Regionalization – it is an interesting word. It can be considered a good thing, a bad thing, a cost-efficient concept, a loss of control issue, and a service question all at the same time. For many local cities and towns, it is a way of life. For others, it is a dirty word.
The concept behind it is basic and makes good common sense. Neighboring communities pool their resources and share some services. Regional schools like King Philip High and Dighton-Rehoboth High save both towns from having to deal with separate brick-and-mortar expenses. In the Midwest part of the country (and in fact most places outside of New England) county government regionalizes things like police and fire protection, consolidating control under a shared arrangement that reduces costs.
But regionalization is a concept slow to catch on in parochial New England. Here, our local towns don’t like to give up control of much of anything. We take great pride in our local services, and officials like keeping control of what goes on in their community. And as much as our local officials like it, the good folks they employ like it even more.
Regionalization – while supported in some aspects by police, fire and public works folks – is generally considered to be a bad thing by those currently providing the services. Regionalization to them translates into fewer jobs, less direct control, and ultimately poorer service to the towns they serve. And they make sure the selectmen and other officials who make the regionalization decisions know this.
Norton currently regionalizes some services. We share a veteran’s agent with Easton, and are looking at expanding that to share two agents with four neighboring towns. There is a cost savings involved and officials believe it will provide increased service to veterans. However, some worry about Norton not having one agent dedicated solely to Norton veterans and how that will affect the deserving vets.
Norton belongs to a group that regionalizes for the purpose of purchasing health insurance. We belong to several purchasing groups that combine buying power to get better prices on a variety of supplies. But on issues that could involve jobs – such as fire protection, ambulance service, police, and other basic needs – that simply does not come up. And on the rare occasion that it does, it is shot down quickly.
Selectmen recently had a brief conversation about the possibility of regionalizing public safety dispatchers. While there was some positive talk about training them on a regional basis, officials were quick to shoot down the concept of towns sharing dispatchers. They had reasons – many of them worthy ones – but in the end the main reason was no department wants to give up jobs or control, or possibly offer what they consider a “lesser service” to their townspeople.
Is regional synonymous with less? Are voters and citizens in Norton even interested in exploring possibilities of regionalizing basic services? Will unions even allow such a thing to happen?
As budgets get tighter and the country sinks further into an economic funk, these questions are going to be asked more often. It will be interesting to see how or if the local perspective on regionalization might begin to change.
Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and has been a Norton town official in one capacity or another for nearly 37 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.