Thursday, November 30, 2006

City-County Merger : Leaking Oil

With Commissioner Kathleen McCallister, a strong merger advocate, on her way out of office, and another merger supporter, Commissioner Mike Boyle, swinging around to oppose merger, I probably should let this go. Indeed, the paper could have said “Maxwell Mauled” instead of “Fahey Meets Resistance.” But I promised to respond to various assertions. Given the way the media played up the assertions – all I’ve heard on the radio is Commissioner Duda complaining about “greedy Omahans” – I think it’s necessary to respond.

I scribbled a few notes but it’s two days removed so I won’t pretend this is comprehensive or chronological. I’ll try to restate the nature of the assertions and respond.

Criticism: We should delay a vote until the new commissioner takes office rather than rush something through.

I got a little testy about this because I have been pestering the legal team for months. I wish we had addressed this issue a long time ago. An accident of timing should not prevent the current board from voting on this matter. Commissioner McCallister is a full-fledged commissioner for the balance of her term. Assumptions are being made about how the new commissioner would vote without her having seen the revised proposal. I still haven’t given up on Commissioner Rodgers realizing that the financial and attitudinal status quo is bad for my district and worse for his. And I wonder if modifying a few provisions would bring Commissioner Boyle back around to a pro-merger position.

Criticism: This proposal hasn’t been reviewed in public hearings throughout the county.

This isn’t the stage for that kind of process. If we ever get a plan drafted, let the hearings commence.

Criticism: Minority rights are being trampled.

I’ll skip the diatribe on how a minority veto was smuggled into this procedure by lying to the public on the 1998 ballot.

The proposed revision is more generous than what is granted by the state constitution. The constitution establishes one minority voting bloc, those in the county but outside Omaha. Existing statute subdivides the outside-Omaha bloc into other municipalities, SIDs, and people (such as Commissioner Duda) in unincorporated rural areas. If any one of these blocs votes no on merger, merger is blocked.

This whole scheme is preposterous. If a majority of the people paying the tab for Douglas County wants Douglas County to merge with Omaha, then the county should merge. A few thousand people should not be able to stop it.

Commissioner Duda is upset that his special category would be lumped in with SIDs. I don’t sympathize because under the state constitution, everybody outside Omaha is supposed to be lumped into one category. Maybe we should be asking the Legislature to conform to the constitution. Better yet, we should ask the Legislature to conform to language on the 1998 ballot and resubmit to the people an amendment that actually delivers what was promised on the ballot – a straightforward majority vote.

Criticism: Greedy Omahans are trying to grab money from non-Omahans to solve Omaha’s problems.

One man’s greed is another man’s fairness. When it comes to collecting and spending our tax dollars, non-Omahans embrace Omahans as fellow residents of Douglas County. When it comes to bearing a full share of the tax burden for the Omaha infrastructure and services they enjoy, non-Omahans denounce Omahans as if they are hostile foreigners. And notice the balkanization I warned of, enclaves of citizens viewing themselves as separate from certain people or “problems.”

Criticism: Those of us outside Omaha aren’t the ones committing crimes and consuming welfare services, but we help pay for the criminal justice and social service systems, so we’re doing our fair share tax-wise.

Again, note the balkanization. Our enclave has its act together. Don’t ask us to do anything more to fund solutions for all those dysfunctional people in that No Man’s Land between suburbia and the downtown/riverfront.

Our county fiscal analyst has assured me that city sales tax does not cover the cost of all the city service benefits non-Omahans enjoy. I invite anyone to produce a legitimate economist who would certify otherwise.

When you draw water or use a toilet in Omaha, you utilize Omaha’s sewer system. When you drive, work, and play in a clean and healthy environment, you are consuming the benefits of city garbage collection. When you drive, work, and play in a generally safe and well-policed environment, you are consuming the benefits of city police protection. Even at home outside the city, you consume Omaha police work. Do you think criminals respect jurisdictional boundaries?

Whenever you enter the Omaha bubble, and even when you are in proximity to it, you derive direct benefits from the range of services the city provides. It’s entirely proper that you pay full price.

Criticism: Several rationales for merger have been proposed over the years in an attempt to find one that will catch on.

Why is that considered desperate or weak? Why can’t there be more than one reason to pursue merger? Better deployment of law enforcement officers. Improved environment for economic development. Greater community cohesion. One local government instead of two for the same population base. And of course, if done right, improved efficiency and savings to the taxpayer. Why would it undermine the case for merger to have multiple advantages?

Criticism: There are no successful examples of merger.

Last time I checked there had been 35 cases of merger in the U.S. I suppose success, as with beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, but even skeptics generally refer to a relatively recent example next door – Kansas City, KS, with Wyandotte County – as successful. In Kentucky, the merger of Louisville and Jefferson County is often cited as the example to be emulated.

You will never hear me say that merger is foolproof. The point is that other communities have proven that success is possible. I believe we have the brainpower and willpower to make it work for us.

Criticism: Why go forward with this “solution searching for problem” without proof that it will serve the public interest?

The Omaha World-Herald has documented that some Omahans are paying two property taxes for two law enforcement agencies and still aren’t getting good 911 response times. That’s a problem requiring a solution – one law enforcement agency practicing optimal deployment of officers without regard for a jurisdictional boundary that no longer makes sense in the 21st century.

Avoiding the kind of balkanization evident, even if unintended, in the comments of commissioners also is in the public interest.

Clearing the way for more robust economic development – jobs for people, markets for businesses, and revenue for government programs – certainly is in the public interest.

Anyway, why don’t we at least let a planning commission draw up a plan? Then we can determine whether it advances the public interest.

Criticism: The revised proposal creates a planning commission that is much too narrow to serve the public interest.

I’m at a disadvantage here because I was not part of the effort to make that change. I don’t know the rationale and, to me, it’s not worth jeopardizing the entire effort. Just leave it as a broader-based commission.

Criticism: What happens to fire departments? DOTComm? (other specifics were raised)

We won’t know until we get to the stage of drafting a plan. This is not that stage. We’re just asking the Legislature to tweak enabling legislation. This proposal is not designed to establish specifics. That happens after the County Board and City Council, or the people by petition, establish a planning commission to actually draft a plan.

Criticism: Where is the cost-analysis to prove that this will save money?

Critics are holding this proposal to a nonsensical standard. How can you cost-analyze something that does not exist yet? There is no plan from a commission, never mind a budget produced by the proposed 15-member governing council.

The reality is that no one will have even a general sense of what the fiscal impact of merger might be until a general plan is drafted. No one will know for sure if merger will be cost-effective until the governing council of a municipal county actually starts defining spending priorities and making budgets.

Conclusion: Merger is not a cure-all. It does not make the problems and challenges of local government go away. But what do we lose by having a planning commission produce a proposal? Critics still will be able to shred the plan if they don’t like it. Apparently the mania to protect bureaucratic fiefdoms and sweetheart tax deals is so intense that even a draft of the concept is too threatening to contemplate.

Lots of claims were made about what’s best for “the people.” As I said for the record, my preference is to work through the governing bodies. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s time to test the petition option and go right to the people.

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