Lancaster County and Lincoln are doing it — why not Douglas County and Omaha?
Having serious discussions about long-term consolidation of the city and county governments, that is.
A local task force appointed by Lincoln and Lancaster County spent 10 months studying the merger potential for the Capital City and Lancaster. The group recently released its recommendations, and a key conclusion was clear and direct:
“The City of Lincoln and Lancaster County should begin long-term planning for the creation of a full consolidated City-County government, with broad home rule authority.”
The Lancaster County Board and the Lincoln City Council will hold a joint meeting next Tuesday to discuss the issue. (Yes, it will be a joint meeting — that fact alone sends a positive signal to taxpayers.)
The task force said additional studies are needed to explore specific options for reaching long-term merger in the most efficient manner.
For the short term, the task force on a 9-1 vote listed a number of practical ways in which city and county departments could cooperate and seek greater efficiencies, in some cases expanding on existing arrangements. The paired departments: city Police Department and county Sheriff’s Office; city and county attorneys’ offices; city public works and county engineering departments; county clerk and city clerk.
It was suggested, for example, that the city Police Department and county Sheriff’s Office establish a joint firing range, merge training programs and combine vehicle maintenance facilities.
No one would say that a city-county merger is easy to negotiate or quick to implement. It’s not. But as Omaha continues to expand across so large a swath of Douglas County, the case for seeking far greater collaboration and efficiencies continues to grow.
Just over a year ago Douglas County voters sent a dramatic message on this score. In a 2012 ballot measure, voters were asked whether the county Assessor’s Office and Register of Deeds Office should be consolidated. A whopping 74 percent said “yes.”
What a contrast to the lack of progress on merging the two governments’ respective crime labs — an eminently sensible immediate target for consolidation. The off-and-on discussions are about to enter their fourth year.
The one encouraging factor is that Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert’s chief of staff, Marty Bilek, is a former Douglas County chief deputy. Perhaps that change can lead to the needed trust-building.
Unless Omaha and Douglas County can report significant progress on this issue in 2014, the public will be left with the impression that local officials on both sides are content to yield to parochialism and excuse-making rather than showing leadership and bringing things to resolution.
Meanwhile, Lancaster County and Lincoln are setting a commendable example. They’re not saying that city-county merger needs to be done immediately.
But they’re rightly saying that it is appropriate for serious-minded leaders to put the issue on the table and lay the groundwork for future progress.