Identifying Opportunities

Local leaders are often under pressure from various stakeholders – municipal employees, residents, and state government – to quickly produce effective solutions to local problems.

Those leaders who are seeking innovative regional solutions to such problems may find themselves under increased pressure to ensure that any solution involving shared services is particularly effective and, more importantly, favorable to the residents of the municipality. Given Massachusetts’ long tradition of home rule and local control, such leaders often cannot find examples of successful regional solutions and may find themselves creating projects for the first time. Such projects are often under increased scrutiny and serve as “test cases” for future shared services endeavors.

Thus, a critical piece to successfully sharing services is to find and implement the right project at the right time. The following are some general best practices that will help local leaders identify successful projects.

Use existing regional plans to identify projects

Existing regional plans are a good source of potential projects and, in many cases, the need for a specific project has already been established as part of the regional planning process. Moreover, multiple stakeholders contribute to the creation of a regional plan, and a regionalization project that is recommended in such a plan can gain significant support by its recommendation in a regional plan. In addition, an initial study may have already been done as part of the regional plan, therefore proving that the project could work, although a feasibility study may still be necessary.

Massachusetts’ thirteen regional planning agencies are excellent sources of existing regional plans and include plans related to priority development, open space and recreation, transportation, scenic byways and comprehensive economic development.

Examples of Projects Identified in a Regional Plan:

The Pioneer Valley Clean Energy Plan suggested that one positive step communities can take to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions is to make communities more bicycle friendly. In Franklin County, a bikeway plan was developed and projects involving multiple municipalities have been completed or are in process to create a Franklin County Bikeway on a network of bike trails as well as signed routes using public roads.

The Greater Franklin County Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy includes an objective to execute a regional Brownfields program. The Franklin Regional Council of Governments Planning Department uses grant funding for a program to assess and remediate contaminated property

Regionalize New Programs as They Emerge

Whether it is through the passage of new state and federal laws, availability of new funding sources, or advances in technology, change can lead to the creation of new municipal services and programs. There is an opportunity as new programs emerge to structure such programs in a way that encourages or even requires some form of regionalization.

Without a preexisting organizational structure, it can be easier to develop an entirely new program from scratch than it is to consolidate existing programs. Local leaders can avoid collective bargaining issues and other personnel concerns, reduce the potential for staff layoffs, and even change the working culture of a municipal government by regionalizing emerging services.

On the other hand, regionalizing emerging municipal programs may still involve dealing with personnel issues if current employees are being re-assigned to a new program. In addition, municipal officials may have face some resistance if a new program challenges the way things are usually done in a municipality.

Examples of Emerging Regional Programs

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) created the Green Communities program to help empower cities and towns to reduce energy consumption and increase energy efficiency. New programs are rolled with a regional opportunity identified. For instance, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program sought to reduce municipal energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Regional proposals were encouraged.

Energy savings performance contracting: The passage of MGL Chapter 25A Section 11I authorized the regionalization of performance contracting projects, resulting in energy saving benefits to many small towns that would otherwise not receive proposals from energy services companies. Several RPAs have helped facilitate these regional projects.

The Hampshire Council of Governments took advantage of electricity deregulation to organize a municipal aggregation program called Hampshire Power. The program serves about 90 customers across western Massachusetts. Customers have saved money compared to default electric rates they would have been paying.

Take Advantage of Expiring Service Contracts and Staff Attrition

One of the most important factors in successfully implementing a shared service project is timing. Regionalizing municipal services often requires restructuring staff assignments, which most local leaders either do not want to do or cannot to do because of existing employment contracts and relevant Massachusetts law.

Upcoming staff retirements and expiring contracts present a good opportunity to move an existing service in a regional direction. As employees leave through resignation or retirement, opportunities arise for sharing rather than filling the open position. Waiting until employees retire or leave positions may help reduce a community’s resistance to shared service projects and decrease the likelihood that local officials will need to reduce the workforce through unpopular layoffs. Municipal leaders should remain in regular contact with neighboring communities and share information regarding staffing in order to be prepared when opportunities arise.

Furthermore, municipalities may achieve significant savings though joint procurements with neighboring municipalities. Such projects often require realigning existing service contracts and neighboring municipalities usually operate under service contracts that expire at different times. Local officials should reach out to neighboring communities a few months before existing contracts are set to expire and consider working together on a joint procurement or shared service project. The increased negotiating power gained by working together may result in significant cost savings. Finding the right partner may take some time, so municipal officials should remain in regular contact with neighboring communities and work to realign contracts whenever possible.

Formalize “Handshake” Agreements

Many of the Commonwealth’s 351 municipalities have developed partnerships over the years in which communities will informally share services through unofficial “handshake” agreements that are not formalized in writing. Although informal arrangements can be good solutions to a local problem, formalizing such agreements would help protect the interests of each municipality, particularly around insurance and liability issues. Moreover, formalizing agreements could encourage expansion of the shared service to other municipalities by legitimizing the project.

Formalizing handshake agreements can be challenging if the communities involved prefer to keep the arrangement private. At times it may better not to “mess with a good thing” or draw attention to certain projects. Such agreements may have been made between two friendly town administrators or department directors without going through a formal approval process. Moreover, formalizing an arrangement can open for discussion critical and even controversial elements of the agreement that could result in the dissolving of the project.

Examples of Successful Projects

Quincy, Braintree and Weymouth took advantage of expiring solid waste collection contracts and increased their negotiating power by issuing a joint bid and entering into a shared contract. All three municipalities increased their revenue from recycling and scrap metal and are benefiting from stable collection pricing through a long-term contract.

Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) assisted 8 of 9 school districts in Franklin County with a regional bidding process for regular school bus services. School districts achieved a combined savings of $300K over previous contracts. The process resulted in realigned contracts so that a single joint bid could possibly yield greater savings in the next contract.

FRCOG’s collective bid for elevator maintenance services included language so that more towns and schools can join as existing contracts expire. Initial cost savings are anticipated to increase when the next bid is issued with more municipalities participating.

Start with Simpler Projects (“Low Hanging Fruit”)

Municipal officials should take advantage of relatively simple opportunities to work together. Aiming for easy ‘win-win’ projects can be valuable, particularly if the communities involved do not have a history of working together. Such projects can be a good first step toward building trust and goodwill and developing a culture of collaboration. Furthermore, achieving easy victories together could increase the likelihood of further collaboration on larger, more complicated projects. Simple projects should be realistic from operational and financial perspectives. Examples of good first ventures include joint procurements and the sharing of non-union staff, or essentially any project that does not require a significant amount of change.

Some obstacles to starting with “low hanging fruit” projects include learning to work with a partner for the first time and overcoming any differences between municipalities that may not have been obvious at the onset.

Examples of Simple Shared Projects

Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District worked with 23 member towns on an office supply bid, achieving savings for all through a discount off catalogue pricing.

Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission worked with the City of Worcester to make its bids for goods available to other municipalities in the Worcester County region served by CMRPC. 

Online burn permitting for Six Berkshire County municipalities
The Berkshire Regional Planning Commission coordinates a service that provides a centralized process to provide online municipal burn permits to resident applicants during the state burning season (January 15 – May 1). This shared service frees up time for local fire chiefs and offers an efficient, cost-effective method to handle a routine process. It is anticipated that additional towns will join the program in 2012.

Look for Natural Partnerships

Municipal leaders should look for and take advantage of natural partnerships to help increase the likelihood of successful projects. It may be easier for communities with a history of collaboration to expand their partnerships to shared services projects. Even municipalities without existing relationship but with similar demographics could be natural partners.

Examples of natural partnerships include being part of a regional school district or members of the same regional planning agency. Geographic closeness can also lead to natural partnerships, for example, towns on a hill, along a shared river, or on Cape Cod may find it easy to work with neighbors.

Municipal leaders should keep in mind that working with seemingly natural partners does not automatically guarantee success, as there may still be barriers to overcome when sharing goods and services.

Examples of Successful Natural Partnerships

Inter-Municipal Cooperation Committee on the Outer Cape

Selectmen from the Towns of Eastham, Provincetown, Truro and Wellfleet held a joint meeting in 2008 to discuss shared issues.  They then formed an “Inter-Municipal Cooperation Committee,” which began to identify the most easily attainable opportunities for collaboration.  Many successful collaborations have been developed, including a regional police department merger.  Each town’s website includes a page dedicated to the Committee.  View the Town of Provincetown’s page at http://www.provincetown-ma.gov/index.aspx?nid=215

The Towns of Hamilton and Wenham, MA have a long history of sharing services, including a regional school system, combined library services and sharing a facilities manager. The two communities continue to look for opportunities to build on this partnership.

The Towns of Buckland and Shelburne, MA share Shelburne Falls, a downtown village business district.  In partnership with the Shelburne Falls Area Business Association, the selectmen of both towns meet on a quarterly basis to discuss topics of mutual interest.  This partnership has served as a catalyst for joint grant applications and other projects.  Each town appropriates funding on an annual basis to pay for the partnership’s administrative costs.