By Thomas R. Collins
Across the state and the country, cities are going to back to a principle that was taught in kindergarten: Sharing is good.
For everything from police officers to roadwork to water pipes, cities are teaming up with other governments to provide services to their residents.
The idea of cities sharing services isn’t new, but it’s happening more and more in this tight economic climate, with plummeting tax bases that have brought budgets to their knees.
“I’m sure it’s spurring folks to look harder and deeper into any possible way to reduce costs,”
said Ken Small, the financial and technical assistance manager with the Florida League of Cities, a job in which he gives guidance to cities looking to tweak the way they provide services.
Rethinking the way services are provided has been discussed by officials in coastal towns, although there are no plans yet for any new drastic sharing arrangements. Some of the towns already rely on larger neighbors for some services, including utilities. But recent talks have broached service-sharing among the coastal towns themselves.
The rate at which cities are looking beyond their borders for services seems to be increasing everywhere.
Mayors of four towns in north Pinellas County recently met informally to talk about the possibility of sharing resources — including possibly placing their fire departments under the same leadership while maintaining their individual fire departments, as well as a joint medical clinic to provide health care for their workforces.
Across Florida, cities most often look beyond their borders for police and fire protection, since those services are so expensive and more difficult for smaller cities to pull off well. And cities have been known to contract with the YMCA for recreation, with nonprofit groups for veterans services, even with neighboring counties for services, Small said.
There is no template for how to go about seeking outside services, he said. Maybe a city doesn’t want to farm out its entire fire or police department — then maybe it signs on for just fire hydrant maintenance or SWAT team protection.
“It isn’t all or nothing,” Small said. “You can look at piecemeal parts.”
Deals cut both ways
In Southwest Ranches, a town of 7,300 in Broward County, officials have jumped from one provider of police services to another. First, when the town was incorporated in 2000, they used the county sheriff’s office for one half of the town and the city of Davie for the other. Later, they signed with the sheriff’s office for the whole town. Then the sheriff’s office canceled the agreement, and the town is now with the city of Pembroke Pines.
Bert Wraines, the interim town administrator for Southwest Ranches, said it’s just a matter of finding the best deal, although it cuts both ways because the other party can choose to end the agreement.
“You have to be good negotiators,” he said.
In Taylorsville, Utah, a city of 58,700 that sits just southwest of Salt Lake City, city administrator John Inch Morgan tends to put the city’s contracts out to bid every five to ten years just to test the market. Most of the town’s services are contracted out.
“It helps everyone sharpen their pencils,” he said. For example, the city has found that, with the economic downturn, it has been able to get a better deal from the private sector for engineering services rather than keeping it in-house. For police, the city contracts with a “unified police department” that serves several towns. But the deal is only for dispatch, record-management and evidence-handling.
“For me, that makes sense,” said Morgan, who thinks his MBA has served him well on the job. “What I want to do is have control over the officers.”
In many cases, there is more control when a contract is involved, he said.
“I believe that many times when you have contracts, you have greater control (than) even when you have your own employees,” he said. “If we can terminate a contract with 30 or 60 days notice, those folks are going to serve the needs probably to a greater degree than the employees would.”
Experts say decisions on service-sharing require great care. Mayraj Fahim, a New York-based government consultant, thinks of government entities as ecosystems, and that cities have to carefully consider the ripple effects when changing their structures.
“Every kind of system, if you change the integration level, you affect the system,” and those effects can be either positive or negative.
Scott Paine, associate professor of government and world affairs at the University of Tampa, said cities have to be sure they have an out if things don’t go well.
“Are we confident enough about the quality of the service we’re going to get, or are we confident enough that we can shift to another provider if this provider fails to satisfy us,” he said. “You can essentially be held hostage if it’s not a competitive market.”
Small said cities have to be circumspect even before setting out to analyze a potential agreement — because going down that path and doing a U-turn can get expensive, which is particularly bad as administrative staffs are being cut during the lean times.
“You’ve got only so much manpower that you can (use to) look at something,” he said. “So you’re going to be looking at the biggest bang for the dollar.”