As you may or may not know, in addition to my blog here (which I repost at CitizenWausau.com for those times when the blogging gods decide to remove my post from this site), I am one of the “front page” contributors to the CitizenWausau website.
An article that I was thinking of doing for the front page of Citizen Wausau would discuss the whole Schofield/Weston/Everest Metro thing. However, I don’t know if that is a proper topic for the front page, after all, it is CitizenWausau and not CitizenWeston or CitizenSchofield.
I decided to instead blog about it, I have a CitizenWausau front page article brewing in my head about the City of Wausau’s new website that I will probably write in the next few days.
In the past week or so, there have been articles and editorials about the possibility of Schofield pulling out of Everest Metro because they feel their share of the cost is too high. I am not going to go on about that in this blog. However, there was a comment on the editorial that I think is a valid one to discuss. The comment was about merged services in general. That there really is not a cost savings for all, it is not a win-win situation. The bigger entity saves money at the expense of the smaller entity which pays more. That is why mergers of public services are not that popular in small communities and is a favorite child of larger ones.
When looking at a simple dollar amount number, that comment was dead on correct. However, when looking at municipal merged services, it’s not about that bottom line dollar amount, it is about the value – or in other words what you are getting for the money spent.
A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to study merged services from the inside. Then-Mayor Krause of Schofield had created a Long-Term Planning Committee. Unlike most committees which consist of citizens, this was an advisory committee only, so was not limited to citizen participation. The committee consisted of a few members of the city counsel, a few citizens, and then a few business leaders (who have a financial stake but are not residents). I had wet my feet in local politics when the City of Schofield was proposing a sign ordinance that would have been devastating to Schofield’s commercial sector. Somehow, I quickly emerged as a spokesperson for Schofield’s businesses. The sign ordinance did get modified to a point where neither City leaders nor business leaders were really happy. So, I call that a success (the political definition of “compromise” is when parties come to a solution where neither side is happy).
Although the sign issue was settled, I was hooked. I attended every Schofield council meeting and most of the committee meetings. I really got to understand local politics and how the system worked. It was because of my participation and involvement that when the Long Term Planning Committee was formed, I was asked by Mayor Krause to serve on it.
During the time of this Committee, there were also talks going on of a fire department merger. Through the recommendation of our Committee, Schofield joined in those negotiations. Once all the costs were figured out, the comment I spoke of earlier rang true. Under a combined department, Wausau would spend less and everyone else would spend more. Guess why Wausau liked the possibility of a merger and no one else did.
However, although the smaller communities would be spending more, they would also be getting more. They would be going from volunteer on call departments to full time staffed departments. The cost for Schofield or Rothschild or Rib Mountain or Weston to go to a full time department would be very expensive. By merging, they could go to full time at a much cheaper cost – however this cost would still be more than the volunteer department they all currently had at the time.
Will merging services save money in the long run? Yes, but in a “meta” sense. The only time all parties to a merger will see cost savings if two departments of about equal size with about equal features join together. There will be cost savings for both parties thanks to economies of scale and the ability to cut the overhead in half (administrative costs are normally the biggest savings followed by capital outlays for large pieces of equipment which can now be shared instead of each department having their own).
However, when the service levels are different, then only one side is going to see a cost savings. Although the other side is going to see a cost increase, they are going to get a better bang for that buck. By merging with a larger entity, they will be able to benefit from additional services or features that a smaller department could ever afford, and get these features at a fraction of their total cost. Spend a little more – get a lot more.
So.. why don’t more mergers happen. It is NOT because there are winners and losers in a merger… it is because there is this PERCEPTION that there are winners and losers.
If winning and losing is measured strictly in cost – I will agree, one side pays more and one side pays less. But sometimes it is about more than money.
Will the various communities that make up the larger metro area ever merge into one community. No.. they NEVER will – that is a wager I will take to the bank. However, could the communities benefit from more shared services – I think they could.
However, it comes down to the voters. The voters, in general, don’t care as much about having the increased service level, they care about that bottom line dollar amount. The only time they tend to care about full time fire is when they have a fire. The only time they care about full time detectives as part of a police force is when they are a victim of a crime. I will be honest… I don’t blame them. Although a part of me looks at the Wausau area as a whole and would love to see this area benefit from the economies of scale that would happen from a large-scale merging of many services (not just police and fire), I am also a tax payer. I also look at my bottom line. I am guilty of it too – I openly admit it.
I when I moved from Knowlton to be closer to the properties I own and manage, I purposely bought in the Town of Wausau as close to city limits as I could without being in the City of Wausau (as a matter of fact, the properties on two sides of my lot are within the City – I couldn’t get much closer without being in the City). Why? Because the tax rate for the Town of Wausau is less. I don’t benefit from Wausau’s full time fire department, I don’t get service from the Wausau Police Department. So I understand not wanting to pay for expanded services.
So, merged services, including the Everest Metro discussion, come down to one thing and one thing only. It doesn’t come down to what services the voters want – it comes down to what they are willing to pay. And THAT is the reason why merged services are few and far between.