By Jesse Scardina
The neighboring towns of Eliot and Kittery, Maine, have operated with a joint police chief for the past year and a half, while Kittery Town Manager Nancy Colbert Puff said other services, such as emergency dispatching and ambulance services are also shared between the communities.
The Eliot Board of Selectmen and Kittery Town Council formally met Thursday in Kittery Town Council Chambers to discuss how the two towns could provide better services for their or to do so at a lower cost and preferably both.
“I think what we’re hoping to do is try to find ways where the two communities have a shared responsibility and see if there are ways to provide them at the same cost and do it better or at a lower cost and do it at least equally well,” said Dana Lee, Eliot’s town manager. “We do the same things. We’re in the same business of providing services to people.”
Conversations like the ones Kittery and Eliot had are becoming increasingly more common in both Maine and New Hampshire, as neighboring municipalities look to find creative ways to balance yearly budgets. Three towns in New Hampshire: Newbury, New London and Sunapee, currently share an assessor, and about two weeks ago, the Rye Board of Selectmen agreed to begin a conversation with Portsmouth about sharing fire department services, an idea initially championed by Portsmouth Fire Chief Steven Achilles.
“We do see that kind of thing happening more,” said Judy Silva, executive director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association. “It’s not on a large level, it has happened in the past and it’s probably been increasing. I think as a general concept, just looking at or exploring how to deliver quality services efficiently, is a good thing for municipalities and taxpayers.”
The municipal partnerships can range from the one between Eliot and Kittery – two similarly sized towns looking for cost-effective solutions – and the one being looked at between Rye and Portsmouth, that is, a smaller community teaming with a resource-rich larger city.
While several reasons could cause towns to look at combining services with a neighbor, including duplication of services or lack of need in one town for the service, the decision is frequently financially based. After the economic recession in 2008, both Maine and New Hampshire slashed state revenue sharing in hopes of balancing the state budget. The result was a significant loss of state funding for municipalities, which left town officials and taxpayers to look for innovative ways to save money while still providing services.
“It’s born out of that,” Lee said of the economic downturn.
Yet, while the impetus is often financial, communities are looking to see if, by combining services, it will also lead to expansion of services, which benefit town residents.
About four miles apart on Route 236 rests the transfer stations for both Eliot and Kittery. Much of the hour-long workshop Thursday focused on the possibility of combining services of the two transfer stations, perhaps having one open three days and the other another three days and allowing residents of both towns to visit either station, thus expanding services.
“It sounds like the operations are very similar,” said Frank Dennett, a town councilor for Kittery.
Another possible combination of services between Eliot and Kittery is the recreation program. Some collaboration, in terms of advertising and marketing, has already occurred between the towns.
“We’ve tried to do some joint programs and advertising,” Colbert Puff said during the workshop. “There are certain programs that do fit well with gaining more regular participants.”
Not all neighboring towns can partnering, according to Silva, as it comes down to whether the communities are in the same position politically and economically.
“Currently, you have officials that have to look for other ways to do things,” Silva said. “The question is do you have the right opportunities with surrounding communities?”
One thing remains constant between communities like Rye and Portsmouth or Eliot and Kittery. While conversations about sharing services is becoming more common, it requires a significant amount of coordination, research and collaboration between both town officials and residents to move forward in any legitimate capacity.