COMING TOGETHER IN WESTERN MASS.
To municipal administrators these days, the word “regionalization” is what “plastics” was to The Graduate’s Benjamin Braddock: an easy, but just a little distasteful, buzzword that sums up the promise of the future. Like it or not, regionalization of services among the state’s 351 cities and towns now seems as inevitable as that wonder substance was in the 1960s.
The Patrick administration is urging municipalities to regionalize school and other services. The state’s 2009 budget proposal includes an amendment that would make it easier for cities and towns to negotiate regional agreements, and the Massachusetts School Building Authority is increasing its support for districts that take regional approaches.
Local leaders get the message: About 200 of them attended a Massachusetts Municipal Association forum on regionalization in May. They know regionalization can save money and avoid duplication of services, but they also are not known for playing well with others.
The main conduit for cooperation is the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, which provides a range of services to its 26 member towns. The council oversees regional economic development, has created a county-wide emergency dispatch system, and is now working with the group Pioneer Valley Connect to bring broadband Internet access to underserved towns.
At the municipal level, the council offers “floating regionalization,” providing services like accounting, planning, and building and restaurant inspections to towns that request them. The council’s two building inspectors serve 15 towns, while its three accountants keep the books for nine.
The Regional Council opened for business July 1, 1997, one day after the official demise of the old Franklin County charter. In the past decade, it has redefined county government — from a mandated entity funded by a state assessment to a leaner, voluntary organization accountable in ways county government wasn’t.
The council responds to local needs because it must: Its $3.5 million annual budget comes from membership fees based on town property values and population, and towns decide each year whether to remain as members. Membership pays for county-wide special projects, such a regional school study and the broadband effort. Towns then pay individually for the services they use.
“We always have to prove ourselves to the towns, and we have to earn our membership,” says the council’s executive director, Linda Dunlavy, who also worked under the old county system. “We monitor ourselves much more, and our towns monitor us.”
The council develops programs in response to community needs — for instance, it’s currently looking into providing property assessment and animal control services to towns. This summer, it is launching a program to arrange energy audits of municipal buildings in 16 towns and three regional school districts. Most energy services companies won’t even look at projects with less than $1 million in potential savings, says Dunlavy, but by taking a regional approach, the council was able to attract three interested companies.
It’s not easy to quantify the cost savings to towns, Dunlavy says, but the accounting program offers one example. Individually, each town would have to pay $25,000 to $30,000 for the license for the municipal accounting software being used. But as a result of buying regionally, each town pays $1,000. The council also saves towns time and money by arranging bids and contracts for supplies like road salt and sand.
“We’re a town of 1,300 people, run mostly by volunteers, and we just don’t have the staff to do something like this on our own,” Rogers says.
Regionalization sounds good, but, to paraphrase a question Dunlavy entertained at the recent Massachusetts Municipal Association conference: Will it work in Chelsea? What about places where the tradition of local control may be stronger than it is in Franklin County?
Dunlavy says cooperative purchasing would be a good start. “That one doesn’t require giving up anything,” she says. “A lot of other things require that some town or someone give something up. We’re a home rule state. The question is: How do we give up and not surrender, but say, ‘maybe I don’t have to control this one?’” She adds that cities and towns first need to analyze all their costs to see whether any significant savings could be realized through collaboration.
“I totally believe in regionalism,” Dunlavy says. “On the other hand, I don’t think it can solve the entire financial crisis the towns are in. The situation is too grim. But can it improve things and make it easier? You bet.”
LIBRARIES ON THE SAME PAGE
Home rule is hardly an issue in one of the state’s best models of regionalization, the Massachusetts Regional Library System, which is rooted in regional cooperatives that grew up in the 1940s and 1950s and was officially established by the Legislature in 1960. Today, six regional library systems — all nonprofit corporations — serve 1,789 municipal, academic, and specialty libraries across the state, providing centralized purchasing, interlibrary loans, training, and information technology support. Public libraries can benefit from the regional system’s group buying power but keep their own identities.
“It started by asking, ‘How can we get more bang for the buck?’,” says John Ramsay, regional administrator of the Western Massachusetts Regional Library System.
“How can we save local municipalities money so it stretches what they can do with limited funding? Libraries don’t have to do exactly the same thing and have the same materials. As long as you can get at them, you don’t have to own them.”
The western regional system delivers books and DVDs to 80 towns of fewer than 10,000 residents. Library users can also tap into the stacks of libraries across the state, arranging online to have a book delivered free of charge to the user’s home library. Five trucks deliver more than a million items each year.
Similar services are offered throughout the state in the other regional library systems: Central, Northeast, Metro West, Boston, and Southeastern Massachusetts. The regional library system runs a statewide purchasing cooperative that saves libraries money on books and office supplies. It provides training and workshops for librarians on information technology and other topics, as well as access to online databases and downloadable books.A study by the Board of Library Commissioners, which runs the state system, found that, in fiscal 2007, a $1.5 million expenditure by the western Massachusetts region yielded services worth nearly $15 million. The services included book delivery, online databases, and the sharing of books and materials.
But that kind of efficiency isn’t always rewarded. Ramsay says the state’s regional library system, which has an annual budget of $10 million, is still recovering from a 24 percent funding cut in fiscal 2003. Just as worrisome, libraries are also often at the top of the hit list at the municipal level when there’s a budget crunch.