Local Politicians Say State Agency Merger Proposal Is ‘Worth Exploring’

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State Representative Debbie Phillips of Athens says a proposal by the governor to merge two state agencies is "worth exploring."

The agencies are the Ohio Department of Mental Health and the Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services.

Governor Kasich wants to make them into one to reduce bureaucratic clutter, and Phillips says she is okay with that if services aren't reduced.

"If we have bureaucratic redundancy, I think it absolutely makes sense to do what we can to, you know, eliminate those barriers, eliminate that duplication and make the best possible use of the taxpayers funds," said Phillips. "However, sometimes there are further impacts and it can be harder to get ahold of somebody, it can be harder to get ahold of somebody who has the specific expertise that you need."

Phillips points out that Southeast Ohio has a serious drug problem and many residents need treatment from the Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction services.

"We know that the treatment dollars are scarce and we're having a difficult time providing the level of service that's needed. So whatever happens on administrative side, as long as we can direct those resources to the people who need them, that has got to be the overall goal," she said. 

State officials say the merge would not result in layoffs, although the combined workforce may shrink with attrition.

"If the funding is actually there, there have been a number of different areas where this administration has talked about shared services and has talked about efficiencies without demonstrating that the resources will actually get to people," Phillips said. "In the discussion around funding for K-12 education, there's been a lot of discussion about the tools that will help districts cope with all of the budget cuts, and I haven't seen it actually manifest on the ground. So the details always matter a lot, and if this means that the money is going to get to services for people, then it’s worth exploring," said Phillips.

Rep. Phillips is a Democrat, and Kasich a Republican. The GOP controls both the Ohio House and Senate, but Phillips says that's not a slam-dunk for the governor.

"I think that this year is a little bit different than last year. I think particularly because of the incredible divisiveness of the Senate Bill 5 debate. Legislative Republicans are pushing back more and asking more questions this year. I think that some of them feel that they got dragged over the cliff on that issue last year and I'm seeing a much more robust discussion going on around the number of different proposals," she said. "So I wouldn't assume that it's a rubber stamp just because of the partisan realities and I hope that people will take a hard look at what the real impacts will be and make the decision based on that."
Charles Richter of Little Hocking is a Republican and Phillips' opponent in the General Election.

Richter says from what he knows about this proposal, it's a good one.

"What they're trying to propose is a better way of using the facilities and [for] people in Ohio to be able to access and not have so many different channels to go through to get the help they need," said Richter. "In principle, I would be in favor of, if we could work that through so we could take some of the duplicities and do away with them so we can streamline them better and save some costs and do a better job of providing the services for our state. That would be great.

Richter says what's needed is "better service, not less service."

"If you can have one person call and they're dealing with alcoholism or, you know, a drug addiction to prescription drugs and there's some other issues there, it might be the underlying root of why they are continuing their habit and if we can help them with one person being able to get multiple tasks for them, that's why, like I said, I could agree with that. Now if it ended up being that they have other issues and then focus drops, then that's not the goal or it's not what we want," he said.  

The departments will be merged July 1 if the legislature approves.