By Mark T. Broth, Esq.
If you attempted to create a list of “unpopular topics for public officials,” spending more money and regionalization would both be at or near the top. Elected officials are rightfully expected to be close guardians of the public purse, operating under the mandate of providing the governmental services that the public demands and expects, but at the lowest possible cost. While guarding the public purse, elected officials are also expected to protect their communities’ borders. Local control, as evidenced by the multitude of New Hampshire towns, cities, specialty districts, boards, and commissions, has long been valued over the efficiencies that could result from regionalization of municipal services.
Circumstances beyond the control of local government are making it increasingly difficult for public officials to deliver essential services without significant cost increases. Those circumstances are largely driven by demographics. According to the U.S. Census Bureau Community Survey, New Hampshire is tied with Vermont for having the 2nd oldest median age population in the United States. The New Hampshire Center for Public Policy reports that, between 1960 and 1990, migration into the State (primarily from Massachusetts) increased the workforce by 12,000 people annually. Since 1990, in-migration has been flat. The combination of an aging population, no in-migration, and the out-migration of young adults is predicted to result in a .3% annual decline in New Hampshire’s working age population, a loss of 2,500 working age adults annually. This trend is not expected to reverse itself in the near future.
An aging population has a greater need for healthcare and related services, creating a labor shortage in those fields. Several bills filed in the current legislative session focus on the current and future shortage of direct care givers. An aging population also requires more government services. Most fire chiefs would report that emergency medical services are responsible for the majority of their call volume, with seniors making up a disproportionate share of those calls. Senior health issues also contribute to family stress, a significant source of calls requiring a police response.
At the same time, New Hampshire’s economy remains steady, if not booming. Studies show that New Hampshire faired better than many other states during the last recession and has enjoyed a reasonable recovery. This has resulted in more hiring by the private sector. With a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 2.8%, competition for the few available workers has become fierce. In the public sector, the workforce availability problem is made more acute by the unique job responsibilities of police, fire, and public works employees, which require not only basic competencies but also require that applicants be drug free.
Given these challenges, how will towns and cities fill open positions for police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and CDL drivers? More and more communities are struggling to answer this question. Some communities have resorted to economic incentives, offering hiring and retention bonuses to new employees and/or increasing starting pay. Others are reviewing salary structures in light of the high turnover costs incurred when employees leave the town that paid for their training in order to accept employment with other higher paying communities. These types of adjustments will unavoidably have an inflationary effect on public employee compensation statewide. Combined with the competition from the private sector for qualified workers, some public employers will find it increasingly difficult to fill vacant positions without significant additional expense.
Which brings us back to regionalization. There are obvious efficiencies that could be realized if several communities consolidated their law enforcement, fire/EMS, and even public works activities. New technology has long allowed for regionalization of emergency dispatch functions. Available technology similarly expands the capacity of administrative personnel, so that the administrative staff of a multi-community police or fire department might not differ significantly from that of any participating community operating independently. Simply put, every administrative expense dollar saved is a dollar that can be redirected to recruiting and retaining front line operational employees.
It is clear that the concept of regionalization must be approached in a thoughtful, careful way, so as to maintain public confidence in governmental services. However, given the ever-increasing risk of higher tax burdens to fund employee wages and benefits, this may be a discussion whose time has come.
Mark Broth is a member of DrummondWoodsum’s Labor and Employment Group. His practice focuses on the representation of private and public employers in all aspects of the employer-employee relationship. This is not a legal document nor is it intended to serve as legal advice or a legal opinion. Drummond Woodsum & MacMahon, P.A. makes no representations that this is a complete or final description or procedure that would ensure legal compliance and does not intend that the reader should rely on it as such. “Copyright 2017 Drummond Woodsum. These materials may not be reproduced without prior written permission.”
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