September 23, 2009 Salem News Article

My View: Cities, towns must think regional

My View
Timothy B. Murray

As a former mayor, I understand hometown pride. In Massachusetts, we cherish our individual communities, and rightfully so.

However, as lieutenant governor of the commonwealth, I know that if we remain too parochial when it comes to providing local services, we end up duplicating efforts unnecessarily, and that's an unsustainable model for Massachusetts.

Take just one example: Massachusetts has 264 public safety call centers, one for every 24,000 people. Maryland, a state with a population and land area comparable to ours, has only 24 call centers, one for every 233,000 people. Why? It's because of regionalization.

Even before the current economic and fiscal crisis, the Patrick-Murray administration made it a priority to partner with cities and towns to find new ways and to think differently about how to provide essential municipal services. Now, given the budget realities facing communities across the commonwealth, we must move even more swiftly on a range of fronts, including joining forces to provide services on a regional basis that historically have been provided by each community individually.

As part of our ongoing work to facilitate those efforts, our administration partnered with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and the Massachusetts Association of Regional Planning Agencies and convened a conference in Worcester on Sept. 3 called "The Regionalization Tool Kit: A Practical Guide to Sharing Municipal Services."

The response was overwhelming. More than 300 municipal and planning leaders from across the state, representing 135 cities and towns, attended to listen, to learn and to share their experiences about reaching across borders to save money and maintain vital services.

They learned about the big win for Quincy, Braintree and Weymouth when those communities came together to increase their bargaining power when bidding on a new trash contract.

Several communities, such as Melrose and Wakefield, are working on health department consolidations, facilitated by recent legislation promoted by the administration. Consolidating health departments not only can save money, it preserves a high level of vital services like restaurant and housing inspections that are fundamental to the quality of life in those communities.

The Executive Office of Public Safety and Security's Emergency 911 Program has recently transformed this grant program to encourage communities to merge Public Safety Answering Points, also known as emergency call centers. The first major regional call center is now being built to serve 215,000 people in 13 communities in Essex County.

At the Sept. 3 conference, we announced another round of grants for this program, a total of $7.9 million, to support 12 regional projects that will cover more than 100 communities.

Municipal finance and local services are complex issues with many invested parties, but we must do our best to encourage any efficiency for the sake of cost savings and continued services.

So far, we've made good progress encouraging municipalities to join the state's health insurance program and the state's retirement plan, thereby saving money, which means saving jobs and services at the municipal level. We've given cities and towns new options for local revenue, and will continue to work on reforms to give cities and towns more tools to help them deliver services effectively.

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Timothy P. Murray, a former mayor of Worcester, is lieutenant governor of Massachusetts.