Seeking the Greatest Bang for the Buck
by Susan Bass Levin
Commissioner, Department of Community Affairs
In today’s fiscally austere environment, Mayors and local government leaders are looking for methods to get the “biggest bang” for the residents’ tax dollars. Local government officials are always on the look out for “alternative service delivery methods” in order to provide the services demanded by residents. One program that can produce savings for municipalities, school districts and counties is the SHARE program in the Department of Community Affairs.
Municipal and county officials have for years been creating partnerships with their neighbors. These were often informal efforts. We now see the greater value possible through formal contract agreements for services between local units. Across the state, shared services programs have resulted in greater efficiency, less duplication and more cost savings.
Municipalities are collaborating on such simple solutions as sharing zoning officers, construction code officials, tax collection, municipal court operations, risk management, engineering services and joint purchasing to improve government efficiency. Additionally, there are endless means for municipalities and local school districts to partner and share resources, while reducing costs for both the municipalities and the school districts.
We all know of issues that impact our communities and do not stop at municipal boundaries. While each town is unique, we have common problems. Mayors, governing body members, municipal administrators or managers, and other professionals need to initiate dialogue with their neighbors and establish whether there is an interest and need to explore shared service alternatives.
As the cost of providing services increases, it becomes more critical for local governments to work cooperatively. Each local unit of government has individual needs, resources, goals—and voters with expectations of what should be part of an interlocal agreement. Once identified, the participants in the proposed agreement can better evaluate the resources and delineate the parameters of the agreement. There are many innovative means that municipalities, counties and other local units can share services efficiently and effectively.
Shared services do not always involve elaborate arrangements or require detailed studies performed by expensive consultants. Shared services, especially in smaller towns, may be informal arrangements to share public works equipment, computer networking support, specialized health services or recreation programs. Keep in mind that even these informal arrangements may require the consent of the governing body, and not just the approval of a government employee. Liability and privacy issues must be addressed, even when two towns are sharing a street sweeper. But the reality is that many shared service agreements only require the commitment of leaders to implement them, leaving the implementation details to their professionals to develop basic working agreements for review and approval of elected officials.
The Sharing Available Resources Efficiently Program, or SHARE, is dedicated to improving the quality of life in the state’s 566 municipalities and 21 counties. SHARE encourages intergovernmental cooperation at the local level. The benefits of the SHARE program are streamlined government operations, reduced municipal costs and property taxes, and increased fiscal and operational efficiency.
SHARE can help local governments get the “biggest bang for their buck” by funding feasibility studies and implementation grants for shared services. The SHARE program offers three types of grants: Implementation Grants provide seed money to support the implementation of new shared services; Feasibility Study Grants help cover the costs of feasibility studies; and County and Regional Coordination Grants support regional or area-wide efforts to identify and develop new shared services.
With 566 municipalities and 21 counties in New Jersey, there are many opportunities to share services, either inter-governmentally or as part of a county regionalization program. The concept of shared services is basic: there are cost savings through economies of scale, such as the “sharing” of animal control services. Cape May County, Manville Borough and Pennsville Township all received SHARE grants that collectively benefited 28 municipalities. Instead of these communities hiring 28 animal control officers with the attendant expenses, sharing these services produced economies of scale and cost savings to the municipalities and, ultimately, the taxpayers.
Sharing animal control services are just one example of the use of SHARE grants. Municipalities have consolidated their municipal courts and their emergency dispatch services. SHARE grants have benefited nine municipalities for shared court facilities or shared court services. Additionally, 13 towns have realized savings by sharing emergency dispatch services.
In Monmouth County, SHARE grants helped create and implement the Public Health consortium, which is a shared service that improves the availability and service levels of epidemiology services and other specialized
public health expertise to eight municipalities. In Somerset County, SHARE grants have provided funding to analyze whether a similar shared service is feasible for four communities.
Municipalities have also benefited from combining police services. Although SHARE has funded one police shared service, there are five feasibility studies being funded that potentially affect ten municipalities. In these particular instances, a second advantage to shared services is to achieve greater operational uniformity in service. Also, shared services can eliminate administrative duplication and improve the deployment of police resources.
Higher service levels, optimization of facilities and increased accountability are further advantages of shared services. Municipalities and county regionalization efforts can make use of under-utilized facilities; share public works equipment; and share technology services such as recreation enrollment, information technology services and personnel scheduling.
Optimization of facilities is particularly apparent when analyzing the shared services for public works. Examples include shared facility use such as after-hours community use of school computer labs, gymnasiums and recreational facilities; and shared use of library facilities, internet and computer networking facilities; joint buildings and grounds maintenance. The list goes on and the savings mount.
SHARE grants have been awarded for feasibility studies for sharing a salt dome, sharing public works vehicle maintenance and storage faculties. In addition, implementation grants have been awarded for shared facility scheduling, shared recreation scheduling and services.
The SHARE program supports shared services in the traditional venues of animal control, dispatch, and public works, and is also designed to encourage “thinking outside the box.” Shared services not only help municipalities on the fiscal level, but it can also bring isolated functions of government together to improve the quality of life throughout the participating communities.
One area that municipalities have been exploring is records management. Many municipalities have outgrown their records storage areas and are seeking new areas or new methods for record consolidation. Shared facilities and maintenance services may be a viable shared service. Further, with the advent of converting documents from paper to digital form, some municipalities are exploring the feasibility of sharing these services.
One of the concerns expressed by municipalities contemplating shared services is the loss of autonomy, especially in areas where there is high visibility of the service and the identification of the service with the particular municipality. Sharing services does not necessarily mean the loss of community identity with the service. DCA staff will work with communities to ensure that the goals of all the participants are met through the shared service.
On a broader scale, SHARE also provides regional coordination grants in order to foster shared services within the county. In Burlington County, a SHARE grant was awarded for regional coordination and shared services promotion with county local units affecting 16 communities. Additionally, Gloucester County and Somerset County received SHARE implementation grants for stormwater-related projects.
The first steps are the easiest: evaluate the services and operations within your own community. What are the current service levels among your departments and in what areas do shared service opportunities exist? Identify intralocal-shared service opportunities and any cost benefits associated. Are there opportunities with school boards, libraries or fire districts? Identify interlocal opportunities: what services or facilities can be shared with neighboring communities or with the county? Shared opportunities and cost saving initiatives may be met through interlocal agreements or cooperative purchasing agreements.
The real challenge and opportunity for local officials is identifying intermunicipal possibilities and bringing them to fruition. It takes leadership and vision to go beyond municipal borders to seek shared and area-wide solutions. Sometimes, it also takes help.
As Commissioner of DCA, I am pleased to be able to offer the additional resources you may need to tap the potential of shared services. The SHARE program helps municipalities and counties plan for success.
This year we have expanded the parameters of the SHARE program to make it more user friendly to local government entities and to encourage a broader range of shared services. We have increased grant amounts to assist projects where the nature or complexities of the project or the number of participants require additional resources. Also, we are encouraging County Coordination Grants to support county shared services assistance.
New Jerseyans deserve the best government services that their tax dollars can provide. Governor Corzine and I are committed to making state government leaner, smarter and more responsive, by using a common sense approach to the way government does business.
Sharing services is an integral part of increasing government efficiency. The key is communication and cooperation among all local units. We have to focus on the needs of New Jerseyans and how to best meet them—not the name on the truck that picks up the trash, but on making sure that solid waste services are delivered in a timely and cost effective way.
If we are to preserve the quality of life our residents enjoy, and improve it for future generations, we must learn to work together and develop creative partnerships to solve our problems...and provide the biggest bang for the buck.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of New Jersey Municipalities, pp. 14-17.
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