Cooperation means local savings
Generally, the smaller the unit of government, the fewer resources it has to draw on. That familiar truism prompted eight small cities in North Carolina’s Piedmont region to seek a better way to provide public works services to the regional community.
Larry Kirby, assistant village manager and director of public works for Clemmons, started the ball rolling. He formed a municipal think tank, the purpose of which was to determine how the involved cities could work together to refine their operations. The group, made up of representatives from the affected areas, analyzed everything from the purchasing of pagers to planning for disaster recovery. (Group members include the city of King, the villages of Clemmons and Tobaccoville, and the towns of Rual Hall Kernersville, Mocksville, Walkertown and Lewisville.)
The financial effects were almost immediate. In Clemmons, Kirby was using pagers under a state contract that cost $4 a month. During the meetings, he found that his neighbors were spending up to $21 a month with outside vendors. Sharing that information enabled all think tank members to save significantly on their communications bills.
Additionally, Clemmons was spending as much as $100 a month for cellular phones before the group decided it could do better by presenting itself as a bulk user. Now, through an agreement with a local provider, the members rent cell phones whenever necessary for $10 per phone.
The group also conducted an inventory of each member’s equipment, with the goal of standardization so that future purchases of parts or attachments would benefit the entire membership. Currently, the nine towns are looking into buying a tractor collectively, assuming that combined financing and shared use should make such an otherwise unaffordable purchase cost-effective.
“If I’m bidding out a new backhoe, I call the rest of the group to see what they have,” Kirby says. “I’ll try to buy the same thing, so, if I need to swap off a bucket, everything fits.”
Additionally, the municipalities discovered they could band together for OSHA training and inspections. “If you are a small town with six to 10 employees, you have to hire someone to come in and do your OSHA training,” Kirby says. “Because you don’t want to spend more money than necessary, you have to send all your employees to training at the same time. That means you have to shut down the office for an entire day. With more people getting trained, we can have people come in to do the training twice a day, so someone is always back in the office.”
The collaboration paid off handsomely in 1998 when tornadoes ripped through Stoneville and Mayodan, neither a member of the think tank. Stoneville suffered several deaths because of the storm, prompting the federal government to come in. Despite its non-member status, Mayodan got help from the think tank and was back to normal within five days. Stoneville still had representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on site eight months later.
Two months after the Mayodan tornado, Clemmons was devastated by five twisters. Kirby made one call to Danny Smith, public works director for Mocksville, and Smith contacted the rest of the think tank members. In less than two months, cleanup involving 43,000 cubic yards of debris was completed. (Ironically, because the village is so small and most of its citizens have insurance, federal funds often are not available to help.)
“If it were not for the municipal think tanks’ mutual aid agreement, we probably would still be cleaning up debris today,” Kirby says.