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Communities Debate Whether Sharing Services Saves Money


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.

We're going to take a look this morning at how the economic downturn has hurt the places where we live - cities, counties, towns - and the ways that people are trying fight through.

MONTAGNE: We begin in Wisconsin, where, as in much of the country, municipalities are running out of sources of cash. Residents complain taxes are too high, then wince when services are cut.

GREENE: Increasingly, leaders are turning to a third option: consolidation of services, or even a merging of neighboring communities. While this can save millions of dollars, some critics say it's still more important to preserve a community's autonomy.

Amy Kiley of member station WUWM in Milwaukee reports.

AMY KILEY, BYLINE: At Waukesha County Communications, 911 dispatchers assure callers help is on the way.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: 911. What's the address of your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Unintelligible)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK. What city is that in, ma'am?

KILEY: The answer could be one of 29 communities within the county here, west of Milwaukee. That's because this is a consolidated dispatch center. Local governments pool emergency calls here to try to improve quality and save money. The most recent city to join predicts it will save it nearly a million dollars a year.

Such consolidation is on the rise. Even before the recent recession, Census Bureau data showed intergovernmental spending rose 234 percent from 1992 to 2007. Now, all states have service-sharing laws.

Still, for some opponents, studies are irrelevant when autonomy is on the line. In Waukesha County, the biggest city is not part of the dispatch center. Dennis Angle is deputy chief of the City of Waukesha Police Department.

DENNIS ANGLE: The patch that sits on my shoulder says Waukesha. My job is to serve the citizens of the City of Waukesha, to render the best service that we possibly can to them.

KILEY: Angle says his city does share some services, but he's concerned joining the dispatch center might reduce emergency response quality. Such concerns are common in consolidations, though some wonder if it's more about the fear of losing jobs. And some opponents are concerned about something even more nebulous: civic identity.

A bitter fight in Nebraska eight years ago led to the closure of more than 200 small school districts. To try to save his daughter's school, farmer Mike Nolles formed Class Ones United.

MIKE NOLLES: When you lose a school like this, it's the exact same feeling you have when your home burns down with all of your family photographs. It's the exact same feeling, because I've experienced both.

KILEY: Backers of the Nebraska school consolidation say it gave students more resources and spread out the tax burden as rural communities shrank.

More extreme is the complete merger of two municipalities. Princeton, New Jersey used to be a so-called doughnut town with the borough in the middle and the township around it. They shared services, but residents voted down consolidation three times.

In 2011, it passed easily. The Center for Governmental Research helped with that process. Its economist, Kent Gardner, says Princeton officials had to address the very real fear of change.

KENT GARDNER: People like to think that the policeman actually will recognize them. Sergeant Joe is going to know me. If we consolidate, then maybe it'll be somebody I've never seen before.

KILEY: While consolidation supporters cite significant upsides to these mergers, there's something studies can't easily predict: How people will feel about changes to their communities.

For NPR News, I'm Amy Kiley, in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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