When considering merging Owensboro and Daviess County governments, attitudes range from apathy to outrage. Some residents remember the rancor that characterized the previous merger attempt in 1990, while many others – perhaps most, judging by a recent Messenger-Inquirer article – wonder what the big deal is all about. They’re just not interested.
The idea of joining city and county governments into one entity
does have advocates in Owensboro – most notably Mayor Tom Watson,
who campaigned on his support for merger. Why then, if the duly elected mayor of our town is so in favor of merger, are so many
residents indifferent to the idea? What needs would merger meet, and are there alternatives to make local governments more efficient?
Here’s a look at how community leaders here and elsewhere are
approaching these and other questions.
A May 22, 2006, article in the Messenger-Inquirer revealed that
many elected officials in Owensboro and Daviess County see little
or no citizen interest in merger. That’s because citizens don’t see the relevance of merger to their daily lives, officials said in interviews
for this article. They need details about the benefits of merger before becoming engaged in the issue, the officials added.
“People are more concerned with day-to-day issues that impact
them -- getting kids to soccer practice, how much they pay for gasoline,
homeland security,” said Steve Johnson, a project manager for Daviess Fiscal Court. “That’s not new, that’s just where we are.”
“The pro (-merger) side has been unable to paint a clear picture,
to have citizens buy into that,” said Daviess County Judge-Executive
Reid Haire, who is also waiting to hear the details before deciding whether to advocate for merger. “They have yet to address the questions of ‘How much will it cost me?’ ‘Will I lose representation?’ ‘Will the city tell me how to live my life?’ People want to be able to
know the change that’s going to occur will result in eventual savings to them.”
Mayor Tom Watson says the discussion simply hasn’t reached
that point yet. He has been focused on the passage of a state law
requiring communities such as Owensboro to form a committee that would put together a merger proposal to present to the voters. The
city and county would each appoint half of the committee. The law, passed by the 2006 General Assembly, is intended to provide equal
rights to a city and county as they consider merger.
The mayor is now is putting together what he calls a grassroots
group of supporters to decide on the best way to get his message
out. “Emotionally and financially, people are too busy (to think about merger),” he said. “The community shouldn’t have to figure out the
facts; they should be presented to them. The discussion … should be fact based.”
The apparent lack of interest raises a question, though: Should
leaders push for a change their constituents don’t seem to care about?
Watson and Haire both say it’s their job as leaders to provide direction and long-term planning for the community, even if residents
aren’t ready for it. “Change scares the daylights out of people” who are often wary of leaving their comfort zone, Watson said. “I welcome
change. I think the status quo is … sad.”
“It’s the responsibility of elected leaders to come up with a vision
for the community,” Haire said. “If we waited for citizen initiative,
we never would have had the AirPark, the RiverPark Center, the
(new) health department.” At the same time, there has to be some
positive support. “I’m reluctant to embark on an initiative I know is going to be divisive and no one is interested in,” he said.
City and county governments are working as well together as they
ever have, officials said, with a number of merged services already.
The Regional Water Resource Agency, the new Greater Owensboro Economic Development Corporation, the Owensboro Metropolitan
Planning Commission and the Daviess County Public Library all have required some form of cooperation or consolidation between
city and county departments. “There’s great cooperation in a lot of areas between the city and county,” Johnson said.
“The city manager and his staff are really good about engaging
the county in decisions on the front end,” Haire said. “The number of
times I interact with city officials is much greater than 20 years ago.” “We cooperate about as well as the (government) structures allow,”
added Bob Whitmer, the Owensboro city manager.
And that’s the crux of the matter: there is no structural mechanism
that will guide cooperation between the governments on critical
issues such as:
Determining who is in charge during emergencies and natural disasters
Deciding who cleans a blocked drainage ditch that’s half in the city and half in the county
Handling police investigations and pursuits that cross jurisdictions
Speaking for the community on important matters
Taxes are a particularly sore issue for many voters. No one likes
to see taxes raised, but merger probably won’t lower them either.
Some city residents question whether they receive equivalent services in return for the county taxes they pay (if they even realize they
pay county taxes), while county residents who work in the city wonder what services they receive in return for their occupational taxes
(the city’s occupational tax rate is higher than the county’s).
Haire said city and county officials simply deal with issues such
as these on a case-by-case basis. Mayor Watson thinks there’s a better
way than the current system. “We’re smarter than that,” he said.
So how do the governments deal with or remedy the structural
problems? Mayor Watson makes the argument that if you sat down
with a piece of blank paper, you’d never design two sets of governments that work so differently for a common goal. His solution:
merge the two governments to form one centralized system under one leader. Other merger proponents use the analogy of the city and
county functioning as a single business: Why would you hire two CEOs and two boards of directors? Rather than just consolidating
certain operations, “Why is it not a good idea to consolidate your government so all these tasks can be done in a more efficient manner?” Whitmer said. “I think we could position ourselves much better to deal with them if everyone is headed in the same direction.”
While it makes sense to eliminate inefficiencies, merger is a dramatic
step that communities have historically resisted. In fact, out of
the approximately 3,600 county governments in the United States, fewer than 40 have undergone structural consolidation since 1805.
“One of the reasons is that citizens can’t grasp the complexity of that issue,” Johnson said. “Once it makes it to a vote, it’s very divisive and citizens default to leaving it where they are.”
Johnson, who is about to complete a two-year study of government
consolidation as part of earning a master’s degree in public administration,
differentiates between structural consolidation (joining
two different governments) and functional consolidation (focusing
on certain aspects of how the existing government performs). When most people use the term merger, they’re talking about structural
consolidation. Functional consolidation is much more popular, Johnson said. “It allows local governments to take a look at specific areas
of delivery (of services) piece by piece and find areas where money can be saved,” he said. The Regional Water Resource Agency and
metropolitan planning agency are two examples, he said. “It didn’t require divisiveness. It required local elected officials to cooperate
with each other.”
Based on the experience of local governments in other areas of the
country (including Louisville and Jefferson County, which voted to
merge in 2000), the National League of Cities has joined with the Alliance for Regional Stewardship to produce a guide to local government cooperation that will be published by the end of this year. The guide describes a continuum of 19 distinct steps that governments can take to improve cooperation. The steps range from relatively easy options, such as informal cooperation and interlocal agreements, to more challenging choices; consolidation lies at the difficult end of the spectrum.
“The advice we give to other communities is decide what you
want as a community,” said Joan Riehm, the deputy mayor of Louisville.
She frequently speaks around the country about lessons Louisville has learned from merger as well as alternatives to merger. “Does
the community government have a way to meet those goals?” she said. “(If not), fixing it may mean you only want them to cooperate
more on big issues. It may mean you want to go a little further.”
Louisville is one of the latest examples of a successful merger,
but success didn’t happen overnight. The city’s first vote on merger
came in 1956 and citizens voted it down. After more than 40 years and two more defeats, merger finally passed in 2000. Riehm said
the community went through many steps along the way. “It’s very difficult,” she said. “It usually depends on a whole variety of circumstances. It’s a conjunction of timing, desire and luck. We wanted it for a long time.”
Louisville’s main goal was to pursue a unified public agenda. Officials
wanted Louisville to be a large, world-class city that could
compete economically with cities like Indianapolis and Nashville (both of which operate under merged government, as does Lexington).
Riehm said the business community was the most consistent driver of unification. “They thought it was crazy having two major
governments in one county,” she said.
Before the community reached the point of merger, officials tried several other plans. They combined a number of city and county departments and services, including parks and recreation, purchasing, planning and zoning, disaster and emergency services, public health, libraries, tax collection services and air pollution control. In 1986, the city and county ratified a formal compact to deal with three especially difficult issues: They pooled earnings taxes and directed them to economic development, they froze annexation for 12 years to stop turf wars and they provided policy direction and funding to several of their combined departments, which reduced conflicts about who controlled what. The compact worked well and was renewed in 1998 for another 10 years.
Riehm said the compact showed the community that the local
governments could work together, but conflicts still existed (mostly
over whether the city or county’s agenda was more important), so leaders developed a simplified merger proposal: They would merge
only the executive and legislative branches of government. All taxes and services would remain the same and suburban cities and fire districts would remain intact. Proponents ran a direct campaign with their simple message and scheduled the vote for a presidential election year to increase turnout. The referendum passed by a 54 to 46 percent margin, vaulting Louisville from the 67th largest city in the country to the 26th largest.
“We didn’t promise savings or efficiencies,” Riehm said. “We just
said we want a unified community (and) this is the way to get it.” The
evidence so far has shown that Louisville has indeed saved money, reduced inefficiencies and been able to provide better services to citizens, Riehm said, adding that the community can also recruit businesses and plan for the future in a more focused way.
Merger has worked for Louisville, but it may not be necessary
for all communities. “Any step along the continuum is suitable if it serves their goals,” Riehm said. “Some communities may only go to
step three, that’s all they need. Some go farther; the early steps didn’t
go far enough for (them).”
What comes next in Owensboro is up to community leaders.
Mayor Watson’s grassroots group will begin looking at ways to get
their message out, but neither Watson nor Haire expect much movement
on the issue until after the elections this fall. Watson believes
merger is a valuable tool that can be used in economic development, which will in turn benefit the community. As Whitmer said, “A strong economy tends to resolve a lot of other issues.”
Watson thinks the first step should be to look at public safety.
Haire, who represents citizens in both the city and the county, agrees
that law enforcement is a big issue and adds two more major challenges
that merger discussions will have to overcome: tax equity and
convincing people to come to the table without an agenda. He thinks that’s more difficult for county residents. “They have a different
mindset,” he said. “There’s a greater level of independence.”
For that reason, Haire thinks any possible merger attempt should
be driven by the county. “Those in the city can go to city or county
government,” he said. “Those outside (in the county) can only go to county government. As long as the city drives merger, it may be successful, but there will be greater divisiveness.” Haire is also waiting to see the positive vision of merger. “I’m not apathetic, but I haven’t seen the vision yet,” he said. “I haven’t seen the striking benefits of combining governments.”
Watson would like the process to move fairly quickly. “I’d love to
see it on the ballot in 2007,” he said. He may wait until 2008, though,
when a presidential election will be held and voters in the Evansville area will also be voting on merged government, leading to greater
television news coverage. He knows the process won’t be easy and doesn’t want it to be. “If we disrupt 100,000 lives, it shouldn’t be
easy,” he said.
Regardless of how they feel about merger in Owensboro, officials
agree that merger is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If leaders
determine their goal is more efficient delivery of services to the people, then steps other than merger may be the answer. If they decide
the ultimate goal is to be able to speak with one voice as a large city fighting for better economic development, merger could be the best
solution. “The reason for doing something as dramatic as changing government has to be bigger than government,” Riehm said.