In early May, municipal leaders and public safety personnel from 14 communities across Rhode Island stood with me at the State House to send a strong and unified message to the General Assembly: The time to act on regionalization is now.
We have been talking for far too long in Rhode Island about the benefits and savings municipal regionalization can bring. With every passing year, we are missing big opportunities to make local government service delivery more efficient and cost-effective. There is no good reason not to move ahead.
The General Assembly can make municipal regionalization a reality by acting this year on legislation introduced by Senator Louis P. DiPalma, the co-chairman of the General Assembly's Joint Commission on Shared Municipal Services and legislation introduced by Representative John G. Edwards, House Majority Whip. Senate Bill 2807 and House Bill 8284 would enable cities and towns to establish Regional Emergency Communication Districts (RECDs).
Under both bills, communities would be able, if they choose, to jointly open shared public-safety communications centers to handle emergency calls. At our recent press conference, Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, a former firefighter and EMT, explained that doing so would save cities and towns millions of dollars in years to come. West Warwick Town Manager Fred Presley called regionalization a "no-brainer." He is right.
Seven Rhode Island municipalities stand ready to move ahead immediately if the bills become law. In recent months, the city or town councils of Central Falls, Cumberland, Johnston, Lincoln, North Providence, Pawtucket and Smithfield have all passed resolutions in support of creating an RECD in northern Rhode Island.
Union leaders, meanwhile, have opposed the bills, citing "job protection." Unfortunately, they seem wedded to the old way of doing things, and are dismissive of what is best for all Rhode Islanders – what we call "taxpayer protection."
Public-sector service delivery in Rhode Island, with its 39 cities and towns, is fragmented in many areas. Did you know our small state has 72 local dispatch centers? At the request of the Joint Shared Services Commission, Brown University's Taubman Center examined how the emergency dispatch system operates in Rhode Island and recommended improvements. In 2014, a Taubman Center study urged public officials to consolidate the 72 centers to save cities and towns in technology and long-term operating and maintenance costs.
Other states from Maine to Michigan have undertaken large-scale dispatch consolidation. Regional dispatch is also being used successfully in Massachusetts, including on Cape Cod and in Essex County. Wisely, Massachusetts has incentivized efficiencies and invested funding in consolidated facilities. Rhode Island should do more to support municipalities seeking to regionalize.
I stand committed to help make it happen. Under an executive order signed by Governor Gina M. Raimondo last year, I have been working with the Governor's administration, municipal leaders, and members of the General Assembly to identify the best opportunities for regionalization. In a survey of cities and towns conducted by my office last year, public safety dispatch was identified as the top choice by 13 communities.
Our cities and towns share some services now, including street sweeping, senior citizen meal services, and animal sheltering. When I was mayor of Cumberland, our town joined with several others to jointly procure employee health-care benefits, which brought significant taxpayer savings. There are many more opportunities for collaboration if cities and towns are given the right governance tools.
Make no mistake: Regionalization is about providing relief to our taxpayers by helping municipalities operate as efficiently as possible while maintaining or even improving the quality of service. We should not approach regionalization through the all-too-common lens of "us versus them." Regionalization should not be viewed as a threat – it is an opportunity.
The time is now to regionalize in ways that are smart and efficient. Let's do right by our taxpayers and deliver the best, most efficient services possible. Rhode Islanders deserve no less.
Updated version of piece published in the Providence Journal, June 8, 2016.