Tear down those walls

Local government funds are shrinking. Townships, cities and villages throughout the state are looking with more and m
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010


Local government funds are shrinking.

Townships, cities and villages throughout the state are looking with more and more frequency into ways to cut costs. Unfortunately, more often than not, elected officials choose the common practice of suggesting cutting services to sustain the identity of a political subdivision, rather than looking for alternatives involving consolidating those services with other communities.

Sometimes it even boils down to a question of potholes or petunias.

One of the more recent outcries here -- specifically in Sandusky -- has had to do with the city-operated greenhouse.

As Sandusky City Commissioners struggle with making ends meet it is becoming more and more difficult to sort through the services the city provides residents; analyze those that are necessary, and decide which can be minimized or even eliminated.

Police and fire protection, highway maintenance, water distribution, sewer treatment facilities and zoning are all services that have to be provided for the health, safety and welfare of the community. These are the basic needs for any community.

And, the services a local government provides for quality of life are the services subject to the closest scrutiny today.

City commissioners have discussed the necessity of taking a closer look at the parks and recreation department. The city greenhouse is a small part of the department. City employees plant 100,000 annuals in 13 different locations and all are grown at the city greenhouse.

Tom Speir, foreman for the city greenhouse, asserts floral plantings in the city's parks will go by the wayside if commissioners do not continue the tradition of the greenhouse. He said there is no other alternative.

He also said, to continue the tradition, ways to raise funds to make the greenhouse self supporting need to be developed.

Currently the city rents out palm trees and charges for memorial floral mounds. These revenue sources do not begin to make a dent in the greenhouse cost for wages, fringe benefits, plants and utilities. Estimates for the cost for operating the greenhouse were recently placed at $200,000 by the parks and recreation department, but city officials say those costs may be conservative.

There is no disputing the results of the greenhouse, especially the downtown parks. They are stunning.

But the greenhouse question puts the commissioners in an unenviable position. Recently, information was provided to commissioners detailing the purchase of plant material from wholesale distributors. The cost was estimated at $113,500. That's a heck of a difference.

Before commissioners buy into the idea suggested by employees that without the greenhouse, the landscaping in the parks will disappear, they have to look at alternatives.

The greenhouse is only part of the parks and recreation department which is responsible for 55 separate parcels of land which also includes Mills Creek Golf Course.

The golf course is another politically explosive conundrum for the commissioners. There was a $50,679 net loss last year. The golf course operating expenses for 2006 were $239,963 and the operating revenue was $189,284.

The parks and recreation department's budget is more than $1.6 million annually.

How does Sandusky make the department work without sacrificing quality of life? Commissioners need to look for financially responsible alternatives.

Sandusky's parks and recreation department is a smaller part of the much bigger picture of local government in Ohio. Each individual political subdivision and the individual departments that provide services to the general public work autonomously.

Each subdivision serves the public with separate employees, different tax structures, and varying sources of income. It is part of the political and cultural heritage of the state and it keeps elected officials in office.

In effect each political subdivision has become a "boutique government" and each is moving toward becoming a store without any merchandise. The system encourages building walls around each community and makes it difficult to initiate cooperative efforts toward efficiently providing services to residents without increasing taxes.

Citizens don't want to pay any more money for the services they expect local government provide. And, elected officials who want to preserve their political positions are hesitant to take the necessary steps to make local government more efficient.

It is becoming more and more apparent that we can't have it both ways.

We either allow our communities to remain tiny boutiques with no merchandise or we find ways to work with our neighbors to preserve the quality of life we have come to expect from local government.

There's got to be another way.