Report: Towns can save by consolidating 911, health services
Towns and cities could save millions of dollars by consolidating emergency dispatch call centers, health departments and employee retirement systems, says a new report by the New England Public Policy Center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
But the savings would come largely from widespread consolidation across the state, not smaller partnerships among a handful communities, the report’s author told a forum of local and regional leaders at the Reserve Bank on Thursday.
“We aren’t thinking big enough,” said Yolanda Kodrzycki, the policy center’s director and vice president.
The recession forced many local governments to consider if they could share equipment, facilities or employees with other communities to cut the cost of providing certain services, Lt. Gov. Tim Murray said in opening remarks at the forum.
Murray touted state efforts to promote such changes, especially through Community Innovation Challenge grants. Though trimmed by mid-year budget cuts, the program recently awarded $2.25 million to 161 towns and cities with plans to regionalize.
Still, many communities are a long way from embracing this idea or ceding local control. Many have their own health departments. There are 265 emergency dispatch centers in the state – more than 10 times as in similarly-sized Maryland, Murray said.
“Despite our town pride and our city pride and (how) we get excited about who beats who on Thanksgiving day, bit by bit communities are looking at this hard,” Murray said.
That will become more necessary as health care costs, pension obligations and other forces squeeze local budgets more and more, Kodrzycki said.
She said while regionalizing everything would not work, there is evidence consolidation can improve the quality of certain services while saving money.
Consolidating emergency dispatching down to 14 centers across the state – one per county – would cut operating costs about 60 percent, she said. Kodrzycki based her analysis in part on the size and cost of dispatch centers in three other states.
“It may seem radical, but it puts us in line with the national average,” she said, adding that Massachusetts has among the highest number of 911 call centers, both per 1,000 square miles and per 100,000 residents, in the U.S.
Consolidating health departments in a similar way could cut costs about 25 percent, she said. Combining more than 100 local retiree pension plans into one system could reduce administrative costs about 38 percent, according to Kodrzycki.
Not every community that has tried consolidating services has seen success. In Hingham, a selectman recently called for a review of operations at a new $6.2 million regional dispatch center after learning the town’s costs have gone up.
Kodrzycki warned it’s not an immediate fix.
“Regional consolidation should be part of a broader strategy to bring our local budgets into structural balance over the longer term,” she said.
In a question-and-answer panel, municipal officials from across the state expressed support for consolidation, but warned they have faced public resistance or pushback within local government when trying to make such changes.
Burlington Town Manager John Petrin said while he was in the top post in Ashland, the town began sharing a building inspector with nearby Westborough. Ashland selectmen ultimately backed away from the deal, largely because of a couple of complaints when the inspector was out of the building more often, he said.
“It wasn’t because we weren’t getting the job done,” Petrin said.
State law also hampers collaborations because it requires one town to be the lead community in inter-municipal agreements, he said. That was an obstacle when Ashland sought to share some fire department services with neighboring Hopkinton, he said.
Petrin said there need to be more “carrots and sticks” to give incentives to consolidate.
“This is something that’s going to be with us for the next 30 years, 40 years,” he said.
(David Riley can be reached at 508-626-4424 or email@example.com.)