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R.I. open to consolidation, poll shows

Rhode Islanders support consolidation of their many local fire departments, police departments, garbage collection and other public services, according to a recent poll. But a proposed commission to study the benefits and drawbacks of such a consolidation has yet to come to fruition.

The poll was part of a survey conducted by the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions in September. Results indicated that 66.9 percent of the respondents would "support the idea of consolidating services," according to a University press release.

A similar question was asked in a survey in February 2009, when 78.3 percent of respondents said they would support consolidation.

This year's poll refers to a commission proposed in 2009 by Gov. Donald Carcieri '65 that would "study the feasibility of consolidating or regionalizing public services like education, public safety and other municipal services."

Though Carcieri submitted the proposal again in 2010, the Rhode Island General Assembly has not addressed the proposal or moved to put the issue up for vote, said Amy Kempe, Carcieri's spokesperson.

The poll said the commission would study whether or not the number of municipal services would constitute unnecessary "duplication" across the state.

Marion Orr, professor of political science and director of the Taubman Center, said the results indicate that Rhode Island voters are willing to further consider the idea of municipal consolidation. In the context of Rhode Island's struggling economy, people might be prepared to entertain other methods of saving the state money if they prove worthwhile, he said.

He said residents in one municipality may be hesitant to merge their public services with others.  But the economic reality "may very well trump their concerns," Orr said.

Orr added that this most recent poll does not explore what services in particular might be consolidated beyond listing education and public safety as examples. People might have different feelings on the consolidation of local fire units than on a similar consolidation of garbage services, he said.

Marcia Reback, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, said she thought school consolidation would be unlikely to gain strong public support on its own.

"I don't believe local residents will want to give up their local school committees and local schools," she said, adding that voters in Pawtucket objected years ago to consolidating their schools with Central Falls despite being offered money to merge.

Some school districts are consolidated in Rhode Island, Reback said, but the state should consolidate into one school system. Doing so might save money — for example, by allowing the joint purchase of books and supplies — and allow for a set curriculum to be used in all of the state's schools, she said.

Reback added that such a merger might close the achievement gap between the state's best and worst schools. She called a past proposal to merge just the three districts of Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls "horrific."

Reback said she does not view such a massive statewide consolidation as politically feasible.

As the election approaches, the next governor will have to consider whether to prioritize consolidation, Kempe said.

Candidate Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 would support municipal consolidation if it proved economically viable, wrote John Cucco '09, spokesperson for Chafee in an e-mail to The Herald.

Consolidation has not been "one of the most salient issues" in the election, but "there has not been any negative reception to the idea of consolidation when there will be proven savings," he wrote.

Candidate Frank Caprio, on the other hand, supports eliminating redundant services which have led to higher property taxes in favor of consolidation, wrote Nick Hemond, spokesperson for Caprio, in an e-mail to The Herald.




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