Sharing Agreements Require a Collaborative Approach

By AnnMarie French

Successful partnerships often begin with a conversation that starts with a “what if … ?” scenario. Shared boundaries or established cooperatives, such as a school district, create an obvious connection and serve as a starting point from which to explore opportunities and build consensus. Municipalities responding to LGC’s recent survey of cooperative agreements reported a variety of collaborative arrangements. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to sharing agreements, but the following established models may offer ideas to adapt to your community.

Shared Facilities and Services

Tilton-Northfield: A Long History of Shared Services

The towns of Tilton and Northfield are located in separate counties on opposite shores of the Winnipesaukee River. The area was first settled in 1748 and, in time, factories sprung up along both sides of the river, served by a downtown commercial area located in what is now Tilton. These two communities have a well-established relationship of partnering through a variety of approaches. Building on a long history of working together, the two towns formed the first cooperative school district in the state, enabled by act of the legislature in 1923.

“These are indeed unique communities,” notes Tilton Town Administrator Joyce Fulweiler, who served as town administrator for Northfield from 1989 to 1995, and again from 1997 to 2007, when she crossed the river to serve the role in Tilton. Tilton and Northfield share library services, recreation services, and fire and water district services, among others. In fact, a cooperative Old Home Day Committee coordinates annual festivities each June, this year celebrating its 30th anniversary as a joint initiative.

The bylaws for the Hall Memorial Library outline requirements for the five library trustees. Two at-large members are elected to serve a three-year term to represent each town, and each candidate is voted upon by both towns. The remaining three seats are appointed by the library trustees to serve as life-time members. This unique format for elected members requires that candidates campaign and get to know residents in both communities in order to win the seat, which creates an added sense of comfort for voters of both towns.

Similarly, the three commissioners for the Tilton-Northfield Fire District serve in elected positions. Candidates must campaign in both towns, and voters in both towns weigh in on all candidates during regular municipal elections. The fire district faced a challenging moment in early 2010 when a citizen petition advocated one town return to a volunteer-based fire service. “The voters made the right decision in the end,” reflects Fulweiler on the debate and final vote to retain the district.

The two towns formed a recreation council in the 1960s, drafting detailed bylaws outlining required representation for both communities. The council functions as an independent nonprofit organization, aided by financial support from both communities.

“As dollars become tighter and tighter, hopefully communities can look at ways to enter into agreements,” adds Fulweiler, who believes there are many additional possibilities for joint efforts in her own community. While serving as town administrator for Northfield, she recalls selectboard discussion of joint initiatives each time a position opened up. Although shared staff is an option that has been discussed, and, in fact, the towns employed a shared welfare director at one time, no staff positions are held jointly at the present time.

For Tilton and Northfield, similarities in town governance play a helpful role. Both towns are governed by the Municipal Budget Act, which makes the partnership easier. In years past, the selectboards held joint Budget Committee meetings to discuss the various nonprofits supported by both town budgets. These joint meetings have fallen off in recent years, but Fulweiler hopes that they might be reinvigorated in the future.

For towns seeking guidance, Fulweiler offers these words of advice: (1) maintain equity, (2) ensure that those paying for the services are those using the services, and (3) encourage volunteers who may wish to serve on multiple boards, which results in more sharing of information. “You get more connectivity,” notes Fulwieler of the volunteers on dual boards, adding, “There is increased communication—and you can really get things done.”

Lisbon, Lyman and Landaff: Tri-Town Cooperation

The Northcountry towns of Lisbon, Lyman and Landaff participate in several service agreements. The area transfer station/recycling center is owned and operated by the town of Lisbon, and a formal written agreement outlines participation by Lyman and Landaff. The total cost is shared by the three towns and based on population. As the facility operator, Lisbon drafts the budget and presents it to the neighboring communities for input. The towns meet annually to review and discuss the budget, then Lisbon bills the towns monthly for their share of the service. Lyman Town Administrator Donna Clark notes that the municipalities share both expenses and revenues, and the towns receive a percentage of any profits at the end of the year.

Lisbon owns and operates equipment for both fire and ambulance service. Fire service is shared with Lyman and Landaff, and a written agreement outlines the pooling of staff from all towns and fees based on population. A written agreement with Lyman provides for ambulance service, with costs and staffing structured similarly.

“For a small town, nothing is full- time,” says Clark, adding, “I think it won’t be too far down the road that we begin sharing more services.” Clark notes the towns toss around new ideas for sharing services every year, including recent discussion of sharing public works equipment as an option to consider for the future.

Job Sharing: Three Partnership Styles

Newbury, New London and Sunapee: Five-Year Success with Shared Assessor

In 2005, the towns of Newbury, New London and Sunapee forged a formal agreement for a shared assessor to serve the three towns. Prior to forming this partnership, the three towns contracted the service separately, and determined that by joining together, they could improve the level of service while also achieving cost savings. This group of towns share similarities both in size and location, all with private homes bordering Lake Sunapee.

Together the towns hired a full-time assessor, complete with benefits. The town of Newbury serves as the fiscal agent, processing payroll and billing the other two communities on a quarterly basis. A formal agreement addresses schedule rotation and outlines expectations during the revaluation process, along with the other requirement outlined in RSA Chapter 53-A.

Newbury Town Administrator Dennis Pavilcek notes that this system of sharing results in a much smoother process, as the presence of a staff person available to respond to abatement inquiries and other requests creates a greater sense of continuity for residents and town officials.

At the five-year mark, the municipalities remain pleased with the results. Pavilcek adds, “I’m surprised more towns don’t do this, as it’s one of the easier arrangements to set up.” See the November/December 2006 issue of New Hampshire Town and City, “Tri-Town Assessing: An Innovative Intergovernmental Agreement,” for more details.

Health Officer Will Soon Serve Fitzwilliam and Swanzey

The towns of Fitzwilliam and Swanzey are presently engaged in the process of interviewing for a shared health officer position, an arrangement in which one person will work part-time for each town through separate contract arrangements. In years prior, the two towns each employed the same health officer on part-time basis, who additionally served the role for the City of Keene. “He was very experienced, with all the proper certifications and expertise,” said Fitzwilliam Town Administrator Paula Thompson. The arrangement worked so well that when the towns found themselves in need of filling the position again, partnering was an obvious choice.

This position lends itself well to sharing, according to Thompson. As small towns don’t have enough hours to attract the caliber of professional desired, by joining together, towns can provide enough employment hours to attract a highly-qualified candidate.

While Fitzwilliam and Swanzey will not enter into a formal joint employment agreement, they are conducting the hiring process together, saving time and expense for both communities. The boards of selectmen will review applications and interview each candidate separately, and then the communities will work to reach consensus.

The town of Fitzwilliam has been sharing a prosecutor for years with great success. “We receive an excellent value for the service, and we’re really pleased,” notes Thompson, adding, “If there is a way towns can collaborate, it saves everyone money in the long run.”

Welfare Director Serves Rindge and Jaffrey

In 2009, Rindge voters approved a measure to switch from an elected to an appointed welfare officer. The town then sought applicants to fill a part-time position for welfare director, searching for a candidate with professional knowledge of the field. In the process, the town discovered the part-time welfare director for the neighboring town of Jaffrey, who possessed the right set of skills and an interest in the small number of additional hours available.

While not a shared position in the true sense of the idea, the two towns do share in terms of scheduling office hour availability, and both benefit from the director’s expertise and knowledge of the community. “In terms of improving the service quality, she is a professional and familiar with the field,” says Rindge Town Administrator Carlotta Pini. “She has knowledge of all the available resources from the state and other sources, and makes sure that applicants utilize them. This has helped us keep our welfare budget in check.

“The welfare director gets to know people in both communities, which makes her better at her job.” On occasion, callers requesting assistance have hung up immediately upon learning the name of the welfare director. While there’s no way to know for sure, it is likely that the director’s familiarity with applicants in the neighboring community may very well have helped the town avoid paying for a duplicate application.

Purchasing

Peterborough, Hancock, Dublin and Temple: Joint Purchase of Public Works Supplies and Wholesale Electricity

Prompted by their boards of selectmen, public works and highway staff of the nine towns in the Conval School District began meeting four years ago on a quarterly basis to share ideas and information. Through these meetings, the towns of Peterborough, Hancock, Dublin and Temple discovered common needs and began to explore joint purchasing initiatives.

The towns first tested the collaborative concept with the purchase of public works supplies. According to Peterborough Director of Public Works Rodney Bartlett, a member of the Dublin board of selectmen has taken the lead on purchase of public works supplies, which includes plow blades and culvert pipes. “He drafts and places the ads, we discuss and come to agreement, and then he draws up the individual contracts for each town,” notes Bartlett. Each spring, the towns receive a call inquiring as to what supplies they need. Now in its fourth year, the process has become a well-established routine.

The towns have joined with the ConVal School District to purchase diesel fuel and heating oil, benefiting from the school’s high-volume purchase to achieve significant savings for the towns. For this arrangement, Bartlett serves as the liaison for the towns, gathering municipal information, communicating with the school during the bidding process and drafting the individual contracts for each of the towns. While the school’s per gallon price doesn’t change much, the towns all benefit greatly from the volume discount, with the most significant savings enjoyed by the smaller towns.

In 2009, Peterborough decided to pursue the purchase of wholesale electricity. For the initial test of this type of purchase, the partner towns were not comfortable joining in at the early stage, and Peterborough tested the concept alone with success. Bartlett continued to talk with the partner towns, answering questions and organizing information sessions with the vendor to alleviate concerns and increase comfort levels. By April 2010, the four towns and the school agreed to collectively seek bids to purchase wholesale electricity.

“This was by far the most difficult purchase to navigate,” notes Bartlett, as commodity purchases require the “buyer” to agree to a proposed price within the same day of receiving the offer. In order to make this happen, the partners collectively established a price goal, and each town, by vote of the selectboard, granted Bartlett authority to accept the price on their behalf when the goal was met.

As an example of savings, Bartlett notes: “In Peterborough, we are saving 1.2 cents per kilowatt,” which will save the town an estimated $18 thousand dollars this year. The power supplier will also help the towns initiate energy saving initiatives, with the potential to reduce overall energy use and thereby produce additional cost savings. Without a partnership such as this, adds Bartlett, small towns would not have the purchase power to achieve this level of savings.

Bartlett notes that for each purchasing arrangement, the towns bid collectively for a product, and upon receipt of an acceptable quote, individual contracts are drawn up for each participant. In addition, the towns rotate responsibility for administrative tasks involved in bidding and drafting of contracts. Essentially, they “pool” their buying power to achieve the best price. The municipalities then enter into individual contracts and make payments directly with the vendor, providing a sense of security for each community. All of these purchase arrangements have resulted in a financial savings to the participating towns and, while some may enjoy greater savings than others, the communities equally share in the value of their collaborative relationship.

Suncook Valley Regional Town Association Explores Opportunities

In November 2007, the towns of Chichester, Epsom, Barnstead, Pittsfield and Pembroke formed the Suncook Valley Regional Town Association (SVRTA) in an effort to create a mechanism for sharing ideas and information, with the goal to identify potential opportunities for reducing costs. Initiated by the Chichester Board of Selectmen, the group was intended to serve as a forum for governing bodies to discuss efficiencies and lay the groundwork for collaboration. Meetings are held every six to eight weeks, and towns are generally represented by a member of the board of selectmen.

Bruce Dyke, chair of the Chichester Budget Advisory Committee, has played an integral role in the launch and continuation of the SVRTA, which now includes the neighboring town of Strafford. Dyke has witnessed an increased comfort level and interest in exploring the idea of sharing services in the past several years, both within the SVRTA meetings as well as in other venues around the state. In fact, as a topic presenter at LGC’s 2008 and 2009 annual conferences, Dyke experienced a significant increase in both attendance and open dialogue in year two. Additionally, at the past few town meetings, Dyke has been pleased to share information gathered through the SVRTA meetings in response to citizen inquiries regarding opportunities for sharing services with neighboring towns.

Together, the towns received a much improved rate on road salt, ultimately locking in a “better rate than could be achieved by purchasing through the state agreement,” according to Dyke. Among significant cost-saving achievements, the towns established a health cooperative which, through pooling their employees to form a larger group, resulted in a 15 percent reduction in health care rates. Many additional topics have been discussed and considered, including the purchase of office supplies, sharing staff for assessing and build/code enforcement, joint police services such as dispatch, K-9 and prosecutorial services, and coordinated purchase of police and fire equipment. Recent meetings have focused on the exploration of joint police services. A difficult topic to address, the SVRTA towns are looking to the successful merger of the Temple-Greenville force as a model from which to draw information.

Perhaps the greatest value of the group is the sharing of knowledge regarding existing resources that occurs during the meetings and afterward, notes Dyke. While no one believes that all proposals will be suited to all members, there are some logical pairings that arise, and some will move forward into agreements. “In just getting together on a regular basis, a lot of information comes out of those discussions,” says Dyke, adding, “A lot of value comes out of it.”

AnnMarie French is a communications specialist for New Hampshire Local Government Center. She can be reached by phone at 603.224.7447, ext. 133, or e-mail at afrench@nhlgc.org.

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