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Just think about it: Does every town in America really need its own police force, fire department, and dog catcher? Must every municipality have its own back-office administrative bureaucracy for purchasing supplies and equipment? Or might there be room for merging some of these functions among adjacent communities to save costs?
As local governments across the country grapple with huge budget shortfalls, some are trying a novel approach to saving money without making drastic service cuts. By merging, coordinating, consolidating, and contracting services with neighboring jurisdictions, local governments are finding new ways to stretch their budgets and share the cost of public services.
And cross-jurisdiction collaboration, as the practice is becoming known, is not limited to government organizations.
In many cases, participating agencies are reaching out to corporations, nonprofits, citizens' groups, and other stakeholders to leverage their skills and capabilities to achieve new economies of scale. This gives all interested parties a "seat at the table" and a role to play in setting priorities and identifying outcomes. Most important, citizens of communities that are collaborating with their neighbors will reap long-term benefits without having to bear the pain of cuts in services and government programs in the short term.
The scope of cross-jurisdictional models varies from two small California towns, Burlingame and Hillsborough, sharing a fire chief to save $100,000 a year to the U.K.'s Suffolk County trying to save $500 million per year by outsourcing most of its services. A October 2010 study by Accenture that included more than 90 domestic and international case studies, interviews with public-sector leaders, and data analysis shows an urgency among government leadership to make changes before the budget levee breaks. Governments cannot shrink anymore, tax anymore, or dissolve. Hence, they must collaborate.
It's no surprise that Silicon Valley, the center of technology innovation, has been taking a close look at this creative approach. More than two dozen local governments in the region have joined forces with 80 private-sector groups, corporate and nonprofit alike, to identify specific issues that affect the quality of life of local communities.
Together, through such groups as Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network, government and business are tackling complex challenges, from economic development to emergency preparedness. And they are working in unison to design more comprehensive, yet more affordable, solutions by reducing duplication.
The budget for all Silicon Valley local government entities totals more than $14 billion. A recent study indicated that a regional operation-center approach could save Silicon Valley municipalities between $250 million and $500 million per year—by zeroing in on $5 billion in spending where significant scope exists for cross-jurisdiction collaboration to deliver back-office functions, such as human resources, information technology, procurement, and accounting.
Around the country are many examples of cross-jurisdiction collaboration. By coordinating or consolidating such services as police, fire, and transportation, many cities in California have significantly reduced wasteful duplication in recent years. For instance, the City of Cupertino has contracted its police services to the Santa Clara County Sheriff's office, saving millions of dollars annually. Santa Clara County sheriff officers patrol the City of Cupertino and respond to 911 emergencies to reduce taxpayer costs for police services.
In Morris County, N.J., five towns and boroughs—Dover, Mine Hill, Wharton, Mt. Arlington, and Rockaway—merged five municipal courts into a single regional court, targeting lower costs per court session for a projected savings of $2.65 million over 10 years. In the same county, the Morris County Cooperative Pricing Council enables some 200 city and county government entities, such as school districts and police departments, to pool their purchasing power to receive better prices on such goods and services as vehicle purchasing and maintenance and repair.
In Oregon, Metro serves as a cross-jurisdictional regional body for 25 cities in the Portland area with economic development, transportation, waste disposal, and environmental and cultural services.
In Georgia, the cities of Preston and Weston merged with Webster County in 2009 to eliminate duplication of services and reduce costs to serve the public.
Another good example can be found in Michigan, where the cities of Ann Arbor and Chelsea have signed a contract to share information technology resources. Under the agreement, Ann Arbor will provide Chelsea with technology support for the city's software and hardware, management of its website, and content and technology for its local television station.
Government collaboration is also emerging in southeastern Pennsylvania, where five counties have joined forces in pursuit of a regional application for an energy-efficiency and conservation block grant. The counties aim to add partners and programs over time, form a regional institution to operate a loan fund, support clean technology, assist local governments with energy efficiency plans, and measure the performance of public facilities.
Most of us have been conditioned to believe that concentrating exclusively on cutting and spending trade-offs within traditional local government frameworks is the only way to trim government budget deficits. It's time for local, county, and regional government leaders to build cross-jurisdiction partnerships for more effective governance at lower cost. If they do, everyone will benefit.