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Region Agenda, Part 2: Share Services Where It Makes Sense

Hartford Courant

December 28, 2009

On Nov. 10, Canton named a new police chief, who will be paid $97,000 a year on a four-year contract.

The new chief, John Murphy, is well qualified; that is not the point. The question is whether Canton should have named a police chief at all.

The town has 14 uniformed officers. Neighboring Simsbury has 35 officers. If they merged into one department, would both towns save significant amounts of money without losing current levels of service?

Actually, the town considered the possibility of merging with both Avon and Simsbury, said First Selectman Dick Barlow. But salaries in Avon and benefits in Simsbury were enough above those in Canton that the town would have lost money in the deal.

Mr. Barlow said Canton is still pursuing a merger of 911 call service with the other two towns, with whom it already shares a number of other services.

Does Every Town Need A Dial-A-Ride Van?

If Greater Hartford municipalities are to make a serious move toward regional collaboration, they must do what Canton did look at what services can be shared, and do it where it makes sense.

Towns in the Farmington Valley have been in the forefront of a push to regionalize services. Avon, for example, is part of a remarkable 76 different regional service-sharing agreements; everything from tax assessor and animal control to senior meals and youth services.

To get the ball rolling for the rest of the region, it would be helpful to do a study of service sharing, and a survey of residents to see what services they are willing to regionalize. Do you care if the animal control officer or the building official comes from the next town? Does it matter if the dial-a-ride van is garaged elsewhere? Would you go for regional zoning?

The state, which has named a blue-ribbon commission to study regional efficiencies, should initiate such a process and pay for it. It is in the state's interest to help towns operate more efficiently and economically, to lower the overall cost of government.

The region is defined differently for different services. As a base, we should look to the federal definition of a metropolitan area which is an urban core of more than 50,000, the surrounding county and adjacent counties that are economically and socially connected, as measured by commuting patterns. That would produce a Greater Hartford metro region of about 50 towns.

It would be relatively easy to draft a survey listing all municipal services and asking residents which they would regionalize. The harder step would be the cost study. But some such studies have been done in Connecticut.

Or An Emergency Call Center?

For example, the Central Connecticut Regional Planning Agency published a study in 2005 showing that the city of Bristol and four surrounding towns could save more than $1 million a year among them, and probably improve service, if they created a regional emergency telecommunications center instead of having each town run its own.

It didn't happen, because local police chiefs and others didn't want to give up their own 911 call centers. This may explain why the state has 107 emergency call centers, when the technology exists to reduce the number by at least 100, if not 106.

On the plus side, a dozen towns in the Northeast Connecticut Council of Governments studied the mandated revaluation of taxable property, usually contracted to outside firms at considerable expense, and discovered that if they pooled resources and hired permanent staff, they could cut costs by more than 50 percent, from $50 a parcel to $23 a parcel.

So they did.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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