CITY-COUNTY CONSOLIDATION NEEDED

Douglascounty12.doc. 2-15.
NEBRASKA TAXPAYERS FOR FREEDOM ISSUE PAPER:
CITY-COUNTY CONSOLIDATION NEEDED.

BACKGROUND. Discussion regularly focuses on saving taxpayers money by merging Douglas County with the City of Omaha or at least consolidating services. A study group years ago favored merger, a minority report preferring only consolidation, a functional merger (contact NTF for these reports). The two government subdivisions under agreements already have consolidated information technology, purchasing, parks, and 911 services, and the jail, plus an operative agreement for library services, saving taxpayers millions. In 2012, the city and county spent over $400 million annually with 7,300 suppliers, and a national accounting firm predicted significant savings through combined purchasing processes. Based on experiences of other cities and counties, further consolidating services permanently would save additional millions. Proponents of full structural merger must prove from where savings will come. There are 4 population groups involved: Omaha, small towns, SIDs, and rural residents.

SAVING DOLLARS. Consolidating city and county services has natural appeal. Strains on local government budgets and citizen demands for efficient services beg consolidation. Combining would reduce duplicative services and produce economies in expenditures. Prioritize consolidations of services that would save larger amounts of money. Examples: the city and county crime labs, city, county, and school district public property, offices of city prosecutor and county attorney, emergency services, and city police and county sheriff deputies, who could share patrolling duties in the county territorially. Savings would accrue in uniting technology, insurance and other benefit plans, accounting, payroll, record keeping, revenue collection, planning, sharing office space, engineering, public works, paving, snow and ice removal, street cleaning, and maintenance of fleet vehicles and buildings. Joint garbage pickup by city and county with other jurisdictions like public schools could save millions. Consolidate public works for street maintenance and create a joint maintenance shop and engineering dept. Combine the city and county clerk offices, as both have similar functions. City and county housing authorities could merge. The Omaha Housing Authority provides federally subsidized housing for about 16,000 people. The Douglas County agency serves people west of 72nd Street. City and county boundaries established in the 19th Century have less relevance to the problems urban governments face today. Kansas City, KS. consolidating with Wyandotte County has seen improvement in service quality because of duplicative dept. services eliminated, taxes cut by 15%, and the combined workforce cut by 20%. $36 million in savings. Cost savings may not appear large, but spending will not grow as quickly. Total employee numbers drop from eliminating overlapping services and staff, and city and county executive staff numbers fall. Attrition, not layoffs, would account for many job cuts. Public employees pooled into a larger health care plan pool would save much. Reducing yearly operating costs by a reduction in the employee ranks and facilities and equipment would offset transitional consolidation costs. After sharing services for several years, like the county lab processing Omaha police evidence, the city and county are moving slowly towards consolidating their respective crime labs into a joint lab, certified by a national association of crime lab directors, so that it can handle additional services. One crime lab would provide more efficiency for county prosecutors instead of duplicating facilities, staff, and work, especially if paid for by drug forfeiture dollars. The lab would reside in 1 instead of 2 buildings, with only 1 set of managers and crime-solving equipment and 1 vehicle fleet. One set of vendors with whom to contract services. The county attorney expressed his preference in dealing with a single crime lab.

OTHER BENEFITS. Nashville, TN. officials believe that their city-county consolidation has prevented population exodus plaguing other cities. The president of the Omaha Chamber of Commerce declared that this area high tax burden creates a disadvantage for Omaha when competing for economic development projects. Other Nashville benefits included better options for economic development and securing sports teams without involving many small political jurisdictions. Wichita consolidating with Wyandotte County spurred the arrival of the Kansas Speedway and Cabela’s. It is easier to produce a brand identity for economic development and tourism efforts, if a metro area consolidates. Companies and developers considering moving to our area could work easier with unified government departments to obtain information on building codes, ordinances, and other requirements for conducting business. The larger tax base allows for improved services and response while lowering costs. Larger government units have more buying power that they can leverage to reduce purchasing costs. Consolidation can reduce administrative costs and burdens of maintaining 2 providers of duplicate services. Consolidated communities spread costs over the entire metropolitan area, preventing what some critics say are suburban communities taking advantage of core cities by offering close access to major attractions, like a zoo, without having to pay for their direct or indirect costs. Further use of joint facilities, like the Saddlebrook complex used by the city and OPS. A general public safety entity might include the Omaha police, county sheriff, airport police, and county emergency management agency.

PROBLEMATIC. The current climate and amount of interaction between the county and city will affect the ability and desire to consolidate. As we have a mixed history of interlocal agreements such as 911 (positive) and crime lab (negative), a solid foundation of cooperation will help ease the transition. In combining departments, based upon particular consolidations, employee salaries and benefits tended to rise instead of decrease. Police and fire services are difficult to merge because of union contracts, pension funds, and rivalry. Public safety will appear the most complicated problem. Boosting county sheriff salaries and benefits to the city police dept. level, plus records and training differences, require solving. Territoriality, management, and control also are issues. However, the city and county have consolidated other law enforcement functions like the 911 system and jail. Unclear is the impact on pensions. Caution required, so that the most expensive benefits of each labor contract do not raise individual employee costs under future contracts. Fear of unemployment or increased workloads are issues accentuated by unions and employees. Combining several unions and union and non-union workforces is an obstacle. Elected officials have a tendency to engage in turf mentality, not wanting to share or lose authority. A previous Omaha city council unanimously voted NO to merge itself with the county board, whereas a previous majority county board vote approved full merger. Petty jealousies, suspicion, and rivalries sometimes mushroom. Political parties can inflame this situation. Poaching of jobs between the 2 jurisdictions sometimes occurs. Lack of specific current and estimated data for savings proves a continuing problem, though costs for changing letterheads and business cards would be minimal. Problems could arise with different computer systems, bond issues, and fire protection in rural areas. Consolidation is difficult to accomplish, because several jurisdictions must surrender authority, and the process normally requires a vote of the people in each combining jurisdiction. Yet, note that no consolidated department ever split apart. Gaps in income, property values, ethnicity, and political partisanship within a metro area dampen enthusiasm. Assumption of SID and other local debt merits study. Each jurisdiction is responsible for its current financial debt that remains separate. Smaller communities like Valley would continue to receive county level services from the new entity but continue to provide city services. County residents might have different perceived needs for services than city folks. A study must weigh costs versus benefits in each consolidation analysis. Regional planning, particularly regarding transportation services and land utilization, must avoid Agenda 21 dictates.

STATE LAW. NE state law requires merger approval by a majority vote of each population group affected: city residents, county residents in small towns, and county residents who do not reside within a town or SID. 5% of the voting population in Douglas County, therefore, could veto full consolidation of Omaha-Douglas County. Consolidation and interlocal agreements, however, do not require state statutory allowance.

CONCLUSION. With a strain on taxpayers and constant demand for quality services, local governments increasingly seek better ways to satisfy citizens and control spending. Local officials must identify opportunities for cooperation and rank them in order of importance. The previous city-county merger study required time and effort, but the study gathered dust without action. Meanwhile, property taxes to support both city and county rise, efficiencies through consolidation delayed. County and city voters already have shown their preference by voting 74% to consolidate the county assessor and register of deeds offices. Consolidation and interlocal agreements must proceed.

BEGIN PROCESS. Functional, not structural merger, appears the best alternative. The best means to combine city-county services is through consolidation or interlocal agreements, processes that already exist free of state interference. A financial review is necessary before implementing a plan to guarantee that lower costs and greater efficiencies would ensue. Citizens must take the impetus to form a balanced joint task force of county and cities within to study opportunities to both combine and streamline existing departments, to perform a cost analysis of each county and city department. The task force would include government officials and urban and rural citizens. The objective: To find increased efficiencies and slice costs by consolidating departments and offices. The committee must solicit the services of a legal counsel and actuary, the latter to assemble figures and statistics. A professional study, funded privately, should make a template for providing needed services and to quantify costs and benefits. A final document should explain proposed changes to citizens. Lastly, a public relations campaign to lobby both elected officials and citizenry to mobilize behind city-county consolidation.

Research, analysis, and documentation for this issue paper done by Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom. This material copyrighted by Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, with express prior permission granted for its use by other groups in the Nebraska Conservative Coalition Network. 2-15. C

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