It's that time of year again. The three Hamilton County Commissioners are bickering about what to cut from the budget and what asset to sell in order to keep paying the debt on Paul Brown Stadium. Last year it was Drake Hospital that was sold. Can the jail or courthouse be far behind?

Then there are the recently elected (after nearly two years of litigation) Juvenile Court judges bickering over who gets to appoint a crony to act as court "administrator." No problem: just pay two!

The Cincinnati Enquirer recently devoted an earnest editorial saying we need a "long term plan for county government." The newspaper has long urged the county and local municipalities to find ways to "share" overlapping public services.

But maybe it's time to ask a different question: Do Ohioans even need county governments anymore?

Providing Services

Counties are simply "instrumentalities" of our state government, providing specific services such as courts, jails, recording of deeds, appraisal of land and collection of taxes, and administration of social welfare programs, all of which are required by the state. State law gives little or no discretion to elected county poobahs we pay to perform these tasks.

Each Ohio county elects its treasurer, recorder, auditor, coroner, sheriff, prosecutor, clerk of courts, and three commissioners, who decide how much of our cash the rest of them get to run their offices.

Ohio has 88 counties, ranging in population from Harrison County with 15,000 hearty souls in the eastern part of the state, to mighty Cuyahoga, named after that famous burning river, with about 1.3 million people. Hamilton ranks third with a population of about 845,000. Although two counties have chosen a "home rule" system, the remaining 86 have the same collection of elected officials pulling in salaries based on population. (The Harrison County prosecutor is paid about $78,000 annually while Hamilton County's gets about $100,000.)

Can't Pass Laws

Of course, county government really isn't local government: that's provided by cities, villages and townships, which total 31 in Hamilton County. Local governments pass local laws, regulate zoning and provide police and fire services. Most do much more. County commissioners can spend money, but they can't pass local laws.

Plump county governments administering state laws made sense in agrarian Ohio, when the state capitol was a long, dusty buggy ride away, and much of the state was "unincorporated" (i.e. not within cities). But with the supersizing of township government, and the advent of modern transportation and communication, it's hard to understand why state powers need to be exercised by an expensive layer of government in 86 county courthouses.

In the past, there was a local conversation about enhancing the powers of county government, setting the stage for those "shared services" that the Enquirer and good government types love. But those plans have always been denounced as nefarious "Metro Government" schemes, and went nowhere.

So if we don't want to adulterate the powers of city councils, mayors or township trustees by turning them over to a regional local government, maybe we should think about getting rid of the bloated layer in the middle.

Do we really need 88 separate county court systems, with their own judges and prosecutors? Couldn't the state attorney general appoint chief prosecutors on a regional basis, rather than have voters electing them county-by-county?

Do we need a sheriff's patrol when we have local city or township police?

Can't the state auditor set up a uniform system of appraising land rather than letting each county have its own bureaucracy?

This logic extends to coroners, treasurers and clerks of court. While each performs an important service, why can't they be administered through the state on a regional basis? The savings could help pay for things that are really needed like that replacement for the Brent Spence Bridge.

And since many of these county officials and their staff seem to be double dipping with a salary and state pension, would they really feel the pain?

With a governor and state legislature looking to cut spending, it's time to put county governments on the chopping block.