There are certainly ways in which the consolidation of some public services may prove to be more efficient and more economical than the six-fold duplication of those efforts, which is our historic and current pattern.
This week, we report on a study, which recommends the consolidation of policing services in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs. It’s a very sensible conclusion that the study’s authors have come to, but is it the right solution? We’re skeptical.
Forecasts of lower costs, or at least a slower rate of cost increases, improved effectiveness, and economies of scale remind one of the persistent arguments in support of county government, regional schools, regional waste water and solid waste management, and regional planning. They have a desirable ring to them, but it’s time we asked the really important questions.
For instance, have we asked what is required to make the regional dreams of efficiency and economy come true?
If one of the answers is that the regional effort has to have an important purpose, that it must be undeniably useful, then county government is an outright warning that such ambitions don’t always work out. County government is expensive, useless and becoming steadily more so. It ought to have been extinguished by the last county charter study commission, whose members should be ashamed of themselves. But, it wasn’t, because the commission’s members dreamt that maybe a purpose would come along one day.
If another of the answers is that regionalization ought to be attempted only when thoughtfully streamlined, rigorously disciplined, and that broadly authorized management can be assured, think of the regional school systems here.
Regionalization of the schools here is cacophonous – five distinct operating educational entities and a sixth as a kind of umbrella. Each one of these six is limited by its articles of confederation, so that a talented, efficient manager, such as the current superintendent, cannot operate across the educational landscape to use teachers, administrators, buildings, and programs to the best advantage, as a CEO ought to be empowered to do.
If yet another answer is that a regional effort must be based on the sound financial condition of the participating partners, consider the union of police in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs. In the former, there are signs that financial management is having a salutary effect. In the latter, the fiscal torture goes on and on, and the prospects of a sweeping financial retrenchment seem out of reach. What success is possible for two towns whose current policing costs differ markedly, as do their policing requirements? What financing assurances can each make to the other?
Helping one another, at the family, social, and municipal levels, is understood and practiced, almost flawlessly, on Martha’s Vineyard. We are reminded weekly of the good Samaritans among us, the generous neighbors, the open-hearted business owners, the regiments of volunteers, the diligent and ever-ready emergency services, including police, volunteer firefighters, and harbormasters, the hospital ER, and the Red Cross. In all these ways, cooperation among us flourishes. Town boundaries do not hinder neighborly impulses. One cannot argue that all of this occurs with seamless, economic efficiency, but acting as one Island community in all these ways is something of which we are proud. We understand how cooperation works, we count on it, and we do it.
Repeated public debates over expanding the limited, informal, and ad hoc regional structure, find that the attitude that has predominated among Islanders has been skepticism. Islanders seem to think that real advantages — mainly, and with considerable justification, financial — appear possible, but real disincentives are more persuasive.
The antipathy for structural regional solutions to problems that cross town boundaries arises from pure, democratic common sense. Voters and taxpayers believe they have the best chance to control public agencies that are closest to them. Town voters elect selectmen, vote on town budgets at town meeting, and they know who’s who on town boards. Voters realize that, to succeed, these officials must focus their efforts on the circumscribed affairs of one small town. When elected or appointed officials serve on broader based agencies — the Dukes County government or the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, even regional school committees, for example — the portfolio becomes more diverse, the officials are more distracted, the decisions involve more compromise, and the lines of authority from voter to official are attenuated. Competition for those powerful elected jobs is spiritless.
Town governments are also important economic forces. Their payrolls and benefits support families. Maintaining close, influential ties to municipal leaders and the decisions they make protects those valuable jobs.
Voters know on which side their bread is buttered.