LGC’s 2010 Regionalization Survey: Summary Report

By Chris Porter

Across New Hampshire, how many regional, cooperative, sharing agreements exist between two or more towns and cities? What types of inter-municipal arrangements have been created, whereby municipalities may share personnel, services, programs, equipment, or may pool their resources to leverage purchasing power? These questions were addressed this spring by an LGC survey of key local officials and employees.

The purpose of the survey was to take a census of New Hampshire’s inter-municipal cooperative agreements, be they formal and written, informal and unwritten, or simply ideas that local governing bodies have been contemplating. We also solicited information from those towns and cities where no inter-municipal agreements are in place today.

The three key areas of investigation were:

• Shared Positions/Programs/Functions;
• Shared Facilities/Equipment; and
• Cooperative Purchase Agreements.

The survey gathered data on agreements between municipalities, by department, in these three areas; not covered were mutual aid agreements, or arrangements with the State of New Hampshire.

Data collection dates ran from April 6 to May 6, 2010. The survey was administered by way of an Internet tool. Survey invitations were e-mailed to one key official or employee in each of the state’s 234 municipalities. In some cases, these original invitations were forwarded to other employees or officials who were deemed to be the more appropriate respondent for this study.

The sample consists of 130 complete and 26 partially complete surveys. The sample of 130 represents 56 percent of the state’s municipalities and 50 percent of its population, and includes seven of 13 cities and 123 towns.

Shared Positions/Programs/Functions

In each of the following municipal departments, respondents indicated whether any type of inter-municipal sharing agreements exist utilizing personnel, programs and/or functions and, if so, whether the agreement is formal, informal or under consideration.

• Ambulance/EMT
• Assessing
• Building Inspection
• City/Town Office
• Code Enforcement/Zoning Compliance
• Fire Department
• IT/Computer
• Legal/Prosecutorial
• Library
• Parks and Recreation
• Police Department
• Road/Highway Department
• Transfer Station/Recycling Facility
• Other(s) not on this list

The types of agreements were defined as:

Formal: a written agreement, created in accord with NH RSA Chapter 53-A, and approved by the office of the NH Attorney General.
Informal: an unwritten agreement, not created in accord with RSA Chapter 53-A.
Under Consideration: something the governing body is currently considering, but is not yet implemented.

The total-sample findings from this question series are presented in the following tables. (View a) summary table showing all responding municipalities and the number and types of agreements they have in place.

Municipalities that indicated having a formal or informal agreement in place were asked to describe briefly the nature of the agreement and the other municipalities involved.

Whether formal or informal, 40 percent of the participating cities and towns indicated some level of sharing ambulance/emergency medical technician (EMT) services. Even after disregarding mutual aid agreements, which may come into play with ambulance and EMT services, this is clearly the most common type of inter-municipal agreement in place today.

Next in line are the many shared transfer stations and recycling facilities which dot the New Hampshire landscape (26 percent formal or informal). Shared prosecutorial services round out the top three in this category (19 percent formal or informal). The only other department in double-digits is Parks and Recreation, with 12 percent in the informal agreement response category. On average, across all departments, 80 percent of the reporting municipalities have no agreements in place or under consideration.

Ambulance/EMT Services

Grafton and Hillsborough County communities are at the forefront of inter-municipal agreements surrounding ambulance and EMT services. Respondents reported on the following combinations:

Grafton County:

• Campton, Ellsworth, Thornton
• Lebanon, Enfield
• Lisbon, Landaff, Lyman
• Monroe, Haverhill
• Bristol, Alexandria (also includes Merrimack County towns of Danbury and Hill)

Hillsborough County:

• Bennington, Antrim, Lyndeborough, Temple, Wilton
• Brookline, Mason
• Hudson, Litchfield
• New Ipswich, Greenville
• Francestown, Greenfield, Hancock, Peterborough, Sharon (plus Dublin in Cheshire County)

Transfer and Recycling Programs

Multi-town transfer stations and recycling programs are also common in these and all other New Hampshire counties. Examples include:

Androscoggin Valley Regional Refuse Disposal District
(Coos County)
Berlin, Dummer, Error, Gorham, Jefferson, Milan, Shelburne, Stark

Lakes Region Household Hazardous Products Facility
(Belknap County)
Wolfeboro, Alton

Tri-Town Transfer Station
(Grafton County)
Easton, Franconia, Sugar Hill

Tri-Town Landfill
(Hillsborough County)
Bennington, Francestown, Antrim

BCEP Transfer Stationand Recycling Facility
(Merrimack and Belknap Counties)
Barnstead, Chichester, Epsom, Pittsfield

The New Hampshire Department of Environment Services maintains a complete listing of regional, multi-municipal solid waste districts, the vast majority of which were represented by at least one city or town in our survey.

Legal and Prosecutorial Services

After ambulance and waste management services and facilities, legal and prosecutorial services were the third-most common shared function in the survey. While a number of towns mentioned their partnerships with county prosecutorial staffs in Cheshire, Merrimack and Strafford Counties, a number of towns have formed prosecutorial associations, including:

Lower Grafton County Joint Prosecutorial Association
Hanover, Lyme, Orford, Grafton, Enfield, Canaan

Plaistow Regional Prosecutorial Agreement
Plaistow, Atkinson, Danville, Hampstead, Kingston, Newton

Shared Facilities/Equipment

As was done for shared positions/programs/functions, data were collected on shared facilities and equipment within these municipal departments:

• Ambulance/EMT
• City/Town Office
• Fire Department
• IT/Computer
• Library
• Parks and Recreation
• Police Department
• Road/Highway Department
• Transfer Station/Recycling Facility
• Others not on this list

Once again, transfer stations/recycling facilities (20 percent formal or informal) and ambulance services (14 percent formal or informal) top this second list of inter-municipal agreements. Between 5 and 6 percent of the respondents mentioned cooperation and sharing between fire departments, libraries and road departments. Otherwise, instances of shared facilities or equipment are few and far between. Overall, across all departments and all respondents, 88 percent have no arrangements in place, nor are any under consideration.

Along with the Grafton County agreements detailed earlier, fire department sharing is also common across the county. Examples of sharing exist between and among:

• Campton, Ellsworth, Thornton
• Canaan, Dorchester, Orange
• Lisbon, Lyman
• Hebron, New Hampton (Belknap County)

Cooperative Purchase Agreements/Group Deals

In the third key survey area, information was gathered on cooperative purchase agreements and group-buying arrangements in the following areas:

• Diesel/Gasoline
• Heating Oil/Propane
• Office Supplies
• Public Works Supplies
• Road Sand and/or Salt
• Safety Equipment
• Vehicles
• Wholesale Electricity
• Others not on the list

Purchasing agreements surrounding all types of fuel are the most common, followed closely by road surface materials.

Despite the relatively low percentages in the formal and informal categories, joint purchasing agreements were more likely to be under consideration than shared positions/programs/functions or shared facilities/equipment. This is especially true in the purchase of various fuels, as well as wholesale electricity. However, across all respondents and departments, an average of 80 percent have no purchasing agreements in place or under consideration.

Perhaps the most notable example of a formalized purchasing cooperative is the Suncook Valley Regional Town Association (SVRTA), comprised thus far of these towns:

• Allenstown
• Barnstead
• Chichester
• Epsom
• Northwood
• Pembroke
• Pittsfield
• Strafford

The SVRTA was created in 2007 to explore the possibilities for inter-municipal collaboration in such areas as assessing, building inspection/code enforcement, purchasing and public safety. The group meets regularly; minutes are posted on the Town of Chichester website at www.chichesternh.org.

Impediments to Establishing Inter-Municipal Agreements

The survey concluded with the question, “What do you see as the impediments or difficulties in establishing cooperative, inter-municipal agreements of the kind described throughout this survey?”

At first glance, the 100+ responses elicited by this question were seemingly unique, but on closer inspection, most could be categorized into the following Top 10 Impediments (in no particular order):

1.       Local control: parochial attitudes/turf wars/territorialism/that’s not how we do things here/local mentality is against change and for the status quo

2.      Local politics: poor communication between towns; mindset of selectmen; governing bodies tend to disagree; lack of trust between neighboring municipalities

3.      Incompatibility: needs and wants of neighboring towns are too great

4.      Big town/small town: one feels dwarfed by the other; small towns may have no infrastructure and, therefore, nothing to share with a larger town next door

5.      Geography: distances between municipalities can be great, especially in the North Country

6.      Set-up: resources needed to research the possibilities are unavailable

7.      Administration and fairness: Who’s in charge after the agreement is in place? Are the burdens, ownership, oversight being shared? Are all towns benefiting equally?

8.      Employee benefits/contracts/union agreements: How are employee costs split between municipalities? Who gets fired or demoted?

9.      Equipment and facilities: Who gets to use what—and when?

10. Calendar: budget seasons, town meetings, forms of government don’t coincide

The Top 10 list speaks volumes regarding the pitfalls and difficulties of establishing inter-municipal agreements. One additional item that didn’t make the cut centered on several respondents’ desire for more role models and examples of success. Perhaps the study summarized here will provide a starting point and road map for more inter-municipal conversations, leading to greater understanding and collaborative efforts across New Hampshire.

Chris Porter is a researcher with the New Hampshire Municipal Association. For more information regarding this survey, he can be reached by phone at 800.852.3358, ext. 138 or by e-mail at cporter@nhlgc.org.

LGC’s 2010 Regionalization and Sharing Services Survey

Summary Database of Inter-Municipal Agreements, July 2010 (excel worksheet)

Summary of Municipal-School Agreements, July 2010 (PDF)

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