After years of discussion and examination, state lawmakers are taking aim at tearing down barriers that prevent municipalities from sharing services.
A joint legislative committee is ready to start the process and the initial targets have been identified, just as a second panel is set to be formed to expedite Pawtucket’s interests in saving or making money by sharing services.
On April 30, the Joint Commission on Shared Municipal Services held its first meeting. Its goal is to achieve a 20 percent savings over the next five years in four fields that have been chosen for their relative ease of transition: information technology, dispatch services, tax collections and property assessment. These four items relate only to a municipality’s operating budget and exclude school districts.
The four targets that were identified by the commission were chosen because according to Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, D-Middletown, co-chair of the panel, they appeared to be the most achievable goals.
“We consider these to be the ‘low-hanging fruit’ that we can start with. As time goes on the more difficult issues can be dealt with. This has been a long time in coming,” DiPalma said after the meeting, “and to have the opportunity to do this is exciting.”
Sharing services is nothing new; North Kingstown, for example, currently sells its IT services to the town of Exeter, and five municipalities (Barrington, Central Falls, East Greenwich, Lincoln and Little Compton), share the same tax-collection service. Another successful venture has been with the emergency-dispatch system, where 19 towns now employ one dispatch team for both fire and police services.
There are also similar examples across the country that have also reaped benefits. In Tennessee, local business tax collections were ultimately unified under one roof by the state.
These actions save money, but that fact alone isn’t always enough to move towns toward improving efficiency. According to the state constitution, municipalities with a home-rule charter cannot be forced to share services.
“While the state may feel it’s the right thing to do, cities and towns operating under a home-rule charter have it within their purview to decide what they want to do and when they want to do it,” DiPalma said.
“A plan needs to be in place,” said Rep. Lisa P. Tomasso, D-Coventry, “or municipalities will pair themselves off with who they are comfortable with, perhaps to the detriment to other towns that have, say, financial difficulties. Picking and choosing who you want to work with might not benefit all the people of Rhode Island.”