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AROUND NEW ENGLAND: Cost savings quietly come from sharing among towns

For decades, the question of whether to regionalize — school districts, fire departments, you name it — has caused controversy and consternation across Aquidneck Island.

What has been happening recently much more quietly, almost behind the scenes, is departments within municipalities collaborating — crossing the aisle, if you will — and communities exploring whether sharing services, contracted or in-house, makes sense.

Notably, the school districts in Newport and Middletown are considering whether to share maintenance services such as plowing and mowing. If successful, the model could be expanded to information technology, for example.

“I see this as an opportunity to see if we can collaborate to save money,” Newport Superintendent John H. Ambrogi said.

“Shared services have to be considered in terms of cost efficiencies, but more importantly delivering the best services to our consumers,” Middletown Superintendent Rosemarie K. Kraeger said.

This partnership would be the first of its kind among local school districts, but there are other examples of municipalities formally working together, such as mutual aid among fire departments.

Collaboration also is taking place among different departments within certain municipalities. For instance, the Middletown School Department’s maintenance staff recently completed a project to rework the assessor’s and tax collection offices in Town Hall to accommodate staff restructuring brought about in the latest budget.

“We were asked to support some of these projects,” Kraeger said. “We have a skilled set of members in facilities that could save the town money instead of the town having to contract out for services.”

In Newport, the city and School Department have discussed merging financial operations. Newport and Middletown also have considered going out to bid together for trash and recycling collection. There are other examples of joint purchasing and contracting that can save communities money and still provide services to consumers, whether students or property owners. Given the state of the economy, it’s getting more and more difficult to maintain those services, but taxpayers certainly have no tolerance for increased spending, either.

Although we might prefer to see more aggressive movement toward regionalization in some areas across the island, we recognize the delicate nature of department divisions and town lines, and are glad to see that in at least two island municipalities, people are willing to step over those lines to work together to benefit the greater community.

Editor’s note: Westerly municipal and school leaders in 2011 agreed to consolidate the town and school finance director positions into one position for both entities. Westerly was the first town in the state to take this step.

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