Recent MIIA News
Municipalities Sharing Ideas
By Joe Callahan
With Franklin and Barnstable counties as exceptions, Massachusetts differs from other parts of the country, where governmental services are defined by county or region rather than by individual municipality. Tighter budgets, however, have been prompting an increase in inter-municipal collaboration in the Bay State.
Last fall, MIIA’s Employee Assistance Program partner, AllOne Health Resources, facilitated forums across the state to share best practices using case studies of sharing resources and regionalization. “Moving from Turf to Talk” provided guidance for making smart collaboration decisions.
“Many logistical as well as emotional issues go into successful inter-municipal collaboration,” says Jane deColgyll of AllOne Health. “This series allowed municipal leaders to share their challenges and successes with peers who may be considering if it is right for their community.”
The demand for local services is growing, not diminishing, so neighboring communities need to look at each other as partners, not rivals, advises Marshfield Town Administrator Rocco Longo. Longo and his counterpart in Scituate, Patricia Vinchesi, have collaborated on several programs with positive outcomes. Last year, they received a second joint climate change initiative grant of $30,000 to address their shared concern about the effects of rising sea levels on seawalls.
Right time and place
Many municipalities already have partnered with a neighboring community in some capacity. Collaboration evolves from a shared need and is established by proactively seeking a partner, out of convenience or by chance. For example, Wellfleet Town Administrator Paul Sieloff meets informally with other town leaders from outer Cape Cod to discuss issues of common interest. Through these regular meetings, Wellfleet and Truro identified a mutual need for an animal control officer and the two towns created a partnership for a job share.
In other cases, collaboration arises from extreme circumstances. During a damaging pre-season snowstorm last October, the town of Hadley shared fuel with Amherst’s public works fleet; Hadley lent a generator to Hatfield to run its water department when the power was out; and Easthampton shared its 911 service with Hadley when it was needed. Such resource sharing out of necessity can provide learning experiences and serve as the foundation for future collaboration.
Attrition or retirements can also provide an opportunity to evaluate municipal needs and determine if the newly vacant position can be shared. When the town of Sterling needed a building inspector due to a vacancy, it found that excess capacity in West Boylston was able to fill both towns’ needs. As a result, a valuable employee was retained.
Looking outside the immediate area can provide best practices for collaboration. Amesbury Fire Chief Jonathan Brickett was among a group that traveled to Lackawanna County, Penn., to learn about its shared emergency response system. A new Essex County Regional Emergency Communication Center, now under construction, is expected to increase capabilities and save the six participating communities between $100,000 and $300,000 a year when it is operational in 2013.
“We are always looking for ways to drive down the costs of doing business,” says Amesbury Mayor Thatcher Kezer, who meets regularly with other Merrimack Valley municipal leaders to discuss ideas. “Shared services and regionalization is a way to achieve that.”
In successful municipal collaborations, necessity is often the mother of invention. Partners share a common need and can find solutions by working together.
The Franklin Regional Council of Governments serves 27 mostly rural communities to improve the efficiency and cost effectiveness of municipal governmental functions. The “Franklin COG” was formed as these towns recognized that their resources were very limited when acting independently. Several of these towns are now in the process of regionalizing their ambulance services, which will make the service more affordable for all participating communities.
Not all partnerships are intended to save money. In some cases, the motivation is to improve the quality of services. This is true of the nonprofit Northeast Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council, a consortium of 53 police and sheriff departments in Middlesex and Essex counties. Working collaboratively, the agencies and their communities gain the benefits of a more cohesive, regional policing strategy, taking advantage of the unique and expanded talent and expertise that may not exist in all communities, says Danvers Police Chief Neil Ouellette. Of note, 27 of these agencies assisted Danvers during a 2004 chemical explosion there.
The city of Melrose’s health department also oversees services in Wakefield and Reading. The goal is standardized and expanded services, as well as cost reduction. The success of the collaboration is based on the communities having common values and similarly run governments. Health Director Ruth Clay says an excellent staff is necessary for the collaboration to work on a day-to-day basis.
Collaboration involves a measure of risk. Employees fear losing their jobs or control over business as usual. While some collaborations are designed to eliminate redundancy, allaying employees’ fears of layoffs is crucial.
When Eastham and Orleans agreed to have one chief of police oversee both towns’ departments, leaders made sure to take cultural differences into account. Eastham, which has a smaller police department reporting to the town administrator, was concerned about losing its culture to the larger Orleans department, which reports to the Board of Selectmen. Transparency and ongoing communication among all levels of employees was essential during the process, according to Eastham Officer Dan DesChamps. Additionally, emphasis was placed on “meshing” departments, rather that one assuming responsibility over another, to ensure a smooth transition.
The fear of failure is also a common concern. Collaboration participants say that persistence is a key to success. The terms of an agreement for a senior center serving Whately, Deerfield and Sunderland residents since 2010 are evaluated annually to ensure that they continue to meet the needs of all three entities, says Whately Town Administrator Lynn Sibley.
There are always “bumps in the road,” says Hadley Town Administrator David Nixon, whose town has used ambulance services from Amherst for decades. As municipal personnel and leadership change, be ready to re-evaluate, compromise and adjust, he says.
Trust and communication
Local leaders say that trust, transparency and effective communication are essential for successful collaboration. Participants must have the political will to get things done effectively and fairly, says Westborough Town Manager Jim Malloy, whose town shares a building inspector with Ashland. The towns understand that the shared employee’s hours will vary from week to week, but trust that the time will balance equitably over the long term.
To enhance the effectiveness of partnerships for all participants, it is essential to make sure that all parties understand the details, terms, conditions and costs, if any, of the arrangement. Indemnification and “hold harmless” agreements should be addressed early in the process, so there will be less confusion about which party (and which insurance policy) is responsible for any potential liability claim that could arise from a cooperative operation. Indemnification should extend to the joint entities, officials, employees and volunteers.
Other considerations of these arrangements might include the following: Who will manage and supervise; how to allocate expenses; how to resolve conflicts; what is the term of the arrangement; and who will pay costs, including deductibles and retentions in coverage. Such agreements can be outlined through inter-municipal or mutual aid agreements. Guidelines for mutual aid agreements can be found in state law (M.G.L. Ch. 40, Secs. 4J and 8G). Parties to any agreements should consult their legal counsel in advance.
Effective collaborative initiatives must meet the needs of all participants, and each one must be equally committed to its success.
Tips for successful collaborations
• Begin slowly: Informal meetings and conversations are a good way to identify needs and potential partners.
• Manage expectations: Collaboration may not always save money, but may improve services.
• Ensure that all participants share the same definition of success.
• Obtain buy-in from all stakeholders: leadership, select boards and governing boards.
• Become familiar with the job, function or equipment to be shared.
• Chances for success increase if municipalities are contiguous and similar in size, need and culture.
• Look within the municipality first for opportunities to share resources across departments.
• Collaboration is a process; if an initiative does not work out at first, don’t give up.
• Define terms of the operation through inter-municipal or mutual aid agreements.
Joe Callahan is MIIA’s Marketing Manager.