City officials fight for home rule

By Nicole Hennessy

Avon Lake/Avon

Home rule authority, and perceived violations of the constitutional provision on the part of state legislators,  has been a hot topic among city leaders lately.

The rule, written into the Ohio Constitution, is designed to protect municipalities and ensure that cities can effectively self-govern.

“So-called general laws that apply statewide are not matters of home rule,” Avon Lake’s law Director Abe Lieberman explained.

In recent cases, the (Ohio) Supreme Court and the state legislature have tried to chip away at home rule authority. It’s becoming a contentious issue.”

Lieberman used local examples, like the case debating whether the city of Cleveland had the right to have a residency requirement for all city employees, or another case on whether the city had the right to enact tighter restrictions on guns than the state allowed.

“Those are two cases that the (Ohio) Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state and against the city,” said Lieberman.

Of course, there can be grey areas when it comes to determining what should be considered a general law and what should be considered home rule.

Nonetheless, the state’s adoption of Senate Bill 331 (SB331) and the proposed state-mandated centralized collection of net-profit income taxes, as well as the manners in which these initiatives are being put forth, have many questioning state legislators and Gov. John Kasich, who has created a surplus in the state’s budget, in part, by making massive cuts to Local Government funds.

The cities of Avon and Avon Lake are currently involved in a lawsuit against the state regarding SB331, which originally pertained to rules regarding Grove City, Ohio, pet stores. The Ohio Senate passed this version of the bill in May. The House Finance Committee then added language to the bill regarding animal fighting and prohibiting municipalities, counties or other entities from enacting a minimum wage differing from that of the state.

The bill also now expands the right of communications providers to install “small cell facilities” (wireless infrastructure) in municipal rights of way, limiting the rights of municipalities to control the location, size and design of the structures.

This last part prompted the lawsuit for many municipalities, but, in addition to home rule,  it is also the perceived violation of the Ohio Constitution’s single subject rule that has prompted outrage from many.

The income tax collection is also not its own bill. Rather, it is to be included in the state’s upcoming 2017-2018 budget proposal.

“It seems to me that it’s a matter of local concern, collecting your local taxes,” Lieberman argued.

Avon Lake Council President Martin O’Donnell recently stated the city has lost $1.3 million due to Local Government Fund cuts.

The state also eliminated the estate tax, which O’Donnell said has cost Avon Lake $600,000. A tangible personal property tax has also been eliminated.

This loss of funds, in conjunction with other cuts and changes, as well as the perception that violations of home rule serve, in the case of the proposed tax collection, to make the state money at the expense of cities (through interest accrued on state accounts and administrative fees charged to municipalities) and in the case of SB331, to support the interests of private companies (communications providers) over those of municipalities, have all become a part of the same conversation.

State Sen. Gayle Manning, who voted for SB331, said the bill “moved fast.”

This was, of course, after the Ohio Municipal League (OML) took an official neutral stance on the matter, stating in a letter to Rep. Robert McColley Dec. 6, 2016, that individual OML members “may have different positions based on their local circumstances.”

“I understand where they’re coming from,” Manning said of those who’ve become frustrated with the state.

She also explained that “90 to 91 percent of our bills are passed and they’re bipartisan. Almost everybody votes for them. When you do end up in a situation where you do have very large bills, like the budget, or when you’re getting to the point of lame-duck, or people are term-limited … they’re trying to get something done before they leave.”

Manning continued, stating that she believes home rule should be followed most of the time.

“There’s so many bills out there that aren’t that substantial, so sometimes you do put other things in there. And, to me, if they’re extremely noncontroversial, and they’ve been vetted with the people involved and everyone is fine with it, that’s one thing,” she said.

Councilman John Shondel, who has become very outspoken about all of these issues and has been corresponding with state legislators, said the only way he would be willing to accept dismissing the single-subject rule for less important issues is if it is amended in the constitution.

Even still, he questions how legislators would appropriately determine which issues were unimportant enough to be rolled together into one bill.

“What is written, is written. That’s really a core principal of mine,” Shondel said, in support of governing based entirely on what is written in the constitution.

Steve Presley, Avon Lake’s finance director, who also sits on Ohio’s Regional Income Tax Agency (RITA) board, has also been outspoken against violations of home rule, primarily the tax collection proposal.

Questions recently came up regarding his potential conflict of interest, sitting on RITA’s board.

Presley, though, said, “There is no conflict, as I am not paid as a member of the Board of RITA. I am elected by the members of RITA for a four-year term.”

“Being on the board allows me to better understand the income tax issues that face all cities and to have input on the operations of (RITA) that impact the second-largest source of revenue for all cities,” Presley continued.

He also advocated that these conversations continue, suggesting, as Shondel has, that cities speak up.

“As the state continues to erode home rule, cities will lose their ability to legislate themselves and their residents. We must continue to be vigilant in protecting home rule,” said Presley.


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