Hey, you got your Geneva in my Canandaigua! No way, you got your Canandaigua in my Geneva!
It’s the age old question: we need more, better services, but how do we pay for them? As with most questions, you learned the answer in Kindergarten: share!
My first experiences with shared services came as part of the largest public-private partnership (P3) for municipal services in U.S. history. The City of Sandy Springs, Georgia chartered in 2006 after decades of wrangling with Fulton County over dissatisfaction with service levels. The City hired global engineering and operations firm CH2M to manage all City services, except police and fire, in a $30 million annual operations contract. The University of Georgia estimated that the partnership saved Sandy Springs residents nearly 50% as compared to the traditional service delivery model. Based on its success, in the ensuing years, three other Fulton County communities followed suit and chartered their own cities using the P3 model and CH2M. The cities ranged from the very upscale (read: resource heavy), urban Sandy Springs, to largely rural, small town (read: resource light) Chattahoochee Hills.
CH2M leadership envisioned the possibility for code enforcement officers, engineers, and accountants to move seamlessly from city to city, taking off their City of Sandy Springs shirt one day and donning their City of Milton hat the next. What they actually found was that, even with resource constraints, City leaders were wary of sharing tactical resources; largely preferring their own dedicated ground teams. The gap that CH2M and their clients identified was at the strategic leadership level. Not every community can afford, or would prioritize resources for a world class Public Works Director or community development guru. But most communities would be willing to contribute something toward those resources. CH2M created the “Municipal Services Center of Excellence,” which, as part of each city’s operations contract, provided strategic guidance in nearly every area of operations. Because of magnitude of dollars available through pooled resources, CH2M was able to hire world renowned experts in areas of municipal operations, who provided unique insight to each community as they developed and executed their service delivery strategy.
Fast forward to 2014 and upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region. The State of New York had recently imposed a property tax “cap,” which required municipalities to think creatively to manage costs and keep services humming for local residents. Alongside the cap, the state offered very little regulatory or mandate relief. The cities of Geneva and Canandaigua, roughly 12 miles apart, were both experiencing turnover in their respective Real Property Assessor positions. They were also both experiencing severe crimps in their respective revenue streams. After a few conversations at the staff level, both communities conducted a workload analysis and found that the role of Assessor could be filled by something less than a full-time staffer. The challenge was that the workload was variable, but it was also predictable. For example, best practices dictate that a complete reassessment of properties be completed every 2 to 3 years. In a reassessment year, the Assessor could expect to work 30+ hours per week. In off years, the professional Assessor workload is something less than that.
The two cities developed a resource sharing agreement, whereby they would partner to hire a single Assessor, who would manage the function in both cities. They agreed to a cost sharing formula, with expenses based upon the relative number of parcels in each community. The City of Geneva took on the payroll and civil service responsibilities, and bills Canandaigua quarterly for their share. The two communities worked together to recruit and select the incumbent, and talk frequently to develop performance feedback and ensure smooth administration of the partnership. The agreement is now in its second year, with Geneva’s reassessment completed in 2015, and Canandaigua’s underway today. Based on the success of the model, the cities also have partnered to share Information Technology staff. The partnership garnered an innovation award from the New York Conference of Mayors in 2015.
Sharing services is a great way to manage costs and enhance service delivery. That said, every service and community is different. Before starting down the path of sharing services, communities should take the following steps:
- Workload Analysis: Be sure that you understand the workload of your organization and the staffing needs for the service. Share this information among the partners so that each community has a clear understanding of its own needs and the needs of your partner.
- Clarify Service Level Expectations: Be clear from the beginning with each other relative to the staffing and service needs of your respective communities. This will ensure that there are no surprises down the road when the staffer is spending more time one place or the other.
- Identify a Fair Cost Sharing Mechanism: Using the workload analysis, identify the appropriate cost allocation for each community. Be sure to include all costs, including salary, benefits, and any necessary support infrastructure (cell phone, car, etc.).
- Communicate Regularly: If the incumbent is doing something really well (or really poorly) in one community, chances are they are doing it in both. Identifying challenges and opportunities early, and sharing the intel will ensure a long, productive partnership.
Instead of building a wall and making Canandaigua pay for it, we were able to build a partnership that pays for itself. Now get out there and meet with your regional peers in the hopes of creating a supergovernment that comes together like Voltron to take on other supergovernments in a quest for global domination…or to just get to IT work tickets faster.