Public Policy Forum Blog

2nd Quarter 2017 President's Message

Forum members and friends know that one of our foremost priorities in recent years has been our work with local governments and school districts to explore possibilities for intergovernmental service sharing and consolidation. In fact, we published two reports on this topic in the past quarter – one on public health consolidation in Oak Creek and South Milwaukee, and the other on service sharing opportunities for the Milwaukee Public Schools.

While many assume that the pursuit of service sharing is all about saving money – and while the Forum itself documented substantial financial savings resulting from creation of the North Shore Fire Department – we have always counseled otherwise. In our view, the greatest promise lies in the potential for individual governments to join forces to achieve levels of service quality and efficiency that they otherwise could not achieve alone.

Furthermore, national research cautions that pursuit of service sharing only may make sense under the right conditions. Those may include some type of precipitating event, such as a new requirement posed by a higher level of government that requires substantial investments in technology or staff; evidence of clear duplication of service among local governments in a region; or a previous history of cooperation among two or more governments.

With those thoughts in mind, perhaps it is understandable that outside of the North Shore, functional consolidation among local governments in metro Milwaukee has taken hold only in a handful of instances. This is despite our multiple reports that illustrate the benefits that could result from specific consolidation opportunities in the areas of fire and rescue, public safety dispatch, and public health.

However, while the circumstances surrounding each of these opportunities differ – and while some simply have not had enough time to play out – it also has become increasingly evident to me that the misguided notion that consolidation needs to save lots of money often is the cause of this inaction. Indeed, while each of our analyses has pointed to modest initial savings that would grow over time, none has been able to show immediate savings that "knocked the socks off" the communities in question. That's the nature of the beast, but it's disheartening that opportunities for longer-term savings, future cost avoidance, and improved service quality and efficiency are being forsaken.   

Our Oak Creek-South Milwaukee report is the most recent example, and it's particularly disappointing because the conditions that gave rise to our analysis were so remarkably consistent with the ideal conditions cited above. The precipitating factor for our study was the departure of Oak Creek's public health officer, which had already led to a temporary arrangement in which the two cities were sharing a public health officer. Meanwhile, our research found several clear examples where similar public health services that were being provided individually by each city could be easily and effectively combined; and there already was a spirit of cooperation, as exhibited by the interim public health relationship.

Our report recommended a gradual merger of the two health departments and a staffing model that would allow the cities to expand service capacity and address existing service gaps at no extra cost. However, in part because our modeling could not point to substantial immediate cost reductions, it failed to convince Oak Creek's elected leaders that a merger was worth pursuing. (Note: Neither Common Council formally took up the report – and it is unknown whether either city ultimately would have supported a full merger – but Oak Creek recently informed South Milwaukee that it was not interested in pursuing the gradual merger.)

In fairness, leaders in Oak Creek may have a vision for their health department services that is distinct from that implied in our model. For example, while we designed a staffing plan that would accommodate an expansion of public health service capacity, Oak Creek's rapid growth has created a series of challenges in other service areas that justifiably may be higher priorities. With no immediate savings to count on and no strong desire to expand public health programming capacity, it is easier to see why Oak Creek's leaders decided they are better off going it alone.   

Yet, while not necessarily the case in Oak Creek, I will argue that far too often, the lack of immediate fiscal pay-off from consolidation proposals gives elected leaders an easy way out. They can reject such proposals without fear of being accused of forgoing large taxpayer savings, while also knowing they are unlikely to be held accountable for disregarding long-term fiscal and programmatic benefits, as well as the intangible benefits of promoting a culture of cooperation among neighboring communities.            

In the end, I keep telling myself that these things take time, and that the groundwork the Forum is laying ultimately will bear fruit. After all, it took more than a decade of negotiation and discussion before the North Shore Fire Department was created. Consequently, we’re not about to give up our efforts to provide thorough analysis of service sharing options to local policymakers.

Rob Henken