Even though we are under the cold and gray skies of January, this time of year does lend itself to some degree of hope. By the time you have read this, there is a good chance that there is a new crop of lawmakers in Columbus ready to bring their ideas to action in the General Assembly. Just a few days later, we will inaugurate a new governor, along with a full complement of other elected statewide officials. With a new General Assembly and a whole new slate of statewide officials, there is reason for anticipation, or at least, curiosity, at what will be coming out of Columbus.
In all reality, the last few years have been difficult on local government. It doesn’t matter if you talk to a township trustee, county commissioner or a city or village council member. Anyone of those elected officials with any history in their roles will lament a better time for local government. Raids on the local government fund were merely threatened and never followed through and the erosions of local control and home rule were few and far between.
And while the world of local government wasn’t always smooth (townships and cities and villages are known for their acrimonious relationships over annexation), there was always a general sense that the government that governs closest, governs best. The problem is our state legislators never got that message, or they conveniently ignored it. For the last eight years, it can be argued that they felt that those that govern in Columbus knows what’s best for you, your family and your community.
And how has that worked out for our communities?
Between 2007 and 2017, the amount of funding that the state would share with local governments from the Local Government Fund was cut from $674 million to $349 million. How did this happen? Well, the State of Ohio used to allocate 3.68 percent of their General Revenue Fund into the Local Government Fund for distribution. Right now, that rate is shaved down to 1.66 percent.
And while the state used that money to further its own cause, it has left Ohio’s communities (townships, cities, village and counties) with less resources to do the basic responsibilities to ensure the health and safety of their communities. You know, things like hire police officers, fill potholes or plow streets in snow storms.
But perhaps some of the greatest struggles that cities and villages have been facing has been an erosion of home rule. Generally speaking, home rule allows communities to make their own laws as long as they are not in conflict with state laws. And if there is any argument, Section 3, Article XVIII of the State Constitution makes it pretty clear: “Municipalities shall have the authority to exercise all powers of local self-government and to adopt and enforce within their limits such local police, sanitary, and other similar regulations, as are not in conflict with general laws.”
New laws that have fundamentally changed how local income taxes are collected not only fly in the face of how home rule regulations have been interpreted, they have also had real negative impacts in how local tax dollars, collected by the state are coming back to the local government.
In the last lame-duck session of the General Assembly, the state legislature banned the ability of Ohio’s communities to levy a plastic bag tax, even though there was no community that had implemented such a tax, nor were there any efforts to actually implement the tax anywhere in the state.
Our state’s newest policymakers would be well served in understanding that our state’s villages and cities are actually lead and managed by competent people that are capable to make decisions for the communities that they are responsible for on a daily basis.
These local government leaders make it top of mind to make sure that potholes are filled, streets are safe and our state’s communities continue to the economic engine that keeps our entire state humming along. Furthermore, it’s these local officials that are ultimately responsible to the residents they serve. Remember, it is the government that governs closest that governs best.
William “Bill” Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.