Columns

Davidson ’11: Consolidate more, spend less

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The town of Foster, R.I., has just over 4,000 residents. It also has its own police department and department of public works. This will change if some state legislators get their way.

State Sen. Frank Ciccone III, D-Dist. 7, has said he is planning to introduce a bill next year that would consolidate Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities into  five counties. If the bill becomes law, “all municipal services — including public safety, public works and education — would be regionalized” into countywide departments.

Such reorganization is a sensible way to address the state’s fiscal woes, and Rhode Islanders stand to gain from this bill’s passage.

Consolidation of services is a hot topic around the statehouse right now. State Sen. Lou DiPalma MA’89 P’09, D-Dist. 12, is leading a commission exploring the idea, and Mayor David Cicilline ’83 is pushing legislation that would create police, metropolitan fire and public works districts shared by Providence and its neighbors. 

The push for consolidation comes as lawmakers struggle with massive fiscal problems. This year’s budget deficit is approaching $70 million. Tax revenue is down as many residents feel the pain of the recession and others leave the state.

Bill Falcone, a former staff director of the Rhode Island Water Resources Board, asked an illustrative question in an Aug. 3 Providence Journal op-ed: “Why do we have 39-plus school districts with the expensive hierarchy that they entail? Los Angeles County has one school district, and it has more students than Rhode Island.”

Consolidating municipal services is not a cure-all, but it is a step toward fiscal solvency. You could ask Falcone’s question over and over again, simply filling in the blank with a different service.

Why does every municipality in Providence County need its own fire department if a county fire department could provide the same service at a lower cost? Larger departments would benefit from economies of scale and save money.

In addition to cutting costs, consolidation would help prevent corruption. The ethics scandal that rocked New Jersey this summer demonstrated that unnecessary positions of power and layers of government often breed abuse. And with fewer agencies, auditors and investigators will be able to focus their resources, improving transparency.

Critics of consolidation may argue that locality and responsiveness are inherently linked. Replace a town’s public works department with a county one and the quality of service will decline as delivery and accountability are de-localized.

I believe this notion is misguided. Rhode Island’s small size is advantageous in that it would allow many services to be provided effectively but in a more centralized manner, reducing costs. If residents are dissatisfied, they will have greater strength in numbers to foment change.

Many public officials are coming to see the benefits of consolidation. Lincoln is considering merging fire services with Cumberland, and Cicilline’s regionalization proposal enjoys the support of Pawtucket, North Providence and East Providence officials.

Yet Ciccone’s legislation may not cruise to passage. Many local leaders stand to lose power if services are regionalized, and some will surely aim to maintain the status quo.
More problematic for the prospects of regionalization is the power of organized labor. Consolidation will inevitably mean cutting unnecessary jobs, and public employees and their unions would suffer.

Proponents of consolidation must engage with unions to find a mutually acceptable way forward, since the legislation’s success may hinge on labor’s support. Workers should be treated with compassion, particularly during difficult economic times, and not simply cast aside in a cold effort to cut costs.

Unions must recognize, however, that the state’s fiscal woes are hurting everyone and threatening Rhode Island’s future. While some jobs may disappear, labor doesn’t benefit from crippling budget deficits, either — East Providence decided to lay off 13 police officers this summer to save money.

One problem with Ciccone’s proposal is that county lines were not originally drawn with policy objectives in mind. There may be better ways to group towns for service consolidation than simply using existing boundaries.

I encourage the commission studying regionalization to devise a better way of organizing the consolidated departments. Providence and Warwick are the two biggest cities in the state, and only a sliver of Cranston separates them. It might make the most sense for these cities to merge services into a larger metropolitan organization.

Under Ciccone’s plan, however, this would not happen. Providence is in Providence County, while Warwick is in Kent County.

While the devil will certainly be in the details when it comes to consolidating services, Rhode Islanders will benefit from smart regionalization. If lawmakers can craft a plan to consolidate services without reducing quality or unnecessarily hurting state workers, we might finally make progress on bringing the state’s financial troubles to an end.

Dan Davidson ’11 is a political science and music concentrator from Atlanta, Ga. He can be reached at daniel_davidson-at-brown.edu.

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