Local governments in Massachusetts are facing unprecedented challenges. The widening economic crisis has crippled economic activity and the state tax revenues that follow. Governor Patrick is now expected to reduce grants to cities and towns in the second half of the current fiscal year that ends June 30th. It is already a foregone conclusion that state aid will be reduced by at least 10 percent or perhaps more for FY10 when the governor files his annual budget.
At the same time, towns continue to battle the component parts of the structural deficit inherent in Proposition 2 1/2, the state law that requires citizen consent to increase local property taxes by more than 2.5 percent. Retirement plan costs grow because of generous benefits, inadequate funding, and the added challenge of declining stock value and other plan assets. Health insurance costs continue an upward spiral because municipalities, unlike the state, are required to collectively bargaining plan design. School and municipal buildings face the same spike in heating costs as homeowners and small businesses. Local government is a service business, with obligations that are in large measure not dependent on market forces like supply and demand or consumer choice. So what are municipalities doing to cut costs at a time when citizens face their own economic challenges and would be otherwise less likely to support an override?
Towns are applying some of the successful strategies used in the private sector such as bulk and collaborative purchasing, consolidating work and departments, and focusing on core functions. Sudbury has already implemented many changes in these areas. We have created integrated departments of Public Works, Finance and Administration, and Community Development and Planning, jointly bid energy supply and cleaning services with the Sudbury Public Schools, and currently the SPS and Town are engaged in a process analysis project (know as CORE) to improve the efficiency and reduce the cost of shared “backroom” administrative tasks. The Budget Review Task Force, created by the Selectmen and Finance Committee, has recommended other consolidation strategies for consideration. So to examine opportunities for collaboration with comparable municipalities is a logical next step.
While Governor Patrick and his administration have touted the untapped potential of regionalization as a tool to reduce the cost of government, this concept is not new to Sudbury and Wayland. We have shared a septage treatment facility for more than 30 years and our professional staffs have worked together on an informal basis over the years. Last month, selectmen from Wayland and Sudbury began a dialogue to determine what services might be better performed on a collaborative basis yielding cost efficiencies and improved service for residents of both communities. Some ideas may take shape in time to impact the next budget. Others require more detailed analysis to determine whether an idea has the potential to yield savings in future years.
Former landfills for each town abut at the border on Route 20. Officials are studying whether the methane gas released from the decomposing trash and as a by-product of the treatment of septage at the adjoining shared facility can be captured and generate electricity. The covered landfills may be ideal locations for photovoltaic panels to harness energy from the sun. Officials are also exploring the feasibility of coordinating hours at each transfer station and allowing residents from both towns to use the open location. The economy of scale resulting from the proximity of the sites seems to offer an opportunity to maintain the quality of services at a reduced cost.
The two towns have asked their professional staff to explore other programs and services that might be offered to residents more efficiently. Recreation programs with enrollments insufficient to offer in one community could run if opened to residents of both towns. A regional effort to improve elderly and handicapped transportation services could spawn joint program offerings at both senior centers. And both towns will be comparing inventories and planned purchases of capital equipment to determine whether certain specialty machinery might be shared.
As both communities face critical capital projects in the coming years, officials will be studying ways it might be possible to limit the scope of building expansion. Wayland has an identified need for expanded library space and the demographic reality of a growing senior population will require more resources. Sudbury needs to address an outdated police station. The possibility of regional dispatching of emergency services and processing of suspects is being studied by a group of communities on the South Shore and should be considered here. Libraries, already part of a regional network for loaning materials and sharing technology infrastructure, are natural candidates for expanding collaborative efforts.
We are committed to exploring the potential benefits of shared services and facilities with Wayland and other neighboring communities. We will be reaching out to determine reciprocal interest. This initiative will challenge members of town boards and committees, professional staff, and our citizens to “think out of the box” – to reconsider the facilities and equipment needed to house government functions and the manner in which services are delivered. The effort will require us to compromise parochial interests, to set aside old models, and to break down barriers to change. It will require the legislature to remove antiquated rules and requirements that would otherwise doom cooperation among municipalities. Collaboration is an important tool for maintaining high quality and cost effective services that our citizens have a right to expect.
Sudbury Board of Selectmen, Larry O’Brien, Chairman