May 27, 2010

Getting to Details on Regionalization

Justin Katz

As is common among advocates of regionalization in Rhode Island, Joseph Paolino proclaims savings as if they should be obvious:

There is much to be gained from consolidation; unity and taxpayer savings go hand-in-hand. Why should the trucks plowing snow in Pawtucket stop at the boundary with Central Falls? Why should six purchasing agents be buying the same kinds of supplies instead of one? In this age of computer automation, why should there be finance divisions in six city halls, all processing revenues and expenditures? Why should police, fire and rescue personnel be overworked in the busy cities during business hours, while suburban personnel survey nearly empty neighborhoods? Undoubtedly, there would be major gains if public-safety forces in the six communities served under a unified command and were dispatched, wherever needed, throughout the county.

At the very least, one can say that answers to these hypothetical questions are possible. The very fact that snow plows stop at town borders means that there's no overlap in the service, so consolidation would only help in some minimal planning sense. A purchasing agent for an entire county would have more work to do determining who needs what, when, and why, requiring more input (and potential for waste) among underlings, and requiring the agent him or her self to be compensated for the greater authority. The same dynamic plays into finance divisions; as the overall authority moves up the tiers of government, more must be done by subordinates, who have more incentive to waste, not being ultimately responsible, and the person who is ultimately responsible is that much farther away from the individuals whom they are supposed to represent, directly or indirectly.

As for safety personnel, I wonder whether Mr. Paolino believes that the suburbs ought to have no coverage. If not, then regionalization provides no mechanism for reducing excessive staffing beyond that already available to the townsfolk who pay the bills. What regionalization could accomplish is to give city dwellers the chance to load up their staffs at the expense of the suburbs, either increasing the cost all around or decreasing the services available outside of the urban ring.

Regionalization and consolidation sound good, and they'll surely be a common theme as politicians strive to prove their fiscally responsible bona fides, but I'd wager that the effects would, at best, be neutral, but more likely detrimental to the cost and services outcome.

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I also think the consolidation argument has some merits, but the one part I don't like is the idea of centralizing power, at least in RI. Haven't we already seen the problem when power rests in the hands of so few, such as up at Smith Hill? If you're not one of Fox or TPW's closest allies, you're virtually useless. What if there was just one state police force, or one state fire department. Would we see even more corruption among the people at the top? Would we see even more nepotism and cronyism? Very, very likely.

Posted by: Patrick at May 27, 2010 2:27 PM

This is a good post. The ProJo seems to be running "abolish Central Falls" pieces on a almost daily basis now. Perhaps savings can be found, but I think conservatives should be reluctant to destroy time-honored boundaries except as a last resort. Regional sharing of services without formal merger is a more promising idea, but I am not sold on the idea that it will lead to massive savings. If I have heard correctly, in New Jersey it is the Democrats who are promoting regionalization and mergers as a panacea and the Republicans who are skeptical.

Posted by: James Kabala at May 27, 2010 5:29 PM

If you go to Google and type “Massachusetts regionalization” you will get 161,000 documents hits.

Just about every one of the 351 cities and towns in Mass are in some form of regionalization of municipal services, education, purchase agreements, emergency response or additional studies for greater shared resource inclusions.

Patrick asked the question earlier; “why are taxes so low in the boarding Mass counties to RI?”

It’s because Mass city and towns plus state government have been streamlining government and regionalizing bulk purchase agreements thereby lowering taxes.

RI has 39 cities and towns across 5 counties and 37 school districts plus the state government.

With the current intellectual thinking in RI, the “it’s all about me” RI political syndrome and public distrust plus false assumptions that are continuously projecting RI as the most corrupt state in the nation (actually all the numbers and studies point to Florida as #1 corrupt state in nation), RI will never address state and local government streamlining utilizing regionalization on a large scale like Mass is doing.

What really hurts RI is the fact despite a requirement to enact a balance budget according to Pew Research RI has not had a balanced budget in over 30 years across both Republican and Democratic state governments.

Oh by the way, Mercer Counseling’s annual Quality of Life ranking of 221 international cities in the world placed Honolulu, HI (31 place) #1 top USA city for "Quality of Life" and #2 in the world for “Eco-City” behind Calgary, CA. Other USA cities "Quality of Life" rankings were #2 San Francisco (32) and #3 Boston (37). #4 Chicago and #4 Washington share position 45 and #5 New York - the base city - is in position 49. Newly added cities #6 Philadelphia and #7 Dallas are ranked 55 and 61, respectively.

Posted by: Ken at May 27, 2010 7:39 PM

I don't know; I'm originally from Massachusetts and most regional districts only cover two or three towns, unless the towns involved are really small (in population, not in area). There are few, if any, regional school districts as big in population as Mayor Paolino's proposed "Blackstone County," let alone his proposed centralized Providence County.

Posted by: James Kabala at May 27, 2010 7:51 PM


That may play some role, but it certainly doesn't tell the whole story. The whole story would have to include the fact that Massachusetts supplements property taxes with income taxes, which are higher, there, for people on the lower end of the economic scale.

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 27, 2010 7:53 PM


"Mercer Counseling’s" is a TYPO


Mercer Consulting's:

Posted by: Ken at May 27, 2010 7:55 PM


The main thing I take away from your comment is that a place with about 6.5 times the population of Rhode has about 9 times the number of municipalities, and still manages to run more efficiently. The cities and towns of Massachusetts are still distinct units which is very different from the kind of "consolidation" that Paolino is pushing.

(The only significant thing county government does in MA is administer the criminal justice system, which is already a statewide function here in RI.)

Posted by: Andrew at May 27, 2010 8:10 PM

Justin said; “The whole story would have to include the fact that Massachusetts supplements property taxes with income taxes, which are higher, there, for people on the lower end of the economic scale.”

Mass income taxes for people on the lower end of the economic scale don’t even come close to Hawaii state income taxes on people in the same tax bracket. Hawaii has the highest income in the nation!

According to the Tax Foundation 2007 Property Taxes per Capita out of 50 states Rhode Island ranks #7 collecting $1,859, Massachusetts ranks #8 collecting $1,710 and Hawaii ranks #37 collecting $891.

2008 Income Tax Collections per Capita out of 50 state Massachusetts ranked #2 collecting $1,916, Hawaii ranked #10 collecting $1,205 and Rhode Island ranked #17 collecting $1,036.

Mass and HI both offers property tax exemptions and substantial refundable credits to lower individual property taxes where RI does not (case in point; my HI property is about the same price as my former RI house where I paid $2,700 in property tax but in HI I pay $100 due to enacted exemptions.

Of course Hawaii would be collecting more per capita because it has the highest tax brackets in the nation and has the most millionaires in the nation per population that have direct access to $1 million disposable cash in hand. I believe if a closer look at Mass the same would be found due to the vast majority of old New England “Blue Blood” located in Mass.

Massachusetts like Hawaii exempts retirement income from social security, military, civil service, state and local government plus out of state civil service, state and local government and some private retirement from state income tax. Rhode Island only exempts railroad retirement benefits. All other retirement income is taxed in Rhode Island.

So Justin what you say has some truth but there is a lot more involved to both of our comments.

Posted by: Ken at May 27, 2010 8:51 PM


I agree that what Paolino is proposing is a different consolidation. However you have to start somewhere!

Once Paolino writes everything down on paper I suspect he will see the good and the bad and try to correct his proposal. That is why you don’t jump in with two feet without looking first.

Mass started all sorts of study commissions to work through the kinks before implementing regionalization. Mass also did away with county seat of government which was wasteful.

Out here in Hawaii county seat of government works and regionalization of services and purchasing contracts works out here so who is to say what is bad and what is good! It must be tailored to the individual situation and constantly reviewed and improved.

But I must admit, we are talking about RI not Mass or HI and everything is done a lot differently!

My main concern was more about Justin shooting down the idea of regionalization without exploring or looking at what was happening in other states. You want smaller government and less taxes be open to new suggestions and explore ideas before no it will not work!

Posted by: Ken at May 27, 2010 9:14 PM
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