most were recycled.

We suddenly heard terms that crossed our auditory canals once before—from the lips of former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner: revenue enhancement, exigent circumstances, tax reciprocity.

All of a sudden, Carty doesn’t sound so crazy. That’s just how serious this is.

Whatever decisions the end of March brings, April 1 is a new day dawning on Toledo.

That is the day city government and school district officials should begin to sell the three C’s.

No, not those three C’s: Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.

The other three C’s: collaboration, consolidation, and cooperation. If ever there was a time to breathe those words in Northwest Ohio, this is it.

Mayor Mike Bell has alluded to long-term fixes after the March 31st deadline. Why wait? Let’s start the discussion now. Time’s a-wastin’.

Let’s start with health care. Congress has its own Democrat-brewed remedy for the nation. Here’s an Rx for local leaders. It’s called strength in numbers.

Toledo, TPS, Lucas County, the University of Toledo—all are struggling with the notion of union members paying a bigger share of their health care. Many of these entities also are self-insured—with taxpayer dollars, of course.

In the interest of saving money at all levels, why not forge a health-care cooperative, coalition, whatever you want to call it.

By themselves, they all are big institutions. Together, they are gigantic, even titanic.

Not dozens. Not hundreds. Thousands of workers. Public institutions that are among Lucas County’s largest employers.

Lucas County alone has more than 3,500 government workers. According to figures from the Bell administration, Toledo currently has 2,688 city employees—approximately 1,700 of those paid from the city’s general fund where the huge budget deficit exists. Both the city and county are self-insured.

Lucas County even uses a non-profit third-party benefits administrator, the Health Care Payer’s Coalition and even provides office space at its social services building downtown. Using that existing model, why not create a bigger buying pool at the city-county level?

There’s even more savings to be realized by linking the city and county together through the same payroll and HR benefits computer system. The Bell administration is about to spend millions on IT—a system Lucas County has spent even more millions in the past decade investing in and developing.

You could start there, then begin talks with TPS and UT to add thousands more public employees down the line.

Imagine the massive bargaining and buying power we’d have putting those government, school, and university workers—and their families—together. That’s one huge client pool that could command lots of respect—and savings—from health insurers and a third-party benefits administrator.

Add in the fact that unionized public employees at all levels are reluctant to pay more for their own health care, and there’s even more reason to pursue a different type of cost containment strategy.

The Northwest Ohio Aggregation Coalition (NOAC), a collective of local communities in metro Toledo, has saved money for citizens on electric and gas rates for years now. Why? Because they have the buying power equivalent to a huge industrial customer.

Extend that thought to all of those institutions in a buying cooperative, negotiating better purchase prices on everything from paper clips and pencils to buildings and big trucks.

The other three C’s already do that with their suburban neighbors, in addition to the savings they and we get from piggybacking on state government purchasing contracts. All it takes are a few phone calls, or maybe a field trip to Northeast or Southwest Ohio to see how those are structured, how much in savings is being realized, and how such collaboration and cooperation is fueling other joint ventures among neighboring communities.

Elected officials and candidates alike over the past year have used the word “consolidation” in various ways—from combining the city, county, and suburban building inspection departments to collaborate on information technology issues to finding ways to collectively cut grass.

Teamwork Toledo last year suggested a management agreement, merger, or some other workable arrangement between Toledo’s parks and recreation department and the Toledo Area Metroparks. That is an idea still worth exploring, with a few adjustments.

Both entities have managers, mowers, and manpower performing the same tasks near each other all over the city. Work out some financial arrangement to end the duplication at larger facilities—and suddenly popular places like Walbridge Park or Ottawa Park won’t grow taller than a small child. Allow the Metroparks to subsidize some of the work by allowing them to rent out the shelters at those parks and other financially-feasible means. The city could cap its costs and save millions.

Layoffs would likely result, but if the Metroparks had to hire some extra help, who better than the people who already know those parks?

The keys are the smaller, “postage-stamp” size parks where more time, labor, and money is spent loading and unloading mowers and driving to the next location, than actual time cutting and trimming grass. For those parks, appeal to community development corporations, neighborhood groups, Blockwatches, and other organizations to volunteer to “adopt” those parks for a couple of seasons to help the city get back on its feet—and give kids a place to play.

Last year, Toledo’s building inspection department wanted to increase fees to hire more people to help with the backlog those inspectors faced. This is a scenario where technology could make that department more effective and efficient with a small investment, resulting in more savings.

Much like Columbia Gas and other private companies use mobile computers, Blackberries, and other devices in the field, so could our city government workers. Their trucks become “virtual” offices.

Email the inspectors their assignments and appointments, fill out and file their reports online from the field, and you gain 2-3 hours each day of productivity that is lost when they have to return to the office to perform many of those same tasks. More and timely inspections performed by fewer people.

You can apply some of those same principles to engineering services, road repairs, water and sewer services—even trash collection. Technology is another key to a true 21st century city.

Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez serves on a statewide panel appointed by the governor, tasked with exploring more ways local governments can collaborate, cooperate, and consolidate. Their work is in response to Ohio having more local levels of government bureaucracy than most others—resulting in higher administrative costs, more public officials, and higher taxes. Perhaps she has a few ideas gleaned from more than a year of public hearings all over the state. Maybe it’s time to ask her in a public forum for some feedback.

Our city leaders say they want more effective and efficient operations. We say we want better customer service-- without higher taxes and fees.

That’s my two cents. Maybe it’s worth millions.

Photo by ralphbijker