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Pinpointing Where Sharing Can Save Towns Cash

Some services are best delivered on a regional basis, some not

Hartford Courant Editorial

February 19, 2013

One thing we might rightly infer from last week's angry mayors' tour is that it's been a tough four years for the state's cities.

The mayors who were protesting Gov. Dannel Malloy's budgetary approach to their cities say their budgets are down to the bone. That also is Mr. Malloy's problem; he is staring at a $1.1 billion deficit. Is there someplace else to look for help?

How about the region?

There was a time when "regionalism" was a four-letter word in Connecticut, the home of home rule and long-standing local traditions. As costs have risen and revenues have shrunk, municipal leaders have gotten more open to seeking economies with surrounding communities.

But one of Connecticut's great unanswered questions does regional sharing of services actually save money and maintain quality?

The answer is that for some services, yes; for others, no.

That is the conclusion of a study by the New England Public Policy Center titled "The Quest for Cost-Efficient Local Government in New England: What Role For Regional Consolidation?"

Don't Merge, Cooperate

New England has 2 percent of the country's land area but 4 percent of its local governments. Many services performed by metro or county governments elsewhere are assigned to city or town governments here. That has advantages and disadvantages, the study observes. Larger jurisdictions can provide some services at a lower cost per user than smaller ones. But citizens may find it easier to monitor smaller governments, which could lead to cost saving and efficiency.

The study makes an observation that Connecticut has seen too often: Absent regional decision-making, the choices one town makes can cause problems in an adjoining town.

The study eschews the politically unlikely merger of cities and towns into larger governmental units, and instead looks at whether existing towns and cities can save money by regional sharing of services. The study suggests that the greatest potential for interlocal cooperation is in capital- and technology-based services, and other services that require specialized skills. Labor-intensive services offer the least potential for regional savings.

The biggest budget item for most towns is education, and here the jury is out. Regional schools can reduce costs, but researchers are at odds about whether regional schools maintain quality.

The Three Savings Spots

Three areas that would lend themselves to cost-saving regionalization are emergency call handling and dispatch, public health, and local public pension administration, the study finds. The researchers say Massachusetts would experience the largest cost savings in these areas, "followed closely by Connecticut."

As this page has said before, maintaining 106 primary emergency call centers, know as "public safety answering points," is a waste of millions of dollars a year. More than half of them receive fewer than one 911 call per hour on average. The study conservatively estimates that reducing the number to eight call centers, one for each county, could lower the overall cost by 60 percent.

Local health districts serving small populations also have high operating costs. Connecticut has 77 local health districts, about 20 of which are regional. Merging smaller ones into larger ones can save as much as 40 percent of costs.

Similarly, merging the state's 59 state and local pensions could save 17 percent in total costs, the student finds.

Though the numbers are subject to other influences, there is a potential savings from these three measures, over time, of more than $100 million for the state, cities and towns.

The study says about 20 percent of municipal spending goes toward services that could be efficiently regionalized without giving up local control or autonomy, and wisely suggests this is where the focus should be.

The policy center was established by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Would that Connecticut had this kind of research capability. This study should have been done years ago.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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