A common question from friends and colleagues when discussing the work of the Forum is whether I ever get frustrated by the slow pace of government in responding to the dozens of important policy insights, options, and recommendations we issue each year.
My response has been that while inaction is certainly discouraging when our research clearly reveals the need for some response by policymakers, I also recognize that good public policy takes time. Moreover, if the issues we raise had easy solutions, then there likely would have been no need for us to raise them in the first place.
In recent months, I have also been able to point to examples of real action in a policy area that has been central to our research portfolio but had previously yielded only a few tangible results.
As our members are aware, service sharing and consolidation studies have been an important body of work for us for more than a decade. What many may not know is that the initial impetus came from Wisconsin Act 10 and the related 2011-13 state budget.
The budget bill included substantial cuts in state aids to local governments and school districts. Some argued those could be offset by the tools provided by Act 10 to reduce public sector salary and benefit costs, while many local government leaders disagreed and warned of sharp workforce reductions and service cuts in upcoming budgets.
We obviously did not take sides in the dispute, but we did see an opportunity to encourage local government leaders to look closely at ways they might share or consolidate certain services with their neighbors. That approach had proven effective for many who had tried it in reducing costs while enhancing service levels and quality.
We teamed up with the Greater Milwaukee Committee to make a pitch to the Milwaukee County Intergovernmental Cooperation Council, which formed a special task force that commissioned two initial WPF studies on fire department consolidation and one on consolidated dispatch in the southern part of the county. In the next several years, we produced more than a dozen additional service sharing studies for communities across Wisconsin in the areas of fire and EMS, dispatch, parks and recreation, and public health. We’re also nearing completion of our first foray into police department consolidation for leaders in Milwaukee County’s North Shore.
I wish I could say that each of these studies produced actionable results, but I can’t. We have seen some progress – like a decision by St. Francis to contract for dispatch services with Oak Creek and a move by the Holmen Area and La Crosse fire departments to share a chief – but no examples of full-fledged consolidation.
This should not necessarily be surprising. Consolidation involves a loss of full local control over services that communities highly value. Also, while virtually all of our studies pointed to service quality enhancements that could be achieved far less expensively via consolidation than by individual action, consolidation often does not produce sufficiently large budget-to-budget savings to justify the loss of control for many local policymakers.
Interestingly, the factor that now appears to be turning the tide is not the opportunity for financial savings, but rather the historically tight labor market. We have written extensively about the challenges facing fire and EMS agencies in maintaining healthy rosters of “paid-on-call” responders, and the costs and recruitment challenges involved with turning to a full-time staffing model. Increasingly, low unemployment rates are leading to widespread recruitment and retention challenges for local governments in several areas of their operations.
In recent weeks, we have seen officials in Mequon and Thiensville announce plans to merge their fire departments effective January 1, while officials in Cedarburg, Grafton, Port Washington, and Saukville also are considering a merger. In addition, the Caledonia and South Shore fire departments in Racine County are moving to an advanced stage of planning for a potential merger, and the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution calling for establishment of a “One Milwaukee Taskforce” to explore the sharing of parks and recreation resources between Milwaukee County, the City of Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee Public Schools.
Each of those developments is related to research and recommendations we produced. That’s a point of pride, but it’s not my main message here. Instead, the message is that intergovernmental cooperation and collaboration may merit a very close look by local governments facing severe workforce challenges, and that objective research and analysis – even if it sits on a shelf for a few years – can help jump-start the process.