Rhode Island's cities and towns, their budgets tighter than ever, are considering sharing services such as fire departments and trash pickup to save money.
With 39 cities and towns packed into the nation's smallest state, consolidation appeals to many, including the state's General Assembly, which has launched a commission to study the idea. Providence Mayor David Cicilline '83 is calling for state legislation to pave the way for regionalization.
The state commission met for the first time last week, electing as its chair State Sen. Lou DiPalma MA'89 P'09, D-Dist. 12. DiPalma, who introduced the bill that created the commission, said the increased efficiency and effectiveness from shared services could provide a crucial boost to cash-strapped towns.
"We can't delay this any longer," he said.
DiPalma, a former member of the Middletown town council, said there will be no "one-size-fits-all" solution, and that different services may make sense to share statewide, between just a few towns or not at all. But he said he fully expects to put forward concrete proposals when the commission reports back to the Senate in January.
DiPalma declined to comment on any specific plans, saying the commission will explore all options but focus on "backroom" services, such as public safety and tax assessment, that don't involve day-to-day constituent interaction.
Consolidation is not a new idea in the state, and DiPalma said the commission will hear from communities that have tried sharing services before. He wants to hear "the good, the bad and the ugly," he said.
Examples of towns sharing services include the Government Health Group of Rhode Island, a health and dental insurance co-op encompassing 15 cities and towns, and the Bristol-Warren regional school district, which consolidated in 1993.
Sharon Ahern, speaking as acting town manager for Westerly last week, said regionalization "makes sense." Each city and town managing its own departments "doesn't necessarily work to our fiscal advantage," she said. "Certainly it's something we should be looking into."
Westerly has already acted to consolidate the finance and recreation departments of the town and its school department, Ahern said.
At last week's commission meeting, members heard a presentation from John Simmons, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, that outlined examples of shared services from the state and nationwide.
Simmons told The Herald that interest in sharing services exists, but the commission needs to decide how best to implement it.
Meanwhile, Cicilline is pushing for legislation to allow the creation of a metropolitan fire district, police district and public works district that Providence would share with Pawtucket, Cranston, Central Falls, North Providence, East Providence and Johnston.
The legislation will be filed during the next session of the General Assembly, which begins in January, said Karen Southern, Cicilline's press secretary. He is currently looking for a sponsor, she said.
After receiving approval from the state, Providence and its neighbors could begin work on crafting the districts, which could maximize city services in tough economic times, Southern said.
Some firefighter's union officials have expressed reservations about the plan, citing high costs and calling the proposal "political grandstanding," the Providence Journal reported earlier this month.
But Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 praised the proposal in a press release.
"This action by seven mayors of our cities and towns is a step in the right direction," he said. "Perhaps the magnitude of the financial challenges the state, and our cities and towns, face will take these ideas beyond discussion to meaningful action."