Executive Director’s Letter

Americans always have been of two minds regarding government. We are proud of our history of democracy, but we are frequently suspicious of government institutions. We want vast armed forces, good roads and great schools, but we sometimes oppose the taxes needed to pay for them. We expect government to stop oil spills and prevent tainted food and drugs from entering our markets, but we decry regulations.

This eternal debate accelerated in the 1960s with the onset of a concerted antigovernment campaign by several interest groups, funded in part by foundations, and today it has reached a feverish state with the rise of the Tea Party.

All of us carry elements of this conflicted view within us like a part of our national DNA. Most of this conflict focuses on the federal government, but recent fiscal stresses have brought new attention to the states. Rarely does our consideration shift to local government. Perhaps that is because part of the mythology of the anti-federal government argument is that local governments are closer to the people and, therefore, are more effectively guided.

But the fact is that in Ohio, as in many of the older parts of our country, local governments have not adapted to the demands of rapidly changing times. Northeast Ohio has more than 650 units of local government. Local government is fully 10 percent of our regional domestic product. Statewide, we spend 49 percent more than the national average on school administration because we have so many separate districts. Ohio ranks 34th in state taxes but ninth in local taxes because we have so many local governments and overlapping jurisdictions.

This galaxy of governments may have made sense when the most rapid travel was by horseback, but today we must seriously question our devotion to the delivery of so many services in such a fragmented way.

Northeast Ohio has made great strides in building regional teamwork. The remorselessly competitive global economy demands that we do so. We have stoked our spirit of entrepreneurship. We are successfully making the transition from the old economy to the new. Great challenges remain, and none is greater than the fact that our fragmented local governance too often keeps us from functioning as an effective regional economic team. Our political boundaries undermine the coherence of our regional voice. They promote competition among ourselves rather than against the world, and that costs us money, fuels unsustainable sprawl and undermines our competitiveness.

I certainly do not raise this point out of antigovernment animus. I worked for a decade in government and prize that experience and praise the dedication of most of those with whom I worked. Government has a vital role to play. Government is our way, the democratic way, of tackling issues that can only be addressed in common. Police and firefighting. Schools and child protective services. Parks and street cleaning. These and many more services are provided by local governments because we need them to be. But delivering them by so many local governments is not sustainable in the long term.

This state of affairs is not hopeless. The reform of Cuyahoga County government demonstrates what is possible if we muster the will. And, in fact, if we want a successful future, we must find ways to streamline service delivery across boundaries and maximize the impact of our regional tax dollars. We simply cannot count on resources from the federal and state governments. We must creatively overcome the divisions among us in order to forge the sort of strategy that can propel us into a vibrant future.

Vehicles to help us do this already exist.

Late in 2010, after a highly competitive process, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $4.25 million to Northeast Ohio for regional planning. Our proposal was ranked third in the nation. This “Sustainable Communities” process is just beginning, but we all should take advantage of it to create ingenious ways to strengthen our regional team.

A parallel attempt to help us break through boundaries is the Civic Commons. This effort — funded by the Knight Foundation and guided by the Fund for Our Economic Future — aims to engage our regional citizenry on issues where we can make change. This pathbreaking marriage of technology, journalism and outreach is one more tool to help us chip away at the boundaries that keep us from effectively working together. You can connect to information on both efforts through the website of the Fund for Our Economic Future, www.FutureFundNEO.org or at www.CivicCommons.org

One of the worst consequences of mindless antigovernment sentiment is that it makes us think that government is somehow separate from us. That is fatal to a democracy. We get the government we deserve. We own it. We can change it. And we ought to start doing that where we live.

David T. Abbott signature

David T. Abbott
Executive Director