Cities, towns scouting to save money

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Even as the state looks to stave off cuts in local aid to municipalities across the state this year, public officials and finance experts agree it could be increasingly difficult in the coming two to three years to maintain the same level of state support for cities and towns.

A new report, to be released today by the Pioneer Institute, suggests regionalization of a variety of services could be one way for local leaders to make up the difference and still maintain the same level of service expected by taxpayers.

"Everyone seems to understand that regionalization has the potential to save costs, but there are obstacles to doing it," said Steve Poftak, the Pioneer Institute's director of research.

The 30-page report, titled "Regionalization: Case Studies of Success in Failure in Massachusetts," attempts to identify some of those obstacles while highlighting success stories that could be used as a model for other communities.

One such example is the Berkshire County 911 dispatch, where 23 communities fund a regional public safety dispatch center through the Sheriff's office allowing small towns to take advantage of state of the art technology for cheap money. Another is the Nashoba Associated Boards of Health, a decades old organization headquartered in Ayer that now provides health inspection, vaccination and other public health services to 19 communities.

Berkshire County, for years, operated a regional dispatch, first run by the county commissioners and then- Sheriff Carmen Massimiano. The county took advantage of state and federal grants to upgrade its facilities in 2006 and now offers communities top technology and service at a fraction of the price.

Massachusetts, in 2007, required dispatch centers to make emergency 911 upgrades.

"Lenox got a state-of-the-art dispatch center for $20,000, while Dalton recently paid $1 million for 911 upgrades," Massimiano said.

The $20,000 paid by Lenox is the town's annual contribution as the member communities share the cost of personnel and capital expenses.

The Pioneer Institute study finds that both unions and management officials can sometimes be barriers to regionalization, concerned about self-preservation or the protection of jobs in any given city or town. Boards of selectmen, school committees and other agencies are also sometimes reluctant to give up any measure of local control, arguing regional authorities can not understand their unique local needs.

"Police were afraid they were going to lose their jobs, that's why they were against it," Great Barrington Board of Selectmen Chair Walter Atwood told the Pioneer Institute.

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Great Barrington, along with North Adams and a number of other communities, have not opted into the regional dispatch for various reasons.

North Adams Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco said his city's size, the presence of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and the volume of calls generated in city made it questionable whether a regional center could provide the level of service needed.

Instead, North Adams has combined its own police and fire dispatch centers which it shares with the neighboring towns of Clarksburg and Stamford, Vt.

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said cities and towns, both big and small, are discussing ways to combine resources.

"It's an important opportunity, primarily to maintain a level of service during challenging times, even if there aren't enormous savings," Beckwith said. "One of the challenges is we have to bring down some of the obstacles and barriers."

Beckwith said having to negotiate with multiple unions in different cities and towns can be an impediment. He also applauded the state for passing legislation this year making it easier to form municipal partnerships by no longer requiring each Town Meeting involved in the agreement to approve.

Regionalization, the study admits, does not always work for everybody. The town of Westford, as it grew from 10,000 residents to more than 20,000 today, pulled out of the Nashoba Associated Boards of Health because it found it had reached a size where it could provide its own services, and meet demands, for less money.

"I hesitate to talk about this because we are really fighting for regionalization. It just wasn't efficient in this case," said Sandy Collins, director of Health Care Services in Westford.

To break down some of the those walls, the Pioneer Institute recommends a number of steps the state can take, including developing "best-practice standards" and costs that town officials can compare to their own budgets.

The state can also develop model template programs and offer subsidies for those towns willing to try regionalizing services, while withholding some state funding from those towns who choose to go it alone.

Gov. Deval L. Patrick has displayed some measure of support for regionalization efforts, particularly in small districts where towns could save on redundant administrative costs by consolidating.


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