Study: Towns, cities open to more collaboration

A strategic plan for recreational programs. The joint bidding of revaluation services. The sharing of specialized public works equipment.

These are just some of the recommendations from a recent study on ways the region's towns and cities could collaborate more on delivering services.

The study, initiated by the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, says the region's record of sharing services is "at least on par" with other areas in the state and the region has the environment to "support expanded cooperation." Southeastern Connecticut towns and cities are open to more collaboration, particularly in light of the state's fiscal climate.

"The extended impasse that characterized the most recent state budget process offered a poignant reminder of Connecticut's fiscal challenges, and how funding uncertainty and cost growth are challenging traditional methods of service delivery," the study states.

The council of governments received a $150,000 Regional Performance Incentive Program grant from the state Office of Policy and Management to fund the study. CGR, a Rochester, N.Y.-based management consulting organization, interviewed local officials and collected data from the council's 22 cities, towns and boroughs to prepare the report.

The study found that spending from the regional council's municipalities grew 9.9 percent from 2011 to 2015, less than the statewide rate of 12.2 percent over that period.

Southeastern Connecticut towns and cities are already collaborating in some areas, including regional probate courts, health districts and animal control. Joseph Stefko, president and CEO of CGR, told the council last month that there are 33 existing shared service arrangements in the region. The study identifies opportunities for the region to build on or expand that collaboration with suggestions for sharing services that could save money, improve service or offer long-term financial sustainability.

Shared services opportunities

The study, released in late January, recommends opportunities in the categories of health, animal control, planning, tax assessment, public works, recreation and administrative services. In some instances, the report encourages more towns and cities to explore approaches, such as joint purchasing agreements and regional health districts, that their peers already implemented.  

Towns with a local part-time health department — Franklin and Preston — should consider joining the majority of the council's municipalities that belong to a regional health district, the study states. CGR says it agrees with the state Department of Public Health that health districts may provide better coverage and at a lower cost.

Animal control is another area in which many Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments towns and cities already share services, including the seven that joined a regional service provided by the Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, the study says. The report says more towns, such as North Stonington, Preston and Ledyard, could consider the regional service.

As five small towns — Bozrah, Franklin, Lisbon, Salem and Sprague — contract with the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments for planning services, the study recommends more smaller-sized towns, such as Preston, North Stonington, Lebanon, Ledyard and Griswold, also consider contracting with the council. There may also be opportunities for larger towns to find opportunities for savings in planning services.

The study says towns and cities could also explore inter-municipal agreements for shared tax assessment systems; the joint bidding of revaluation services; holding regular meetings among public works directors to discuss best practices; regional marketing and advertising for recreational programs; a regional strategic plan for recreational programs; and the creation of a district among cities and towns for parks and recreation programs, among other suggestions.

There are more opportunities for municipalities to share specialized public works equipment that they use infrequently, according to the study, which provides a list of the equipment owned by each municipality.

There are also shared services opportunities for financial administration, purchasing, information technology, and human resources, such as a combined human resources department for municipal government and the Board of Education.

Implementation

"I think this has provided our municipalities a great menu as to how they may go forward in the future," James Butler, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, said in a phone interview last week.

He added that, of course, a lot depends on each municipality and how local officials and communities view the proposals. "It's not one size fits all," he added, and the study's purpose isn't to mandate the sharing of services, but to show how they could be implemented and the potential savings.

The next step is for local officials, staff and communities to investigate whether the opportunities make sense for their towns and cities.

To begin, Butler said, he hopes to invite local officials and their staff to meetings to discuss specific areas of recommendation, such as shared services for tax assessment. The council of governments could also assist in facilitating the sharing of services for towns that want to move forward, for example, by crafting shared service agreements.

"I believe in regionalism when it comes to shared services," Stonington First Selectman Rob Simmons said. "I think it's important. I think it's a money saver."

Simmons said towns and cities are already collaborating — for example, rather than having to buy their own equipment, towns belonging to the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resource Recovery Authority have access to a shared tub grinder that grinds up brush, stumps, and refuse wood —  and there are more opportunities.

Ledyard Mayor Fred B. Allyn III also said he's also an advocate for shared services in many areas of municipal government.

"There should be an efficiency associated with combining of some services or education opportunities with nearby towns that may not be able to provide the level of service needed or demanded by their residents, due to the size of the town, lack of an adequate tax base or some combination of the same," he said by email.

Before the report was issued, Allyn had begun informal conversations with several nearby towns to discuss what services may make sense for Ledyard to provide to others, or for others to provide to Ledyard. Services that could be considered include policing, animal control and some public works functions. While exploring animal control, he said he found that Ledyard provides the service for less than a  neighboring community, so it wouldn't be feasible to merge with the other community. But he said he would continue to seek opportunities to share services where it makes sense.

Preston, which has a part-time planner, has contracted with the council of governments for planning services when working on big projects, rather than adding staff, First Selectman Bob Congdon said. The town has also looked in the past at joining a regional health district, a step that the state may force all municipalities to do in the future. He said local officials are monitoring the cost-effectiveness of joining a regional health district and whether it would enable the town to provide more or better service.

He said it's important to look at all sides when considering sharing services, which means evaluating not just cost, but also service.

Congdon said the town has discussed in the past regionalizing animal control, but the town's animal control officer meets the town's needs in a cost-effective manner. He said the community will continue to look at ways to deliver services more cost-effectively, but joining the Northeastern Connecticut Council of Governments would mean residents and staff would have a 45-minute drive to the dog pound.

He added that towns and cities can build on the in-depth study to consider other areas, such as education and emergency services.

"It provided examples of what other towns are doing that you can build upon," he said. "That’s always helpful."

The full report is available at: http://www.seccog.org.

k.drelich@theday.com




Old lyme and Lyme weren’t included in the study because they are in the Lower CT River Valley Council of Governments, not the Southeastern CT Council of Governments.

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