Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Pepper Pike, Orange, Moreland Hills & Woodmere may merge in 2014

Everyone talks about regionalism, but no one ever does anything about it. Until today, when Pepper Pike, Orange, Moreland Hills and Woodmere's mayors announced they’re looking into merging their towns together by 2014.

OK, so launching a study, with Cuyahoga County’s help, isn’t exactly action. It’ll take three steps and 2½ years to merge: first the study, then a formal merger commission in 2012, then approval by all four towns’ residents in 2013.

Still, it’s big news, a leap of faith by all four mayors, and a provocative move compared to regionalism baby-steps such as shared fire departments. County executive Ed FitzGerald, who called the press conference, now has something to show for his regionalism efforts beyond his underwhelming no-poaching proposal this month.

“[I hope] it will give encouragement to a lot of other mayors that I know are having these conversations, but having them very quietly,” FitzGerald said this morning.

The four mayors said their goal is to lower taxes across the four suburbs by creating a more efficient government. Even the sight of the four of them together — old and young, men and women, three white and one black — seemed like a mini-poster-moment for regional unity.

“I think it’s time for leaders in smaller communities to try to come together,” said Woodmere Mayor Charles Smith.

“It does not make sense,” said Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers, “for a county of this size to have 57 political subdivisions.”

The merger would make the three villages and one city into a medium-sized suburb of 13,500 people. The mayors have bounced around possible names for a combined town: Chagrin Hills, maybe.

At first glance, it seems like a good marriage. The four towns already share the Orange school district, a recreation department, senior citizens’ programs and a library. Each brings something: Pepper Pike (population 5,979) and Moreland Hills (3,320) are wealthy residential communities with little industry. Orange (population 3,323) has more of a mix of homes and shopping. Woodmere, the tiniest at 884 people, has the Eton Collection and its retail workers’ income taxes.

The Pepper Pike, Moreland Hills and Woodmere mayors sounded sold on the idea. Orange Mayor Kathy Mulcahy was more skeptical. She thanked FitzGerald and his regionalism point man, Ed Jerse, for “giving us the tools to study the concept” and “really measure whether there were savings” from consolidation.

“Everyone’s been touting that as the panacea for all that ails us,” Mulcahy said. “And I want to see the numbers that show us where the savings are and that it truly is the way to go.”

Moreland Hills Mayor Susan Renda said she thinks the four towns can become “a test case for other communities in the region.” That’s why this is a big step. Lots of towns in Cuyahoga County could become stronger in a union with their neighbors.

FitzGerald built drama by announcing the press conference overnight but not naming the four merger-curious mayors. So I bounced the mystery around the magazine offices this morning: Who’s merging? Parma-Parma Heights-Brooklyn and a wild card? Makes sense for Brooklyn, since it’s losing American Greetings. North Randall-Warrensville Heights? Newburgh/Cuyahoga/Brooklyn/Garfield Heights?

It’s easy to play with the map and brainstorm bigger towns. But it’s painstaking to merge tax rates and town halls and weave through the lengthy merger process in state law. Voters, like Mulcahy, will ask tough questions: what’s in it for us?

Besides, even the tiniest towns have an identity and don’t want to lose it. The mayors said they’ll talk about ways to preserve their towns’ identities in a bigger burb.

“Our community will not be gobbled up,” said Woodmere’s Smith. “This will be something to sustain our community, to curb costs, and to preserve the integrity of our community.”

(Photo, left to right: Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers, Woodmere Mayor Charles Smith, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, and Moreland Hills Mayor Susan Renda. Orange Mayor Kathy Mulcahy, not visible, is standing behind Smith.)


Jill Miller Zimon said...

Nice coverage, Erick. I like some of the points you note like the diversity in the four mayors. I did know about PP being one of the cities last night but since the press release didn't mention it, I (at least) left that out when posting it. ;). Interesting times indeed.

Erick Trickey said...

Jill: Thanks for the compliment! And thanks for taking my #burbmerger hashtag from our Twitter feed and running with it.

Anonymous said...

I'm from California and couldn't believe the number of counties and municipalities in Ohio when I moved here. The redundancy is absolutely absurd and wasteful. I live in Moreland Hills and pass through five towns (my own, Orange, Pepper Pike, Woodmere and Beachwood) during the eight minute drive from my house to I-271 (and the attendant police cruisers from each town sitting at strategic intersections sometimes a stone's throw from one another). Mergers won't magically solve all our problems, but it seems worth a close look. This particular merger study is a good test case as my guess is that schools would be amongst the most contentious issues and it is largely moot here (although Moreland Hills is split between Orange and Chagrin Falls schools).