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Question of the Week: Selectmen Candidates Speak on Regionalization

Can regionalization work for Belmont? Andy and Dan tackle that question.

Regionalization – merging town services of one or more municipalities – was one area that former Town Administrator Thomas Younger recently said he was unable to move forward during his tenure. The promise of combining services – including small functions such as sharing a town nurse to major areas including public safety – with a nearby town or towns is that Belmont will see savings and greater efficiencies. Do you support regionalization and what top three areas would you strongly push to see combined with other towns?

Andy Rojas

The discussion of regionalization of services has been ongoing in Belmont for many years now. We’ve had public forums and studies exploring the needs, options and priorities for regionalization and consolidation. Regionalization among several towns has been studied in conjunction with consolidation of departments and services within the town. The issues and challenges presented by
either approach are often similar – while at different scales and with specific nuances. Belmont has two recent examples of successful regionalization and consolidation efforts. First, the regionalization of the Health Department’s Public Health Nursing Services with the Lexington is a laudable example. This has been economically beneficial for Belmont and has provided additional needed services during the days the staff is in Belmont. Quality is improving and costs are controlled. This is an example of what might be possible with creative approaches to other town services.

Also very promising is the recent consolidation of the Buildings & Grounds Operations for the Town and Schools. This is a logical program that will engender greater flexibility and efficiency in the upkeep of the Town and School buildings and grounds. The level of service is expected to increase as the operations become more efficient. While this program does not necessarily save the Town money, the other tangible benefits to all of our residents clearly add value. We should study this consolidation effort in order to apply its lessons to other Town operations and departments.

The key to any of these regionalization and consolidation approaches is to clearly understand up front what the Town is getting into. We must analyze the costs and benefits of every viable option.

Any proposed solution for the regionalization or consolidation of services must be able to demonstrate a compelling public benefit before it is implemented. We must also weigh the ideas and recommendations from our prior consolidation and regionalization studies – so that we can build on this important knowledge base.

The cost-benefit analyses are important and necessary first steps. If regionalization and consolidation solutions pass this test, careful planning for transition and full implementation is required for their efficient integration into the mosaic of town services. Communicating all of this to our residents is a critical aspect of any approach. Resident expectations must match projected program results.

As Selectman I would explore several options that could improve town services and potentially save taxpayer dollars. These include the regionalization of our Emergency Dispatch Services. Currently these services are consolidated for Police and Fire within the Town - but regionalization opportunities may offer further enhancements to services and operating efficiencies.

A second potential option that has been discussed and studied for many years is the regionalization of the Fire Services. Clearly more analysis is required. However, it doesn’t seem logical to have the staff required to deal with a peak-level event, staffing our department on a daily basis.
Another option worthy of consideration is the consolidation of the Town’s Health, Human Services (COA), and Recreation Departments. This has been recommended in the past by the Warrant Committee. Each department has a small staff and could benefit from efficient consolidation.

I commit to explore every available option, among and beyond these approaches, to increase the level of services to our residents, to increase efficiency in our operations, and to contain and reduce costs.

Please contact me at (617) 281-4617, andy@rojasdesigninc.com or on my website, andyrojas.com I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Dan Scharfman

When regionalization saves money or improves services to Belmont residents, I support it wholeheartedly. We’ve already had great success in sharing special education services across town borders through the LABBB Collaborative, in regional dispatch for some public safety functions, and through the Minuteman Library Network, to name just a few. 

Regionalization doesn’t solve all problems. If it did, California’s cities and towns – with their sprawling county governments and school systems - would be in great financial shape. And regionalizing can lead to a vexing lack of cost and program control, like the Minuteman Vocational High School. Minuteman provides great and necessary programs, but with 16 towns governing the school, it’s extremely difficult for Belmont to make changes – and it has very high per-pupil costs. Moreover, delivering services regionally can be more expensive than delivering them locally because of transportation expenses costs.  

We have dozens of partially completed small regionalization projects, from public health to public safety, and have talked – often for years – about others.  The Belmont League of Women Voters, of which I am a member, is currently studying Belmont’s options for increased regionalization. Let’s focus on some projects that we can actually get done. And let’s also prepare for big projects that will save big dollars. 

Services based on information are the quickest to regionalize. Fifteen years ago I helped a regional nonprofit take on municipal Medicaid billing responsibilities for several local school systems. We had to sort through many data security issues, but we succeeded, and improved finances for the districts. I’d look for similar ways to share the infrastructure costs of accounting and data functions in Belmont.  

We can regionalize more of our specialized services.  Public Health departments have been charged with increasingly complex inspection and public education duties. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (disclaimer: my brother-in-law is the Commissioner) has encouraged regional efforts to save money by sharing costs. Let’s use their technical assistance and find grants to join forces with neighboring towns. We also need to recognize that nonprofits have already created regional structures to address some specialized services for seniors, fuel assistance, and social services. The last thing Belmont needs to do is create multi-town regional structures that compete with the private and nonprofit sectors. We should contract services out to them instead if possible.

Let’s be clear: half a position here and a few software licenses there are worth some serious effort, but we won’t save big dollars until we find regional economies of scale in our big departments, including our schools. The newly unified Freetown-Lakeville School District was able to cut class sizes and improve student outcomes without overrides. Yet loss of local control has raised their political tensions to the boiling point, and the future is uncertain. 

We’ll need a great deal of conversation in Belmont before we push in that direction.  But let’s start that conversation today, and be ready to grasp opportunities for regional schools, police, fire, and public works when our neighbors are ready to join us.

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