With communities across Wisconsin facing the sobering budget realities of massive cuts in state aid combined with state-imposed tax levy limits, there is an increasing call for local governments to consider consolidating services.
The Journal Sentinel has been clear and consistent in its position, as has Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. And now other local leaders are getting on board.
From the latter story:
Driven by concerns over state funding cuts, municipal leaders from Milwaukee County on Monday unanimously endorsed taking a first step toward broader joint service arrangements.
Members of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council backed a review of “the possibility of sharing, merging, consolidating, downsizing, right-sizing or rethinking the operations of local government.” The mayors, village presidents and county executive who make up the council membership unanimously favored the move, which includes help from the nonpartisan Public Policy Forum.
Where do I stand?
Let me start with a caveat: If you can not prove that the quality of the consolidated (or shared or merged) service is at worst the same, and ideally better, than what is currently being provided, I would have a hard time even considering it.
But, if it meets that threshold, and in many cases I am betting it will, then I say we absolutely need to look at consolidating, sharing or merging services. And the reason why is simple: There are few other options left, barring reducing or eliminating vital and value-adding services.
Now, there are important criticisms often raised against consolidation, including the potential degradation of services. As I mentioned above, I won’t support an initiative that allows for that.
The other big concern is cost. Consolidation can be expensive, especially on the front end. Savings, if there are any to be had, come later. There is a real cost to the up-front investment.
But “invest” is the operative word, isn’t it? I look at consolidation as potentially an investment in the future of a community and in the things that make suburban living appealing — the delivery of strong services that we much too often take for granted. Compromising those services must only be a last resort, so we need to look at all options to avoid that.
In other words, consolidation must be on the table.
It’s been studied in past, and it’s worthy of further study. What didn’t work five years ago may work now. This is a different day and time, with different legislative forces and different economic realities driving these considerations.
That’s why I was glad to see the ICC take the action it did earlier this week.
Keep in mind that consolidation through shared services, and on a small scale, is already working in South Milwaukee. We now share a health inspector with other South Shore communities, and I can’t be happier with the quality of the service we get in that area. I’ve seen it first-hand through the South Milwaukee Downtown Market.
However, let’s not go too far. The concept of “over-consolidation” — i.e., metropolitan government — is a concern. On this issue, the loss of community identity and local control are hurdles too big to overcome. Indeed, South Milwaukee Mayor Tom Zepecki is right when he told the Journal Sentinel this: “Metro government is a scary thought. I don’t see any future for a large metro government.”
I hope the future for more limited consolidation is brighter. Let’s at least have the discussion.
Of course, I want to know what you think about this issue. Post your comments below.