With cities and towns confronting a grim economic climate, municipal officials are beginning to take a harder look at an idea that has been somewhat sensitive in certain quarters in years past: developing regionalized services.
Some 200 area officials attended a conference on regionalization held in Worcester last month.
Franklin Town Administrator Jeff Nutting, who attended the conference, said it doesn't make sense in many cases for communities to have separate services, such as individual libraries, pension systems, and dispatch centers, when they can share those services and realize tax savings in difficult times.
Regional services are common in other parts of the country, where county governments often fill the role of provider, Nutting said. Reluctance across Massachusetts to form such partnerships is rooted in a Colonial provincialism, Nutting thinks.
"Thinking in broader terms has never really been in our mind-set," he said. "We've been stuck for 400 years in this village form of government."
The conference, sponsored by the Massachusetts Municipal Association and Northeastern University, featured a number of speakers who argued for a shift from localized to more regional services as a way to trim costs and maintain the quality of services.
Geoff Beckwith, president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said some problematic barriers in state law prevent municipalities from pursuing regional agreements conveniently, a problem that has hampered some communities' efforts to regionalize services.
He said his organization is pursuing an initiative for legislation that would prevent the need for Town Meeting approvals if communities wanted to share a building inspector or a planning coordinator, for example.
Another obstacle is collective bargaining, if towns want to create a regional dispatch center or other regional services involving municipal employees working under contracts, Beckwith said. The legislative package backed by his association would also allow communities to enter partnerships without having to engage in renegotiations with union groups, he said.
A shift toward regional services not only makes sound financial sense but also has the potential to improve services, said Beckwith. Ordinarily, if a local ambulance is tied up with a call, the driver or local dispatch center has to phone a neighboring town if another emergency call comes in. With a regional dispatch center, those calls would all be processed by the same facility, a streamlined arrangement that would probably save some emergency-response time, he said.
"Finding a way to maintain those services during the hard economic times is essential," said Beckwith. "The model for the future is to empower local officials to work across community boundaries to potentially deliver better services and to potentially save money."
But Stow Town Administrator William Wrigley, who also attended the conference, is skeptical about the benefits of adding to the list of services many municipalities already share, such as regional school districts. If a town hasn't already made a service regional, it's usually for a good reason, he said.
"Regionalization is a broad concept," Wrigley said. "Those areas that haven't been regionalized yet, I think there's good causes for it."
While the pieces of legislation backed by the Massachusetts Municipal Association might make it easier for communities to enter regional partnerships, such measures may not make a huge difference in expanding services, said Wrigley, since they still need funding support from Town Meeting. As a result, he said, strong grass-roots backing is necessary.
"To sustain it each year, the town still has to have bought into it," said Wrigley.
Plans to create a regional public-safety dispatch system for Maynard and Stow failed in the early 1990s, Wrigley said. Boxborough officials also tried to create a regional dispatch center with Littleton, Harvard, and Fort Devens a few years ago, but the idea never got off the ground.
Boxborough Police Chief Richard Vance Jr. said organizers had trouble getting the towns to agree on the specifics of a shared dispatch center.
"There were some logistical problems about where the center was going to be located and some concern about towns losing personalized services," said Vance. "There was also some concern about how much savings the towns would actually realize from a regional dispatch center."
But the poor financial situation for many cities and towns may force officials to rethink their reluctance to pursue regional solutions.
In Ashland, the tough fiscal climate has spurred officials to negotiate with neighboring Hopkinton about collaborating on fire and ambulance services, said Town Manager John Petrin. Officials in both towns recently formed a task force to explore options, he said.
Ashland has done away with a firefighter position in the tight economy, even as the department struggles with a higher call volume, he said.
"We all realize resources are getting scarcer," Petrin said. "I think we are just going to have to get more creative in terms of the services that we offer people."