More communities forming partnerships
DARIEN More than a decade ago, a state blue ribbon panel charged with finding budget efficiencies recommended that local municipalities consider consolidating certain services.
Towns couldn’t work with cities. Their needs are totally different. Cities complained they would shoulder the burden of freeloading municipalities.
Turfs were defended; everybody got huffy, and the idea mostly went away.
Now, state funding for municipalities has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. The property tax base has eroded, and municipalities are scrambling to find ways to fund services.
And consolidation is back in the form of an increasing number of intergovernmental agreements.
At a meeting two weeks ago, the village of Darien approved a draft agreement with the city of Delavan and town of Darien regarding recreational services.
The agreement still has to be approved by the Delavan City Council and the Darien Town Board. If it is approved, residents of the village and town of Darien will be able to participate in Delavan’s recreation programs at a reduced rate. The same would apply to city residents who want to participate in the town or village programs.
In addition, officials hope that shared publicity about events will increase attendance in all locations.
It’s not a consolidation of departments but sharing resources to improve services for everyone involved.
“We already have an intergovernmental agreement with the town of Darien for fire and EMS,” said Diana Dykstra, Darien village administrator. “They respond to each other’s calls and do training together.”
The tiny village of Sharon recently reached an agreement with Fontana for building inspec tion services, said Dykstra, who is also the village of Sharon board president.
In that case, the village will pay the same amount for what it hopes will be significantly better services.
“Quality counts,” Dykstra said. “I truly believe there are better ways of working together in these communities.”
It’s worked in other communities, too, and on a much larger scale. Rock County has a combined 911 dispatch center that continues to win awards for the quality of its work.
The Beloit Health Department became a part of the Rock County Health Department.
On the surface, consolidation seems like a good way to save money or offer enhanced services. So why isn’t it used more often?
Share and share alike
Walworth County Administrator David Bretl formed the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council in 2006.
Three times a year, members of the group, which includes leaders from towns, cities and villages, meet to toss around ideas, problem solve and get to know each other better.
For Bretl, the council was a way to get leaders to declare a stalemate—or at least a ceasefire—in the turf wars.
“Let’s not be Machiavellian about this. Let’s talk to one another,” Bretl said.
He’s seen progress but acknowledges how hard it is for municipalities, especially when jobs are at stake.
Very often, administrative and middle management jobs are at risk, and they’re the people making the decisions about cooperative agreements.
“It’s easy for me to say, ‘I’m all for consolidation of counties, as long as I get to be in charge,’” Bretl joked.
In addition, municipal leaders worry about the quality of services they’ll get when they no longer have exclusive control over employees.
And what might be cheaper at first could evolve into a fiscal nightmare.
Residents of small communities are concerned about losing their identities and becoming unofficial suburbs of larger municipalities.
“There’s a loss of a sense of community,” Bretl said. “And bigger isn’t always better.”
Elk crossing ahead
Bretl, however, sees change coming.
“It’s the 800-pound elk in the room,” he said. “There will likely come a time where it will mean collaboration between governments or loss of services.”
Right now, Bretl sees communities “making inroads on the margins” of intergovernmental cooperation.
It’s much less threatening for municipalities to talk about a shared purchasing agent than an agreement that would significantly change the way things operate.
Act 10 and its changes in collective bargaining for public employees have helped push agreements forward.
In the past, creating a pool of secretaries or maintenance staff who move from department to department as needed might have been difficult, especially if the jobs had different duties or hours.
All would have to be negotiated in a contract. Now, a personnel handbook that can be written unilaterally by the government covers most public employees.
Raising taxes to preserve services is always an option, of course.
“Look, we’ve got taxpayers that are stressed already, and even if we could raise the money, we’d have to think very carefully about it,” Bretl said.