At the request of the Ashby and Townsend Boards of Selectmen, the Division of Local Services' Technical Assistance Section completed a Police & Communications Regionalization Analysis. The intent of our report was to provide officials in both communities with an independent evaluation on the feasibility of sharing police and communication functions. Delivered in March, the report is divided into five separate sections which include an overview of each town's current operations, the important factors in establishing a regional department, our proposed regional department structure, and the projected savings and cost allocation methodology. The report concludes with a discussion on issues of governance and the legal means to regionalize.
The report includes a description of community demographics in order to understand the context in which police and dispatch services are provided. Each town is rural, has comparable socioeconomic status, and crime rates are low. Thought Townsend is considered rural, its population of 9,400 persons is more than three times that of Ashby and its population density is more than double. In addition, Townsend's population is concentrated in a couple of areas, while Ashby's population of 2,927 is distributed relatively evenly throughout the town. The makeup of each town influences service demands and how the community structures its police and communication services.
The most comprehensive approach to sharing police and communications services between the two towns is to establish a regional department. However, to determine if this is feasible, it is important to analyze several key factors. These factors include workloads and operating environments in each community; vacancies in key leadership positions, potential for major capital outlays, collective bargaining considerations, technology and equipment considerations, and topographical features that may affect response times. Additionally we comment on other issues that may impact a decision to regionalize, such as state financial incentives, departmental accreditation and expanded opportunities to access regional resources such as regional equipment consortiums.
At the onset of our review of a proposed regional department, we sought to document and compare the existing levels of service in the two towns in order to design a department that maintains the service levels that each town has traditionally delivered and has come to expect. Given the different staffing levels and patrol coverage patterns in each town, it was difficult to configure patrol sectors for a regional department that were equitable and preserved the current service levels in each town. Consequently, we decided a better approach would be for the two towns to agree that Ashby would purchase the same number of patrol shifts that it currently funded from a newly created regional department. The regional department, for a number of reasons, would be hosted by Townsend and operate out of its existing police station. This would ensure that each town retained the same, if not better, levels of service compared to what both towns currently provide.
Using this service model, we estimated a total regional department budget by examining the towns' current budgets, year-to-date spending, and prior year actual spending. We quantified the estimated savings that are possible with a regional police and communications department. Consolidating operations yielded a total estimated savings of $225,804, the majority of which arises from merging communications, eliminating a chief position and closing Ashby's police station. This represents an 8.5 percent savings over what the two towns appropriated in FY2010.
The next step was to determine a methodology that fairly distributes the projected savings among the two towns. A good allocation method should also yield relatively stable and predictable results from year-to-year and not increase the operational cost to either town. Though there are any number of models to consider, the methodology we used allocates the total costs of the regional department by using the variables of population, , and 911 call volume (equally weighted) to calculate the proportionate share of the regional budget for each town. Ultimately, both communities will need to negotiate an approach they feel is equitable.
Lastly, our report concludes with a discussion on the available legal means to regionalize police and communication functions and governance issues. Outside of special legislation, an inter-municipal agreement (IMA) under M.G.L. c. 40, §4A is a possible vehicle to create a regional police department and communications center. The IMA can be executed with the majority approval of each board of selectmen, and once lawfully executed, it is binding on the towns notwithstanding any bylaw or charter provision to the contrary. The primary advantages of an IMA are that it allows the towns to develop a governance structure appropriate to their situation and affords them the opportunity to customize a cost allocation methodology that suits both communities.
In small and medium sized communities such as Ashby and Townsend, the concept of forming a regional police and communications department represents a significant opportunity for cost savings. While reaching agreement with the respective police and communications collective bargaining agents may seem to be a challenging task, it can be done. Beyond the need to reach agreement with labor unions, both communities will have to come together on a number of factors to be outlined within an inter-municipal agreement including service levels, transition issues and cost allocation. A copy of our report is available under the following link: Towns of Ashby and Townsend Police Communications Regionalization Analysis .