Public services consolidation continues around the country with talk of new-found efficiencies and savings to taxpayers. Opponents say the cost savings are overstated, and consolidation only reduces services to residents. One thing on which both sides can agree: With jobs at stake consolidation takes on a human face; and that often makes the decision to move forward more difficult.
Here in North Texas, Aubrey, Krugerville, and Cross Roads have moved past the review stage to negotiating a merger of their police departments and municipal courts. These three North Texas communities have carefully studied the example of several affluent suburbs west of Houston. Bunker Hill Village, Hunters Creek Village, and Piney Point Village in 1977 established the jointly operated Memorial Villages Police Department, while The Village Fire Department serves all of the Memorial villages.
Larger cities are taking service consolidation seriously, too. Youngstown, Ohio, is looking at eliminating one of its three municipal judges and merging its municipal court system with four Mahoning County courts in nearby towns into one body, in the same building. The city says cutting a single judge position will save $200,000 a year, and the combined courts would save several hundred thousand more dollars annually. In Santa Ana, Calif., city officials and labor unions agreed in 2012 to transfer the responsibilities the 128-year-old city fire department to the Orange County Fire Authority.
Public service consolidation has been going on for decades. According to research cited in a National Fire Academy report, when Thornton, Colo., merged with the West Adams County Fire Protection District in 1995, the city of 180,000 inhabitants saved between $300,000 and $500,000 a year while enhancing fire and emergency medical services.
State makes consolidation easier
More recently in Virginia, the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission’s study suggested that economies of scale and other benefits among the region’s 16 cities made service consolidation feasible for public education, water distribution, transportation, and libraries, while the findings were mixed for firefighting and negative for policing, garbage collection, and mental health services delivery.
Even states are getting into the act. New York State in 2009 passed a law allowing residents of a town, village or special district to dissolve that government or district by referendum. The local government or district would then transfer its services to another municipality. The goal was to eliminate some of the state’s approximately 4,900 taxing entities and reduce New York’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes.
Savings are almost always an attractive lure, but governmental organizations would be wise to consider what can be lost with consolidation: expertise, experience, even identity. They also can’t forget the component that determines so much in the public sector; and that’s the political one.