Making the call: First-ring suburbs improve underlying systems by addressing blurred boundaries

Cincinnati’s first-ring suburbs face unique challenges. Changing demographics, economic stability, and issues regarding resources and security are common threads among local jurisdictions.

The ways forty-nine Hamilton County cities, villages, townships, and municipal corporations not only adjust but thrive with innovative solutions and the ties that bind them together is the focus of a new series, First Suburbs—Beyond Borders. We’ll explore the diversity and ingenuity of longstanding suburban communities, highlighting issues that demand our collective thoughts and actions to galvanize revitalization in the city’s tried and true first-ring.

When a water line breaks near a property in or around Cincinnati, residents can be unsure of where to call for help. Depending on the precise location and purpose of the pipe, a number of different entities can be liable for urgently needed repairs.

Any homeowner who has experienced this unfortunate dilemma can tell you that there’s often a daunting process involving many calls, inspections, and lots of digging to get to the bottom of the issue. That’s because, like the pipes and cables and roads connecting our homes to the services all residents need, the support for these necessities comes in a tangle of different efforts and specifically designated responsibilities—which can be difficult to discern when you’re in a pinch.

The state of Ohio, city of Cincinnati, Hamilton County, or local government might be the correct source of assistance or information, depending on whether a resident of a particular community has needs or questions regarding trash collection, road repairs, maintenance of trees or power lines – or any of a myriad of concerns. The lines drawn around (and sometimes within) villages, cities, and townships are formed with purpose, but overlaps can sometimes complicate issues of accountability for services and aid.

Generally based upon population numbers in a given area, familiar sounding suburbs have been incorporated as villages, cities, or townships. The city of Silverton, Green Township, and the village of Amberley each have their own unique characteristics as far as administration, geographic boundaries, and population. Each community has a distinct personality, and each municipality was formed with specific goals in mind. According to the Village of Addyston website, for example, it was incorporated in order to control its growing population back in 1891.

Unintentional confusion over where one line ends and another begins is simply a side effect of easing processes born of incorporating municipalities, such as the formation of school systems. Communities designate themselves as separate entities in order for residents to make their own decisions – giving them control of certain elements of their neighborhoods and allowing them to shape the places in which they live to their common liking.

Providing diverse choices in lifestyle for residents of greater Cincinnati within these unique but united area communities is one advantage how suburbs are divided. The drawback of these distinctive and sometimes irregular splits comes when residents need something and don’t know where to find it.

Consider Dent, a Census Designated Place (CDP), which is encompassed within the broader designation of Green Township – the second largest township in Ohio. The township provides administration for the CDP. The county oversees broad, welfare-oriented services. And the township is responsible for certain residential services and maintenance.

Calling for help

“It becomes very confusing for people in terms of if I have a sidewalk problem on my road, or if the street out in front of my house gets a big pothole. I start calling around and people say, ‘Oh, that happens to be a state route, so that's ODOT,’ or ‘That's a county road. That's the county engineer.’ Or you call the county engineer, and they say, ‘Oh, that's a township road call.’ So, it's really confusing,” says Jeff Aluotto, Hamilton County Administrator. “You do have all these disparate political subdivisions, and they all have different authorities. A lot of that stems from the Ohio Revised Code that divides up – especially for townships and villages and counties – what their responsibilities are.”

Jeff Aluotto, Hamilton County Administrator“Starting low with your most local form of government – calling the township building, for example – that's always a good place to start,” advises Aluotto.

The Green Township website contains tons of descriptive and helpful information for residents outlining who’s in charge of road maintenance alone.  It’s obvious from the wording that many years of receiving calls about snow clearing and potholes has inspired a serious effort toward providing residents with a concise reference guide. It’s simple enough for a child to comprehend.

“Township streets are generally residential in nature. With a few exceptions, they have no centerline or white edge lines painted on them. Roads with these are the responsibility of either Hamilton County or the State of Ohio,” according to, which includes a complete listing of township, county and state roads.

In addition, a request for residents to designate their living area as Green Township, rather than Cincinnati, when purchasing license plates beseeches visitors of the site. The township receives five dollars per plate to help with their own public services, and every penny counts when maintaining 111 miles of township roads.

Many public entities are stretched for funds and managing on a tight budget in order to provide for residents without reaching too deeply into their wallets. The self-direction of residents through channels like local government websites is a courteous first step to take when unsure of how to proceed with a particular issue.

According to Aluotto, if residents run into obstacles they can always call the county.

“Because of the level of government we are, we don't oversee technically from a hierarchical perspective. But we do have a vision of a lot of different things, so we've become quite adept at helping people run these things down,” reassures Aluotto.

Shifting vs. stable populations

Adding to local confusion is the fact that some suburbs can shift from one type of municipality to another. The city of Silverton is densely populated compared to most, with 4,760 current inhabitants within an area of only 710 acres. It is home to many small businesses per capita, and residential household numbers have fallen and then begun to rise over the course of recent years. As Silverton’s population fluctuates, the area changes back and forth from village to city. This alternation in designation is an odd quirk that the community and administration has learned to roll with over the years.

By contrast, Amberley Village has a low population density with around 3,500 residents spread over 2,234 acres, according to the Hamilton County Planning and Development website. The village is a private, quiet community with large lots and expansive forests, keeping population numbers low.

Regardless of their numbers, Amberley’s residents have the occasional misdirected complaint, and the administration is called upon to reroute the call.

“There’s going to be a little bit of confusion within any local government just because some of the services are contracted,” says Tammy Reasoner, Amberley Village Clerk of Council and Executive Assistant to the Village Manager. “We’ll get some people that will call because, say, Rumpke didn’t pick up their garbage. But they would need to call Rumpke for that.”

An interesting peculiarity of Amberley’s boundaries is that a large part of its acreage is taken up by French Park, which is actually the charge of the city of Cincinnati, not the village. Amberley can therefore enjoy the benefits of having the park while skipping the maintenance – a definite perk.

Thomas C. Muething, Mayor of Amberley Village“We've been fortunate that we're blessed with places like French Park, left to the city of Cincinnati when Mr. French died in the early ‘40s. He was one of the founding fathers of the village – and he was actually the treasurer of Procter and Gamble. It’s a Cincinnati park, but it's 200, almost 300, acres in the middle of the village,” says Amberley Village Mayor Tom Muething.

There are no retail shops, no sidewalks nor streetlamps in the village, which maintains its own police force and maintenance crew – all cross-trained in fire service. This wearing of many hats by Amberley’s public servants is done in order to cut corners – saving residents money on services.

“If you have a 20-man police department and you have a two-million-dollar budget, and you look at a comparative city or municipality, you'll see they also have a 20-man fire department with the same two-million budget. By having the guys cross-trained, we actually go up to 25 guys because we include the maintenance personnel as well. And then they can be compensated at a different level when they do fire duties,” says Richard Wallace, Amberley Village Police-Fire Chief.

“Our response is also quicker to pretty much anything because the police are already awake, on the road, and out there patrolling. So that makes sense,” adds Wallace.

The creative, cost-saving method works well for this particular suburb, which has a low crime rate and well-maintained residences. For these reasons, Amberley’s police have the freedom necessary to be able to multitask.

“It's not a community where you get a lot of people walking through town and things like that. So, there's a lot of crime we don't have because we don't have the same, you know, things going on in our community,” explains Wallace.

Richard L. Wallace, Amberley Village Police-Fire ChiefVillage residents are familiar with this local system and enjoy the personal level of relating to their police/fire team that comes along with it. Wallace describes the community as a kind of “Mayberry” type place, where every resident knows the officers by name and vice versa.

As for needs other than police and fire, the village has a handy brochure it distributes to residents outlining which services are provided by whom, which helps avoid confusion and unnecessary runarounds, freeing up administration to attend to regular duties efficiently.

Many in Amberley Village credit Mayor Muething’s previous experience in corporate business and aptitude for resourcefulness for shoring up Amberley’s general finances in recent years. Muething modestly explains that he grew up in the village and wanted to use his talents to help out.

“We are in a lot better place than we were 10 years ago. I think the village staff has also helped – even a lot more than I have. It’s just taking a commonsense approach on a monthly basis, looking at where you are financially. The village was struggling financially, so I thought I could help. That's why I got involved, and I've enjoyed it,” offers Muething, humbly.

Another creative solution to consolidating services and helping streamline efforts is the county’s recent revamping of 911 services.

“The county has been able to partner more and more with communities. It was able to shift around some money in order to relieve the burden off of local municipalities for their 911 service fees. This was huge,” says Bridget Doherty, Communications Manager, Hamilton County Administration. “Commissioners, three years ago, raised the county sales tax, and that was one component of it. It really helped those local jurisdictions not have to pay so much for their 911 service calls that go through the comm. center,” explains Doherty.

Some efforts made by the county to ease local burdens in defining “who to call for what” have unfortunately been less successful. Aluotto mourns the fate of CAGIS (Cincinnati Area Geographic Information System), a geographical mapping program incepted by the county and the city collectively about ten years ago. The plan was to chart and provide widespread access to detailed maps of all the roads, sewer lines, water lines and buildings within the county.

“We were going to have almost like a 411-information line where people could call, or they could get onto the CSR system. ‘I've got a problem with the storm water pipe.’ Click on it and it says, ‘This is a township responsibility,” says Aluotto. “Yeah, we were working on that… It really was just too mammoth of an undertaking, and it just kind of collapsed under its own weight.”

Whether through minor victories or major failures, at the local government level of first-ring suburbs or the wide-reaching jurisdiction of the county’s administration, civic administrators are forging ahead with innovative solutions to problems inherent in the overlapping web of public systems. Beyond that, they are also accessible and helpful to community residents when called upon for direction – not only because it’s part of the job, but also because they care. After all, they’re neighbors too.

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Health, a Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentucky; the Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati - LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.