Panel examines challenges to regionalization

Print Email

Chelsea City Manager Jay AshA panel discussion at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston on Feb. 14 highlighted the challenges that cities and towns face in establishing regional partnerships as a means of saving money and delivering services more efficiently.

Burlington Town Administrator John Petrin, who until recently was the town manager in Ashland, described the complexities that can arise in structuring collaborations.

Last year, Ashland and Hopkinton received a $175,000 state innovation grant for what Petrin described at the time as a “fire services collaborative.” During the panel discussion, he suggested that cities and towns be careful when structuring mutual agreements. The two towns, he said, considered establishing an intermunicipal agreement, but such an agreement would require firefighters from both communities to report to one person.

“That arrangement,” Petrin said, “doesn’t give the control that the other community is seeking. You need to create what’s called ‘joint powers of authority,’ so you can create a separate entity still controlled by those communities.”

The two towns are continuing to work on the project, with assistance from the Metropolitan Area Planning Commission.

In 2011, Ashland established a partnership with Westborough to share a building inspector. Petrin said that within a matter of months after Ashland selectmen had approved the arrangement, they wanted to pull out, “based on the perception that the person wasn’t there all the time.”

Fellow panelist Jay Ash, the city manager in Chelsea, discussed how time and staffing constraints can discourage municipalities from pursuing innovation.

“We’re all juggling so many balls out there that unless there is a huge number associated with the benefit, our attention is elsewhere,” Ash said. He cited an instance where lack of time and resources prompted him to turn down a potential collaboration with neighboring Revere.

Chelsea is now part of a group of cities and towns that will duplicate the “open checkbook” policy, already in place at the state level, that will make all spending transactions in those communities available online. The five cities and towns, led by Woburn, will receive a total of $120,000 from the state’s Community Innovation Grant program.

Other panelists were Pam Kocher, the Patrick administration’s director of local policy, and Linda Dunlavy, executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments.

The forum also featured a presentation by Yolanda Kodrzycki, director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s New England Public Policy Center.

Kodrzycki suggested that Massachusetts would benefit from consolidation in three key areas: emergency dispatch centers, public health districts, and municipal pension systems.

Massachusetts has a very high number of dispatch centers – 268 – for a state its size, she said. She sketched out a scenario in which there would be only one dispatch center in each county. Data suggest that states that have adopted this model typically save around 60 percent, Kodrzycki said.

She noted that Essex County has established a regional emergency communications center, which currently has about a half-dozen members, including Beverly and Amesbury.

Kodrzycki said “there’s a great disparity” of public health services provided within Massachusetts because most cities and towns have their own public health department.

“Typically, the richer communities get a significantly larger portion of services,” she said.

Massachusetts also has more public pension systems than all but six other states. Kodrzycki said that New York and Maine are moving to consolidate pension systems.

She also suggested that Rhode Island’s distressed cities and towns should be required to join a statewide pension plan.
Written by MMA Associate Editor Mitch Evich