By Gregory T. Federspiel
Voters at last year’s Annual Town Meeting approved an article that asked the Selectmen to pursue options for shared services with neighboring communities. These options may allow us to enhance services without incurring higher costs, avoid higher costs in the future for service levels similar to what we provide today and/or allow for greater efficiencies that save money. A key guiding principle for the Selectmen as they explore possibilities is that any new service delivery models need to maintain today’s high standards of municipal services.
There are many different forms greater collaboration with other communities can take. Informal arrangements like sharing equipment to mutual aid agreements typically involve no dollars – we assume we “give” similar to what we “take.” Formal shared service agreements like we have with Gloucester for the sharing of a veteran’s agent and with Hamilton for a K-9 officer typically involve each community contributing their proportionate share of the cost of the service. The most involved form of collaboration is creating a regional district with its own governing body and sometimes separate taxing authority. Our regional school district is an example (but without separate taxing authority.)
Recent conversations with the Town of Essex have led to the successful submittal of a grant application through the state’s Community Compact Initiative. Essex took the lead in successfully securing a $25,000 grant that the two towns can use to hire a consultant to help us develop ideas for how Manchester and Essex might expand our level of shared services. This is an open exploration – we have no pre-conceived notion of what might work and we welcome ideas and suggestions from staff and residents.
While the formal work of a consultant might take us through June, it may well be that we are able to quickly identify a simple collaborative effort that we can bring to voters at the Annual Town Meeting the first of April. Additional opportunities may evolve over time as well. One project can lead to another as experience is gained.
All municipalities face similar challenges and struggle to balance the limited financial resources we have against what seems like an ever growing lists of needs and wants. Outside of New England were county government is strong, regional services are more the norm than they are here. None-the-less, there is a growing number of excellent examples throughout the state, from robust public safety mutual aid agreements to shared library services, from a town manager serving two towns to regional health services. It makes sense for the communities of Cape Ann and beyond to explore options for how we can continue to deliver strong services to our residents as cost effectively as possible.