Inter-Municipal Sharing Agreements: What’s New?
The July/August 2010 issue of New Hampshire Town and City magazine ran a series of articles under the banner, “Beyond the Sandbox: Sharing Services through Inter-Municipal Cooperation, Collaboration and Innovation.” The centerpiece of that series was a research summary of the New Hampshire Municipal Association’s (NHMA) first statewide survey of inter-municipal agreements. That report concluded with the hope that the survey’s findings would spur more cities and towns to begin a conversation on the benefits of establishing regional, cooperative agreements with their neighbors.
As is often the case, research begets more research. The only way to know what has changed since the 2010 benchmark study on this subject was to conduct a new survey, the singular goal of which was to learn what, if anything, has changed in the intervening months. Have new inter-municipal agreements been formed? Have existing relationships been expanded? Are new conversations taking place between municipalities where none existed a year ago? These are the questions posed to this year’s research sample of New Hampshire cities and towns.
The 2010 benchmark study sampled all 234 municipalities; the response rate was 56 percent, which represented half of the state’s population. The follow up survey, distributed in October 2011, went out to the 56 percent who made up the previous sample base. As before, the survey was administered by way of an online survey tool. By early November 2011, responses had been gathered from just over half of the 2010 sample base, for a total of 84 cities and towns.
The line of questioning in the 2011 survey was as follows:
- Since April of 2010, have you entered into any new regional, cooperative, sharing agreements with:
– Any municipalities?
– Any school districts?
– The county?
- Have any existing agreements changed during this time?
- Are things under consideration?
These total-sample findings are summarized in the table below:
Clearly, there is progress on this front. One quarter of this year’s sample reported that they are at least talking about one or more new inter-municipal sharing agreements with their neighbors. Another one out of five (which includes some of the inter-municipal communities) has seen movement in the municipality-with-school-district arena. And, although not large in number, some of the municipality-with-county initiatives, which came out of the survey and through other research on the topic, are some of the most potentially innovative of the bunch.
What follows is a sampling of the agreements or on-going conversations uncovered by the most recent survey.
- Shares transfer station with Hebron
- Records and runs board of selectmen meetings for Alexandria
- Ambulance contract with Madison and Tamworth
- Welfare director shared with Jaffrey and Rindge
- Health officer shared with Swanzey and New Ipswich
- Regional agreement (with many surrounding towns) to negotiate a cable television franchise agreement
- Also developed a regional agreement amongst several communities and two state agencies in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding pertaining to a regional sewer system
- Expanded wholesale electric power purchases to include Jaffrey and the Jaffrey/Rindge School District
- Added Thornton to dispatch sharing
Salisbury/Webster/Andover/Boscawen (SWAB )
- Many new initiatives under consideration:
– Highway Department
– Office supplies
- SWAB have also invited New London, Hill, Wilmot, Danbury, Warner and Franklin to participate
Other inter-municipal agreements under consideration:
- Tuftonboro/Tamworth/Freedom: assessing services
- Lisbon: existing ambulance service agreement may be expanded; agreement for police coverage is being explored
- Tilton: underground fuel storage tank with Northfield, Tilton-Northfield Fire and Water Districts and Winnisquam School District
- Hollis/Mont Vernon: electricity purchasing with the Nashua Regional Planning Commission
- SWAB towns: purchasing agreements with Merrimack Valley School District for heating oil and office supplies
- Bedford: use of recreation fields; sharing of recreation programs
- Hopkinton: maintenance of recreation fields and parking lots
- Kingston: shared facilities (shelters) for use during emergencies
- Lisbon: vehicle fuel purchasing; town’s highway department services school district vehicles; exploring IT support sharing
- Keene: police prosecutor with Cheshire County
- New Hampton: welfare officer and police
- SWAB towns: police
- Gilford: dispatch
Challenging Questions: Other Municipal-County Agreements
- Two additional stories not reported through the NHMA survey have garnered coverage in the press and at regional meetings:
- Barnstead Police Department to be absorbed by Belknap County Sheriff: under consideration
- Strafford County services on behalf of its municipalities:
– Dispatch: currently provided
– Criminal Justice/Domestic Violence Prosecution: currently provided
– Prosecutorial services for all other cases: under consideration
The possibility of the Belknap County Sheriff’s department providing police coverage to the town of Barnstead has been under consideration for the good part of a year. Barnstead selectman David Kerr has spoken recently on the subject, informally at the LGC Annual Conference session on regional cooperation, and days later at a meeting of the Lakes Region Planning Commission (which also featured a presentation of this 2011 NHMA survey). Barnstead formed a citizens’ committee to explore the pros and cons of relinquishing their police force to the county, held several public hearings to gather input from interested and concerned townspeople, and are now proposing that the matter be put to a vote at the 2012 town meeting. “It was the citizens that were concerned with losing control, not the select board,” said Kerr at the LGC Annual Conference.
Several key questions remain to be addressed by both Barnstead and Belknap County. For instance, as of this writing, Barnstead’s Regional Police Commission has issued a final report that states, “there are no clear financial savings for the town’s taxpayers in entering into a contract with the county.” While this finding alone may be a deal-breaker, other concerns remain. Will Barnstead’s police officers be demoted to probationary status if hired by the County, thus losing their seniority earned on the Barnstead force? How many police officers will be hired by the County? Will, and can, the sheriffs be as responsive to Barnstead’s needs as its own police department? Will the County delegation give its green light to the arrangement? And, perhaps most importantly, what will town meeting have to say about it all?
The Strafford County initiatives noted above include some that are already implemented—dispatch and domestic violence prosecutorial services—and others which are only just recently under discussion. Perhaps the boldest proposal to date is one whereby the County would assume all prosecutorial services for the cities and towns, not just the felony and domestic violence cases handled today. At a recent meeting of county commissioners and municipal department heads, responses to the proposal ranged from warm to cool. The greatest amount of skepticism arose from the cities, which feel fairly well served by their in-house police department prosecutors; many of the towns, on the other hand, would probably welcome the expertise of county-provided prosecutors.
Questions were raised at this county meeting about costs and tax savings. Would there be a net savings by handing over prosecutorial work to the county? This is perhaps the same question the county’s taxpayers may soon be asking. If one’s county tax bill rises, will the municipal tax bill drop by at least an equal amount? Are there economies of scale represented by this proposal that will eventually save the taxpayer money compared to what locally-sourced prosecutorial services cost today? These are but two of the questions that will have to be addressed more specifically before Strafford County’s offer can be accepted.
Despite what may be a long row to hoe, Strafford County, and Barnstead and Belknap County, are to be applauded for their cooperative initiatives. Clearly, should other municipalities and counties be contemplating starting similar conversations, they have no further to look than these prime examples of outside-the-box thinking and proactivity.
Resources for Municipalities
This summary report has presented only a handful of the new inter-municipal and regional cooperation agreements in place or under discussion. Should you be looking for other examples of what’s working, either by municipality, region or by type of agreement, feel free to contact us at NHMA. Our ever-growing database of known cooperative agreements can be searched easily for examples that may suit your need for role models and guidance. As always, we hope this article has given you some food for thought, and will lead you to more ideas for inter-municipal cooperation and even more positive budgetary outcomes.
Chris Porter is the Researcher for the New Hampshire Municipal Association and New Hampshire Local Government Center. Contact Chris at 800.852.3358, ext. 138, or firstname.lastname@example.org.