Otway: Consolidation fact-finding to include community
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
Reiterating the Tallahassee Chamber of Commerce’s decision to continue its fact-finding on the possibility of consolidating or restructuring Tallahassee and Leon County governments, Chairwoman Heidi Otway insisted that community input will play a role in the initiative.
Otway made the disclosure on the heels of another round of public pros and cons discussion following announcement of a local government and community study Committee that convened in early May. The chamber’s review of consolidation is the fifth at-tempt to merge county and city governments.
The first attempt was in 1971 and the last was in 1992. Ultimately, as in previously failed attempts at consolidation, the public will have its say in a referendum.
“Absolutely,” Otway said to concerns about involvement from the community at-large during the Chamber’s fact-finding process. “That is definitely part of this process that we have.”
The nine-member committee named by the chamber earlier this month is made up of a cross-section of the community.
“Their role is to really understand how could we do it; how could it impact the community in a positive way,” Otway said. “It’s all about the entire community. Not just Southside, not just north side but really talking to stakeholders in all key areas of our communities.”
At the core of the chamber’s consideration of consolidation is economic development. Otway pointed to the city’s two universities that produce students who leave after graduation because there aren’t enough private sector jobs. She also said that the government isn’t creating new positions so Tallahassee’s private sector needs a better climate to grow.
For example, Tallahassee hasn’t been able to lure a large business since Deafness Turbo or Compressors came more than 10 years ago.A study by Kurt Thurmaier and Suzanne Leland, renowned for their extensive researches on consolidation, suggests that the Chamber is taking the right approach. Thurmaier, a professor of public policy and administration at Iowa State University, is known for studying budgetary decision making and local government consolidation. Leland, an assistant professor in the Political Science Department at the University of North Carolina,Charlotte, consulted for the consolidation study commissions in Wyandotte, Kansas City, Kansas, and Wilmington, New Hanover County, N.C.
They’ve even looked at why previous attempts for consolidation failed in Tallahassee.
“The central point of our analysis is that it does not take much to successfully oppose consolidations, un-less proponents frame the issue as one of future economic gains,” they wrote in one study. “It does not matter what types of coalitions formed to oppose the Tallahassee – Leon County consolidation effort (for example); the proponents did not frame the consolidation as an economic development tool, and they lost.
“Framing consolidation as an economic development issue is an effort to argue that the major benefit from consolidation is future economic development. Successful consolidation efforts focus on long-term benefits rather than the short-term “efficiencies ” gained from cutting government spending by eliminating duplication (the benefit touted by losing consolidation proponents). We stress that framing the issue as one of economic development, as opposed to improved local government efficiency, is precisely the strategic route for success-ful consolidations.”
The Chamber has actually done its own research, hiring Washington Economic Group Inc. to conduct a study of government functions. Its findings mar-rows that of Thurmaier and Leland, which said in part that consolidation could boost economic growth.
Washington Economics Group came to its conclusion after considering consolidation in five other cities.
However, opponents of the consolidation initiative argue that the chamber isn’t considering how merging governments would affect governance. Some even argue that economic benefits won’t be the cure-all.
In a recent letter to Otway, County Commissioner Bill Proctor criticized the makeup of the committee and called the Chamber’s consolidation push a “power grab.”
The Chamber began to intensify its effort to consider consolidation, follow-ing a fact-finding visit to Nashville, Tenn., last year. The Tallahassee group was inspired to begin studying the prospects of consolida-tion after being told by city officials that merging its city with Davidson County is one of the reasons for its rapid economic boon.
“Mind you, we are not Nashville; we are not trying to be Nashville,” Otway said. “We are not trying to be any of the communities that consolidated their governments. We are trying to be Tallahassee; what does our future look like and what can we do to grow our private sector.”
The fact-finding committee has until just before the Chamber’s annual conference in August to present the first draft of its findings, Otway said.
“Change is not easy and we are trying to figure out what our future looks like,” Otway said. “Everyone has different visions (and) opinions on it but at the end of day we can’t grow unless we have jobs. We can’t grow unless we have businesses that are thriving and are contributing to our communities.”