April 16, 2018
To the editor,
Today, it is often stated that pushing municipalities to share services is critical to solving the state’s financial problems. I doubt that. First, municipalities have already regionalized services more than many realize. Second, while the term regionalization is hastily deployed, business plans showing the savings and who gets them are rarely seen. I suspect many of the ideas floated would not stand up to analysis.
Municipal officials are under constant pressure to keep spending down. This leads them to look for savings everywhere, including sharing services with other towns. In Easton, for example, we share a high school, school administration, sports leagues, and a land use director with Redding.
In public safety, towns rely on mutual aid. Police, fire, and emergency medical service personnel respond to emergencies in other towns when needed. We share a regional fire school in Fairfield, which the state intends to defund—go figure. Further, a regional emergency management team sends storm forecasts used by municipalities.
What about insurance? Easton, like almost all municipalities in Connecticut, gets its liability and workers compensation insurance through CIRMA, a municipally-owned insurance consortium. Municipalities are eligible to join the health insurance plan for state workers, the State 2.0 partnership plan. Easton has done so and has achieved savings (as have Easton’s employees).
Every municipality in Connecticut belongs to a council of governments. The COGs provide a regionally shared skilled workforce to help plan area projects, primarily transportation. MetroCOG, Easton’s COG, helps obtain the grant that funds our senior center van and managed the six-town GIS mapping project, which anyone can access through Easton’s website. Ironically, failed SB 538 proposed taking money away from COGs to create a new state department with eighteen employees to study regional efficiency. (Do you think it would ever recommend shutting itself down?)
There are many other examples of regionalized services, such as probate courts, inter-library loans, senior centers open to all, and the state bid list, which allows towns to get the same price the state gets on many goods and services.
Some services just cannot be shared in ways that promote efficiency. It’s hard to share a public works department because when it snows all personnel and all trucks are needed in their respective towns. There may be opportunities to share other capital equipment, but renting is probably cheaper still.
In Easton, we investigated sharing an assessor with Weston, but when we ran the numbers it just didn’t work. The savings were minimal, but the loss of service was significant. We investigated joining a health district and found our costs would have gone up.
But perhaps there are more opportunities for shared services that municipal officials just haven’t thought of yet. Dispatch centers are often mentioned. Sometimes animal control. Okay, I’m listening. How much money will be saved? Who gets the savings? How do we handle friction with our collective bargaining agreements? A concept is a good starting point, but proponents of new regionalization plans have the responsibility to produce detailed plans showing what they propose will save money.
If they can’t, I remain skeptical.