It's been nearly six years since talk of "metro government" stalled in Ohio County, but given the proposed cuts in Wheeling to help what has become an uncertain financial future, the time may be ripe for discussions to begin anew.
During most of 2007-08, public officials and interested residents gathered to learn about metro government which, as proposed, would have created a more formalized working relationship between city and county government. Elected officials at the time were unwilling even to entertain the notion, saying their relationship was strong enough that such a formal agreement wasn't needed.
While that may be true under the current make-up of city and county government, that wasn't always the case, as the two bodies less than a decade ago argued publicly over, among other things, where retail stores should locate. Also, the metro government concept isn't just about two governmental bodies working together: It's about providing the highest level of service for Ohio County residents - including those in Wheeling - at the most efficient cost and in the most effective manner. That could mean anything from small changes to the current structure to a total revamping of local government.
Some type of help for Wheeling could be needed soon. While finances are fine now, the outlook a few years down the road is less optimistic. The city has substantial legacy costs through its police and fire pension funds - taxpayers spend about $3.8 million annually, with increases of about 7 percent each year - along with declining video lottery revenue. The city also has numerous infrastructure needs to plan for in the future. While the half-percent sales tax will help, how long will it be before a future council realizes that it needs more?
Again, the time to discuss metro government is now, when both the city and county are strong, and not when one or the other - or both - are in dire financial straits.
One area that has experienced success with the metro government concept is Louisville, Ky., which in 2003 merged operations with Jefferson County, Ky. A 2013 study conducted by independent researcher Jeff Wachter found that a decade after taking effect, the greater Louisville metro area "has fared well in comparison to many other American cities, particularly former industrial centers."
Several key findings of Wachter's report include:
-- An end to decades of population loss, as the Louisville-Jefferson County metro area moved from 65th in the nation in 2003 in city population to 18th.
-- A better approach to economic development, and more success in that effort.
-- A government that has not seen costs increase and also is operating with fewer employees.
Those are areas also of importance to our region. So what's the hold-up?