Viewpoint: Looking to cut costs? Take a good look at consolidation
By M. Scott Sotebeer
One of the most fundamental organizational structures we have in this country is local government. Our residents cherish local control and identity in our cities, villages, townships and counties. However, it is time to acknowledge that the local government structure is in trouble — stuck in an archaic, outdated business and operational model that no longer can be sustained.
Any business, in order to survive, must continuously focus on its cost centers and its revenue streams. Through that lens, it is time to look government redundancy straight in the eye. As one example, in my county there are 39 cities with 39 separate police departments. In addition to law enforcement, there are separate municipal courts, competing jails, multiple 911 call centers, and multiple taxing districts for fire and emergency medical response services.
That implies that there are layers of separate management, administrative and bureaucratic infrastructures to “support” all of those agencies and their facilities and resources, including employees. But the problem is the underlying machine — not the people we put in the positions.
It is time to force the practice of government consolidation into the political arena and into local action. It is not complex; it is not overwhelming; and it does not mean that we have to sacrifice local jobs, identity or control.
It starts by focusing on those public services that:
- are at the top of the cost chain (people heavy),
- must be delivered consistently as governed by local, state and/or federal law (no freelancing),
- have no brand requirement when they are needed (no ego-centric identity), and
- are common services across jurisdictions where the investment and cost can be measured and shared (slashable bureaucracy that will not be missed).
The public test is very simple. Ask your friends, coworkers, neighbors or strangers at the coffee shop if they care what 911 center answers their call for help, which police department shows up when they dial 911, which court handles the parking tickets online, or who is managing the emergency medical response team that comes to your kids’ soccer game to attend to a broken leg or unexpected seizure.
One consolidation model that is working is in local criminal justice. In our county, 12 cities contract with the sheriff for police services. The two local transit authorities, one regional airport and a tribal authority also contract for policing. Much like a co-op but more independent, they collectively save millions of their own budget dollars annually through significant economies of scale. The partner cities, transit, tribe and airport police have their own uniforms and cars, police chiefs and managers they select, and their own local brand right down to the department logo. But the officers are all sheriff’s deputies wearing distinctly different blue uniforms for cities like Seatac, Woodinville and Maple Valley. You would never know the difference.
The sheriff most recently closed outdated county police precincts and consolidated the deputies serving the unincorporated areas into the contract city police departments. In exchange, the cities get credits on their bills for the increased use of space and facilities. The residents get more visible police presence throughout the county and in their cities. Savings: more than $12 million for the next 20 years.
This movement is gaining ground. In states like Michigan and Illinois, the consolidation discussion has begun in earnest at a statewide leadership level. Snohomish, Wash., with 9,200 citizens, located in an adjacent county just to the north, voted this November to disband its police department and contract with its county sheriff. The city found that key services could be preserved through a projected $2 million in sustainable long-term savings that will be realized by consolidating the police department into the sheriff’s office. No police officer lost his or her job, either.
Is government consolidation the answer? Not everywhere, or even just anywhere, and not for everything or everyone. But it is a sustainable strategy for addressing some of the fundamental and significant cost drivers of the local government equation.
M. Scott Sotebeer, Ph.D., is the civilian chief of staff for the King County, Wash., Sheriff’s Office.