Ways municipalities can share services

Regionalization in Massachusetts is structured in one of four ways:

Mutual Aid Agreements

Under mutual aid agreements, local governments agree to lend services to one another, usually without requiring any payment. The most common mutual aid agreements are made for emergency services, and are often used by municipal police and fire departments. Such agreements involve multiple municipalities agreeing to loan services to each other in the event of an emergency. Two new Massachusetts laws were enacted to create a statewide framework for the provision of mutual aid assistance in the case of a public safety or public works incident. Municipalities may opt in and use the statewide framework by letter to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). A sending community may enter into a supplemental agreement with a recipient community for the reimbursement of costs, and the recipient community can seek reimbursement for documented costs of the sending community under any applicable federal and state disaster programs.

An excellent example of a mutual aid agreement is Massachusetts Fire District 14, a progressive network of 23 cities and towns in MetroWest that also includes the Hanscom Air Force Base Fire Department. Fire District 14 was formed using an “intermunicipal agreement” under Chapter 40, Section 4A of the Massachusetts General Laws. Its mission is to provide and coordinate fire services mutual aid assistance in the district, including hazardous materials response and other specialized operations.

Shared Service Agreements

Shared Service Agreements are more formal contractual relationships to share goods or services. Shared service agreements can take several forms:

1) a municipality or host agency acts as lead and provides defined services or goods to one or more towns for an agreed-upon price;

2) a municipality or host agency provides services and goods to another town(s) on an as-needed basis, or

3) two or more municipalities jointly plan, finance and provide services or purchase goods for use by all municipalities within the region (“joint service” model).

Shared service agreements can be created using formal legal contracts or Chapter 40, Section 4A, the intermunicipal agreement law, as guidance. The distinguishing factor in these types of arrangements is that one municipality is ultimately responsible for the personnel, goods or services that are being shared with other municipalities. For example, one municipality or host agency must employ the shared staff member and is responsible for that employee’s salary, benefits and any applicable insurance costs. Although the governance and costs are shared with other municipalities through the provisions of the contract, the “host” bears ultimate responsibility for the provision of services.

A Council of Governments (COG), County Sheriff’s Office or Regional Planning Agency (RPA) or other regional service organization can serve as the host agency. These organizations hire and maintain specialized staff that provide services to participating municipalities under a fee-for-service contract. Each host agency model works differently, but all models should consider including governance representation by all participating municipalities and an agreed-upon assessment formula that equitably allocates costs to each participating municipality.

A successful example of a shared service agreement is the 2009 project in Wakefield and Melrose whereby the two communities agreed to share public health services. The Melrose Public Health Director currently provides services to both municipalities and Wakefield reimburses Melrose for the Director’s time in Wakefield. The project is enhancing services in Wakefield and helping to lower costs in Melrose.

Regional Districts

Several Massachusetts General Laws (M.G.L.) provide for the creation of various types of special districts including but not limited to police and fire districts.  Municipalities can also pursue special legislation for the creation of such a district. Two distinguishing factors about regionalization through a spscial district are: 1) a new legal entity is created to provide the municipal service at a regional level, and 2) the M.G.L. set forth the authorization, creation and governmance model of the new regional district.

Moving Forward: Financial Options

A successful project is contingent upon each participating community beliving its contribution is fair and equitable. There are many examples of funding formulas for shared service projects in use across Massachusetts. Some examples of objective data to consider when developing a funding formula are:

1) municipal population;

2) equalized valuation (EQV) percentages as determined by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, or

3) actual usage of the shared service, either by monetary value or by quantity; for example, the number of service hours received, miles of road plowed, or any other objective measurement.