New Hampshire Municipal Association
New Hampshire Municipal Association

New Hampshire Town And City

Inter-Municipal Sharing Agreements: What’s New?

New Hampshire Town and City, January 2012

By Christopher J. Porter

The July/August 2010 issue of New Hampshire Town and City magazine ran a series of articles under the banner, “Beyond the Sandbox: Sharing Services through Inter-Municipal Cooperation, Collaboration and Innovation.” The centerpiece of that series was a research summary of the New Hampshire Municipal Association’s (NHMA) first statewide survey of inter-municipal agreements. That report concluded with the hope that the survey’s findings would spur more cities and towns to begin a conversation on the benefits of establishing regional, cooperative agreements with their neighbors.

As is often the case, research begets more research. The only way to know what has changed since the 2010 benchmark study on this subject was to conduct a new survey, the singular goal of which was to learn what, if anything, has changed in the intervening months. Have new inter-municipal agreements been formed? Have existing relationships been expanded? Are new conversations taking place between municipalities where none existed a year ago? These are the questions posed to this year’s research sample of New Hampshire cities and towns.

The 2010 benchmark study sampled all 234 municipalities; the response rate was 56 percent, which represented half of the state’s population. The follow up survey, distributed in October 2011, went out to the 56 percent who made up the previous sample base. As before, the survey was administered by way of an online survey tool. By early November 2011, responses had been gathered from just over half of the 2010 sample base, for a total of 84 cities and towns.

The line of questioning in the 2011 survey was as follows:

These total-sample findings are summarized in the table below:

 

New

Changed

Under
Consideration

None

Municipal

10%

4%

10%

76%

School

10%

5%

4%

81%

County

1%

0%

4%

95%

Clearly, there is progress on this front. One quarter of this year’s sample reported that they are at least talking about one or more new inter-municipal sharing agreements with their neighbors. Another one out of five (which includes some of the inter-municipal communities) has seen movement in the municipality-with-school-district arena. And, although not large in number, some of the municipality-with-county initiatives, which came out of the survey and through other research on the topic, are some of the most potentially innovative of the bunch.

What follows is a sampling of the agreements or on-going conversations uncovered by the most recent survey.

Inter-Municipal Agreements

Bristol

Freedom

Fitzwilliam

Gilford

Peterborough

Plymouth

Salisbury/Webster/Andover/Boscawen (SWAB )

Other inter-municipal agreements under consideration:

Municipal-School Agreements

Municipal-County Agreements

New:

Under consideration:

Challenging Questions: Other Municipal-County Agreements

The possibility of the Belknap County Sheriff’s department providing police coverage to the town of Barnstead has been under consideration for the good part of a year. Barnstead selectman David Kerr has spoken recently on the subject, informally at the LGC Annual Conference session on regional cooperation, and days later at a meeting of the Lakes Region Planning Commission (which also featured a presentation of this 2011 NHMA survey). Barnstead formed a citizens’ committee to explore the pros and cons of relinquishing their police force to the county, held several public hearings to gather input from interested and concerned townspeople, and are now proposing that the matter be put to a vote at the 2012 town meeting. “It was the citizens that were concerned with losing control, not the select board,” said Kerr at the LGC Annual Conference.

Several key questions remain to be addressed by both Barnstead and Belknap County. For instance, as of this writing, Barnstead’s Regional Police Commission has issued a final report that states, “there are no clear financial savings for the town’s taxpayers in entering into a contract with the county.” While this finding alone may be a deal-breaker, other concerns remain. Will Barnstead’s police officers be demoted to probationary status if hired by the County, thus losing their seniority earned on the Barnstead force? How many police officers will be hired by the County? Will, and can, the sheriffs be as responsive to Barnstead’s needs as its own police department? Will the County delegation give its green light to the arrangement?  And, perhaps most importantly, what will town meeting have to say about it all?

The Strafford County initiatives noted above include some that are already implemented—dispatch and domestic violence prosecutorial services—and others which are only just recently under discussion. Perhaps the boldest proposal to date is one whereby the County would assume all prosecutorial services for the cities and towns, not just the felony and domestic violence cases handled today. At a recent meeting of county commissioners and municipal department heads, responses to the proposal ranged from warm to cool. The greatest amount of skepticism arose from the cities, which feel fairly well served by their in-house police department prosecutors; many of the towns, on the other hand, would probably welcome the expertise of county-provided prosecutors.

Questions were raised at this county meeting about costs and tax savings. Would there be a net savings by handing over prosecutorial work to the county? This is perhaps the same question the county’s taxpayers may soon be asking. If one’s county tax bill rises, will the municipal tax bill drop by at least an equal amount? Are there economies of scale represented by this proposal that will eventually save the taxpayer money compared to what locally-sourced prosecutorial services cost today? These are but two of the questions that will have to be addressed more specifically before Strafford County’s offer can be accepted.

Despite what may be a long row to hoe, Strafford County, and Barnstead and Belknap County, are to be applauded for their cooperative initiatives. Clearly, should other municipalities and counties be contemplating starting similar conversations, they have no further to look than these prime examples of outside-the-box thinking and proactivity.

Resources for Municipalities
This summary report has presented only a handful of the new inter-municipal and regional cooperation agreements in place or under discussion. Should you be looking for other examples of what’s working, either by municipality, region or by type of agreement, feel free to contact us at NHMA. Our ever-growing database of known cooperative agreements can be searched easily for examples that may suit your need for role models and guidance. As always, we hope this article has given you some food for thought, and will lead you to more ideas for inter-municipal cooperation and even more positive budgetary outcomes.

Chris Porter is the Researcher for the New Hampshire Municipal Association and New Hampshire Local Government Center. Contact Chris at 800.852.3358, ext. 138, or cporter@nhlgc.org.

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