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The "Holy Grail" Of Local Government Efficiency: Carefully Considered Regionalization Can Save Money, Enhance Services

November 04, 2009

By Joseph Kask, CPA

More and more these days we hear talk throughout Connecticut about a word that has been largely foreign in the state for many decades - regionalism.

As the economy struggles and municipalities look for cost-cutting measures in any way possible, the concept of cities and towns teaming up to share certain services has been discussed with greater frequency.

But what would an undertaking such as regionalism truly entail? What would be required of cities and towns and all the many entities that exist within them?

First, it must be realized that while large-scale regionalization is in fact a foreign concept here in Connecticut – the state's eight counties are the only remnants of such regional efforts many decades ago – some examples do exist. Connecticut has 17 regional school districts that educate thousands of students from kindergarten through high school; these are true collaborations between neighboring towns in terms of shared services and funding.

The same goes for regional water and trash authorities such as the Hartford-based Metropolitan District Commission and Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority.

But what would be required to create it on a larger, statewide scale?

The benefits of regionalization, in good times and bad, are seen in two basic ways: Increased efficiency of services done through the pooling of resources, and cost savings for the cities and towns involved. In many ways these two benefits represent the "Holy Grail" of government productivity – the trick is being able to find it.

Before any serious regionalization efforts are to commence, there are some basic needs that must be addressed. They include:

1) Identifying the types of services that best lend themselves to a regionalized approach.

2) Collecting and analyzing statewide (or region-wide) data on the number of people in need of various services, and the number of skilled professionals currently providing them (i.e. teachers, police officers, firefighters, etc.).

3) Feasibility and cost-benefit analysis.

4) Establishing open lines of communication between all parties in order to get the necessary buy-in.

5) A thoughtful examination of the legal ramifications of regionalization.

Here is the sticking point of exploring regionalism, as evidenced by these needs: It cannot happen overnight, and it cannot be done hastily. But if municipalities are serious about pursuing it, the deliberate, step-by-step approach could ultimately pay dividends.

We know in Connecticut that schools can be effectively regionalized in certain areas, as can water and trash-removal services. Are there other areas? Can public works services become collaborative efforts amongst towns? How about emergency or social services?

These are questions best answered by exploring the infrastructure needs and realities of each city and town. Do they possess adequate equipment, and is it used enough to justify the cost? Would teaming up with a neighboring town for public works projects, fire services, or transportation for the elderly make sense? Determining the level of investment needed by each municipality provides a large piece of the regionalization puzzle.

The next step is an exhaustive one, but it is critical. As someone who has done research, cost analysis, and independent audits for dozens of cities and towns in the state, I can speak first-hand to the necessity of gathering as much data as possible to determine the feasibility and effectiveness of a regionalization effort.

One area that has been proven to lend itself to shared services is technology. Certainly any effort to explore regionalism needs to include an analysis of where technology can be shared. Examples may include dispatch services, disaster recovery or payroll.

Cities and towns interested in a regional approach will want to know what the demographics are and what the per capita level of service is. They are going to want to know how much these services cost under existing terms, and how much could be saved under a collaborative agreement. They may even want to create a statewide database for these services, with detailed numbers to determine specific need and availability. This is the legwork that will no doubt benefit any regionalization effort in the long-run.

Naturally, such an effort cannot be undertaken in secret or without a complete team effort. For it to succeed, cooperation and agreement is needed from all parties involved – local and state elected officials, department heads, unions and other key local groups – to determine whether this will result in the desired cost savings and increased efficiency.

Nor can it be done without legal help, where questions can be answered that almost surely will come up. Questions such as:

• How is this effort impacted by state law?

• How are these efforts affected by local charters or ordinances?

• What does this mean for existing labor contracts?

• Are there bonding or debt issues involving equipment and infrastructure?

• Are there insurance issues that need to be addressed?

• How will municipal responsibilities be delineated on a regional basis?

Finally, those embarking on any efforts to regionalize will have to make the determination as to whether this effort will have as little impact on people's day-to-day lives as possible. Everyone wants to see increased government efficiency, but if it can happen without their lives being interrupted or affected, all the better.

In any economic climate, regionalism in Connecticut is indeed a heady task filled with challenges that are not easily met. But in times of fiscal uncertainty, cities and towns could find it prudent to at least examine the idea. If pursued correctly and deliberately, that "Holy Grail" of government success could be within the grasp.


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