Once known by the buzzword “consolidation,” municipally shared services is a concept that’s been kicked around for years by towns throughout the state, but has rarely gotten past the planning phase. But in financially ailing cities like Pawtucket and Central Falls, it might be an idea whose time has finally come.
On April 15, Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien announced that Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee agreed to form a panel to establish a mechanism for the city to undertake shared services. The mechanism would allow a municipality to offer services in a specific area to another town at a lower cost than currently spent. The town conducting the work would gain revenue by charging for the service.
For Grebien and his staff, there’s no time to waste. “People have been talking about this for a long time and the state is interested in doing it, as well as our surrounding communities,” said Tony Pires, director of administration for Pawtucket. “Let’s get this off the dime, put something together formally with the governor’s people, including the R.I. Department of Revenue and Office of Municipal Affairs. Let’s work out in the open and learn what the barriers are, get past the talking stage and get on with the concept of shared services,” he said.
By consenting to form the panel, the governor has shown that he is in agreement in pushing a shared-services agenda forward, says Chafee spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger.
“It is time to act and the governor has made that clear, particularly in the case of municipalities,” she said. Hunsinger said the panel’s composition has not yet been decided.
Lawmakers have been studying the ramifications of sharing services for the last few years.
In May 2010, an 11-member Senate Municipal Shared Services Study Commission reported that sharing services would reap benefits by saving money and improving efficiency. In doing so, they advised another committee be formed to study the matter further.
On Feb. 23, the permanent Joint Commission on Shared Municipal Services was formed to address four areas for potential sharing: information technology, public-safety dispatch, tax assessment and tax collections, with a goal of a 20 percent savings in five years.
Sen. Louis P. DiPalma, D-Little Compton, served on the first commission and is a member of its newest incarnation. He has also championed bills promoting shared services.
According to Hunsinger, the two committees will work in conjunction with each other.
The matter of shared services is also accompanied by some difficult hurdles. Dissimilar union contracts between towns impede consolidation, and no union likes to lose employees. The state cannot force municipalities with home-rule charters to share services. There is also the attitude that municipalities find the concept an affront to their autonomy.
DiPalma said exploration of sharing services would naturally lead to a conversation on regionalization, a topic he fears has little local support because no town wants to share control with another municipality.
Pires sees the work done by the new panel Chafee will form serving as “a pilot for the kind of work the Assembly wants done. Now it’s time to move.
“Our goal is to have something done and in place sometime in fiscal year 2013,” Pires said. “It’s part of our strategy to save this city.”
Pawtucket has had conversations with Central Falls ever since the Grebien administration took office in January 2011, according to Pires. Services such as animal control, zoning, police and fire protection were initially discussed, where Pawtucket would provide those functions and bill Central Falls, at a rate less than Central Falls currently pays. Talks had to stop last August when Central Falls filed for bankruptcy and was put under the control of state-appointed receiver Robert Flanders.
Now, however, the two are considering sharing Pawtucket’s Department of Public Works, including street cleaning, snow removal and park maintenance.
Pawtucket’s southerly neighbor, East Providence, has also experienced financial problems and was placed under state oversight last November. East Providence City Manager Peter Graczykowski did not immediately return calls seeking comment on his community’s interest in shared services.
For struggling municipalities, there’s a lot at stake. In Central Falls, Flanders is an advocate for sharing services and is hopeful there will be ample opportunity to do so with the Central Falls School District, which faces a $5.6 million deficit. He also welcomes the opportunity to work with Pawtucket.
“This move by the governor and the mayor is just the latest in a series of possible solutions that are being explored,” Flanders said.
In Pawtucket last December, Fitch Ratings affirmed the city’s BBB- bond rating and upgraded its outlook to “stable.” In December 2010, its outlook was “negative.” Fitch acknowledged the city’s efforts to eliminate the school fund’s cumulative deficit of $2.4 million, but expressed concerns about the city’s low liquidity and unfunded pension and post-employment benefits. •