Stronger Together or Better Divided?

 Stronger Together or Better Divided?

Dan Foley hopes a plan to merge Dayton, Montgomery County will rise again.

By Tim Walker

The move, if successful, would have created the second largest municipality in Ohio, the organization stated, as well as making the Dayton metro area one of the top 35 markets in the United States and more attractive to incoming businesses. The proposal was also intended to eliminate duplication of services being provided by local governments therefore easing the tax burden and saving money for local taxpayers. 

It seemed, as the old saying goes, like a good idea at the time, and it still does for Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley, one of the members of the committee and one who originally started working on the idea in 2008. Other well-known community leaders who supported the plan and served as members of Dayton Together included former University of Dayton President Raymond Fitz, U.S. Federal Court Judge Walter Rice, Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce President Phil Parker and former County Commissioner Paula MacIlwaine. 

Foley says that the committee took its inspiration from the city of Louisville, Ky., where a similar merger

 had created the nation’s 16th largest city when voters approved the measure in November of 2000.

Thanks to 15 community volunteers who worked, debated, and brainstormed on the Dayton Together Charter Development Committee a draft charter was prepared and then released. The Dayton Metro government model, a council-manager form of government, incorporated professional management that had served the surrounding communities well for more than a century. 

It included a mayor voted on by all 535,000 residents, one at-large countywide council seat, and nine geographic districts, with the stated mission of “bringing the community together to tackle shared opportunities and challenges”.

Unfortunately, the merger effort was doomed to fail. In May of this year, the Dayton Together organization agreed to withdraw the proposal after learning that the city of Dayton had annexed 25 acres of Bath Township land in Greene County near the Huffman Dam. 

Merging cities that cross county lines is very difficult under Ohio state law and the annexation was seen as a move by Dayton officials aimed at blocking the proposal. Local officials confirmed this was their intention in numerous statements to the media.

“We certainly took our lumps on that one,” says Foley. “But really we were motivated by a very simple question—30 years from now how can we have the most competitive community and the healthiest community that we could possibly have?

“We felt that, certainly, by bringing together the two largest governments and building a model similar to the Louisville modelthat we could see a significant improvement in the level of cooperation to solve challenges and also leverage opportunities. We also liked the idea that the combined metro government’s area would be ranked as the second largest metro area population-wise in the state of Ohio, which we felt would give us some more clout statewide, and federally as well.”

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley was opposed to the merger proposal, as were County Commissioners Debbie Lieberman and Judy Dodge, former Mayor Gary Leitzell, and Mark Owens, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party. 

Two town hall meetings drew hundreds of citizens and featured a number of speakers who were opposed to the Dayton Together proposal, including Whaley, the heads of both the county’s major political parties, NAACP Dayton Unit President Derrick Foward and Tom Richie, the president of Dayton’s AFL-CIO Labor Council.

“The City Commission came out against the merger plan in December of 2015,” says Whaley. “Although we work a lot on regional efforts and support regionalism we found that the Dayton Together effort didn’t provide some of the equity that needs to happen, specifically around economic development, and other opportunities to grow our city.”

Was there a specific economic issue related to the merger that caused the mayor to oppose the plan? “I told Commissioner Foley this,” says Whaley. “I think the issue for us was as long as people are taxed unequally then you’ll basically have taxation without representation. Townships that pay 0 percent they’re different than a city that pays an income tax. And until the townships ‘pay their freight,’ so to speak, they shouldn’t have a say on who the mayor of Dayton is. When it comes to economic development it makes a lot more sense, but you have to have a stabilized across-the-board income tax across the county.”

While the Dayton Together effort was eventually abandoned the work that was done by the organization and the Charter Development Committee may some day benefit future similar efforts, Foley says.

“I really believe that this kind of structure,” says Foley, “could help to redevelop some of those areas of the community that have not seen growth. Not just the city of Dayton, but outlying areas like Riverside, or Trotwood, or Harrison Township. That’s what intrigues me about the structure that we built—that it’s an opportunity for the whole community to not only look out for their own district but to have to look out for some other areas of the community so that we can get more done.”

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