Monday, July 11, 2011

Responding to Change -
Consolidation Conversation

Police agencies from three separate jurisdictions respond to a minor, two-car non-injury traffic accident on Ohio River Blvd. at Quaker Village Shopping Center last month. Leetsdale Fire Dept. also responded.

As I've said before, trying to compare the manner in which local government is structured and managed in Colorado and Pennsylvania is a true exercise in "apples and oranges". As a result, I won't waste time or energy trying to match them alongside each other. The philosophies, practices, and laws which govern the operations and existence of these entities are just too different. This extends to the manner in which public safety services are provided.

Still, a recent story in the Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel brought two interesting points to bear for me. First, it seemed to mark the first time that a major public official has publicly leveled criticism of the manner of the expansion of Grand Junction's city limits through annexations under the Persigo Agreement of 1998:

This situation has drawn some complaints from residents who question why they were annexed into the city of Grand Junction only to receive services from Clifton (Fire District), (Grand Junction Fire Chief Ken) Watkins said.

“I’ll be honest, it’s a total mess,” he said during a recent presentation to Grand Junction City Council. “There’s problems with assessment payments. Is this truly what we want as a community?”

What Chief Watkins referred to as "a total mess" has been that way for upwards of a decade now. At least the story highlighted efforts by two fire agencies to find opportunities for collaboration that will help assure excellent service delivery while reducing duplication of resources at the expense of the taxpayer. For the benefit of Pennsylvania readers, these fire and EMS agencies are tax-supported through local sales tax, property tax, or both.

They're having conversations about these things - that's a big first step.

The second point was Sentinel reporter Amy Hamilton's lead for the story. It's a question that gets asked in a lot of places, especially in a tough economy with dwindling municipal budgets, and it's a question I've heard get asked several times since I returned to Pennsylvania:
Does it make sense for multiple fire departments to coexist in one area? Is it necessary for neighboring communities to invest in similar equipment, build extra fire stations or even to pay the salaries of multiple fire chiefs?
While most of the fire companies protecting Pennsylvania are predominantly volunteer in nature, there is considerable local capital expended toward the purchase and maintenance of equipment and training of personnel, as well as the social and cultural position that volunteer fire departments hold in many communities as the center of activity, community gathering place, social club, evacuation center, and the list goes on.

Across the 4 1/2 miles between Sewickley and the Fair Oaks section of Leet Township, there are four independent volunteer fire departments. These agencies admirably cooperate and coordinate their activities in response to all manner and complexity of emergencies across their respective jurisdictions. They exist with their own membership requirements, operating standards, management structures, and boards of directors. Is this mutually dependent, yet organizationally independent existence necessary to provide adequate protection to the residents of the communities that depend upon them? Have conversations taken place about this?

You can also substitute the word "police" for "fire" in the above quote, and the question remains valid for many areas.

An example is the above photograph, which shows patrol units from three Quaker Valley-area police agencies at the scene of a minor traffic collision. Traffic control and investigative needs probably required the presence of those officers. Could they all be from the same agency, instead of several?

Many Pittsburgh-area municipalities such as Aleppo, Ben Avon, Emsworth, Kilbuck, Neville, and Richland have had the conversation, and decided that contracting with a larger neighboring department, or joining a regional police agency, is the way to go. Still others maintain their need for a locally administered police presence. Those conversations have apparently taken place, and the status quo was the result. There are reasons for this.

During a recent conversation with Leetsdale Police Chief James Santucci, he stated that his department is the busiest in the Quaker Valley area in terms of call volume. I had not thought about this previously, but it made immediate sense to me. Leetsdale is much more than a 'bedroom community' - the presence of the Buncher Commerce Park, Leetsdale Industrial Park, and Hussey Copper make it a workplace destination with the largest weekday population in the Quaker Valley. Add in QV's High School, and the borough's emergency management footprint is complex, and public safety needs potentially daunting.

Those needs have come to light many times over the years, with traffic crashes, train derailments, industrial accidents, and river emergencies presenting the entire area with protection and management challenges that are met head-on by the municipal alphabet soup that is local government in Pennsylvania.

Some in Harrisburg see these voluminous, yet sometimes tiny government entities as flies in the ointment of either responsible, efficient governance or some ulterior motive that their campaigns have been financed on (drilling ordinance, anyone?). They have attempted to legislate them out of existence, but their efforts have not been successful, for reasons that I believe relate to legislators not having conversations with those constituents actually doing the work.

Still, if you want an example of what the future might look like, you need look no further than those branches of public safety that are the youngest - Emergency Medical Services and Public Safety Communications. In both cases, economies of scale drive the streamlined nature of the organizations involved.

In the Quaker Valley, the municipal EMS authority board has representation from all 11 municipalities, but is operated by the Valley Ambulance Authority across the river. QV is different from Valley in that it levies a per capita fee; this, along with insurance reimbursement, make up the lion's share of operating revenue. Both authorities are in the midst of a donation campaign. It's a good investment, just like the fire department fish fry.

One big change when I was out west was the provision of enhanced 9-1-1 service to all of Allegheny County, and the gradual consolidation of communications centers that went along with it. This was driven by a mandate for consolidation by the state agency that oversees 9-1-1 provision, and controls allocation of revenue from the 9-1-1 surcharge that is levied on all telephone bills. No consolidation, no surcharge money. Simple enough.

Several municipalities have chosen to maintain their own dispatchers and communications centers, and receive calls from the county 9-1-1 center on a "ring down" basis. If the community at large feels that they receive better service this way, and they can afford it, more power to them. It's just another set of eyes, ears, and hands through which information must pass before a call for help is met by a tangible response.

Leetsdale, which used to obtain these services from Beaver County 9-1-1, opted for Allegheny County several years ago. The reason, according to Chief Santucci; "It's free". The borough saves about $22,000 per year in fees previously paid to the neighboring county - fees that Leet Township and Bell Acres Borough still pay for services that they are apparently satisfied with.

Weighing heavy in my head through all of this learning has been the clarion call of conservative groups and anti-tax/anti-big government activists, peppered with the angry voices on local talk radio, decrying the size and complexity of government at all levels. It's easy to heave brickbats in this way, but entirely a different thing to volunteer one's time to engage in the sometimes messy business of governance in a structure as complex as Pennsylvania.

Those who engage in this rhetoric need to learn something. Stop being what the marquee at Marroni's last week referred to as "those who know nothing doing it the loudest". I learned this:

No honest conversation about the size and complexity of government can take place without all levels of government, including local government and especially public safety, being on the agenda and at the table.

Have a good week ahead.

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