Owens, Ohio legislators say decentralization doubtful

By Joshua Benton
Blade Columbus Bureau

Page 1

COLUMBUS — Massive decentralization of state government is “ridiculous on its face,” according to one co-chairman of Ohio’s legislative committee on the subject.

And northwest Ohio will likely have to settle for only a few “surgical” shifts in state job location, the committee’s other co-chairman said.

The two, Sen. Bruce Johnson (R., Westerville) and Rep. Lynn Olman (R., Maumee), presided over a meeting of the committee yesterday, featuring testimony from officials of two state agencies who oppose further decentralization.

“I am from the Other Ohio, I support the Other Ohio, and I do everything I possibly can to spread our services across Ohio,” said Donna Owens, the former Toledo mayor and current director of the state Department of Commerce. “But it’s very difficult to move these sorts of jobs from Columbus and Franklin County.”

Ms. Owens said more than a third of the department’s employees are already based outside Columbus, but moving more would needlessly increase costs, require additional hiring, and displace loyal employees.

“I’m a firm believer that you can do whatever you want to do, but does it make sense?” she said. “Does it make sense to move these people?”

As an example of the benefits of centralized offices, Ms. Owens pointed to One Government Center in downtown Toledo, which houses agencies of state, county, and city government.

“It was built for that purpose, to create a one-stop shop for the customer,” she said.

Were she running the department as a private, profit-driven operation, she said she would keep employees where they are.

In the job market, she said, qualified technical personnel are difficult to find, and relocating offices might cause state government to lose many of its current employees.

“Change is something we all live with, but some people deal with it better than others,” she said.

Deputy Tax Commissioner Clare Long said the technology is available to make the Department of Taxation’s work movable, but she said the cost of that technology is nearly prohibitive.

For example, creating a communications backbone to transfer the computerized data the department shares with other state agencies would cost $50,000 a month, she said.

She said that, because the temporary employees the department hires around tax time are based in the capital, moving the agency could delay tax-refund checks by up to a month each year.

In their closing remarks, committee members debated whether or not moving jobs across the state would make economic sense.

Rep. Ed Jerse (D., Euclid) said that, while the department heads had expressed “no great enthusiasm” for moving their employees across the state, such a move could help the economy outside Columbus.

“There’s a lot to be said for dispersing jobs, stable jobs that will remain stable through economic hard times,” he said. “That case needs to be made.”

In contrast, Rep. Pat Tiberi, a Columbus Republican, said he is surprised by the number of government jobs already based outside the capital, and said moving more jobs is unnecessary.

“There are some people who want to move state jobs to northwest Ohio just to move state jobs to northwest Ohio,” Mr. Tiberi said. “Agencies are already moving out of Columbus if it works for them.”

Mr. Olman said state agencies dealing with natural resources like Lake Erie or coal might move to be closer to their subject matter – to the Lake Erie shore or southeast Ohio.

Mr. Johnson said any moves must be motivated by economics and efficiency, not political motivations.

“Decentralization for services’ sake makes sense. But saying, ‘Let’s yank people out of Columbus and send them somewhere to a different location for the same of sending them somewhere’ doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Mr. Olman said advocates of decentralization were not calling for such a radical shift.

“A mass exodus doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Olman said. “I’m not suggesting moving departments unless it makes good economic sense.”

“Some look at decentralization and ask, ‘Why?’ I look at decentralization and ask, ‘Why not?'”

Yesterday’s meeting was the committee’s last before it draws up a draft of its report to present to the legislature and the governor.

Members have until Oct. 23 to submit their remarks about the committee hearings.

Those comments will be fashioned into a report, the first draft of which should be ready by mid-November, members said.

The final report will be ready before the end of the year, Mr. Johnson said.