House approves legislation encouraging collaboration among communities to boost efficiency

Last modified: Sunday, January 26, 2014

Trying to get towns to work together on shared municipal efforts may not seem like a major effort in Franklin County, but trying to encourage collaboration in some parts of Massachusetts takes some doing.

With that in mind, the state has been encouraging communities to collaborate to boost efficiency and overcome common problems, whether it means working on joint policing or fire-fighting arrangements. Those efforts could get a boost from municipal collaboration legislation approved unanimously by the House this month.

The bill authorizes the chief executive of any town, regional school district, planning commission or transit authority to enter into a “joint powers agreement” with another governmental body for exercise of common powers within a designated region. Any agreement would have to be approved by its Select Board.

The legislation now moves to the Senate, where it is under review by the Ways and Means Committee.

Although communities can now work to share services, the legislation makes it easier to do so.

“A couple of towns might want to share a police department or a regional fire department,” said state Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington. “As this was being passed the other day, I thought about the South County ambulance service, which went through town meetings and took a couple of years. You might want to bring these things to a town meeting anyway, especially something that significant, but this bill gives communities the option to explore a wider range of shared powers and allows more flexibility.”

Sections of the legislation place limitations on proposed collaborations, such as requiring adherence to open meeting, public notice and procurement laws that are already in place.

Kulik said he does not believe the legislation, filed by Rep. Jay Kaufman, D-Lexington, was intended as any kind of end run around the controversy of trying to pressure school districts to merge, since those kinds of mergers would be governed by Department of Education regulations.

“I don’t think they’d be able to do something that huge,” Kulik said, although he said that if school committees approve, it could help school departments or regional school districts arrange to share services, including superintendents.

The purpose of the bill, Kulik said, is to encourage communities to form new districts, collaborate and share services to begin conversations and pursue agreements for fire departments, for example, to address common problems like dispatch or recruitment of volunteers.

“Very often, communities, if something is not specifically allowed by state law, are told by their counsels that they may need to seek a special act of the Legislature. The purpose of this is to make clear that they have the authority” to work together.

Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange, said it makes decision-making “more efficient” to have proposed sharing of services approved at the board level rather than requiring them to take Town Meeting action. “Some people would fight that furiously because they like Town Meeting. At the end of the day, there are still ways to get decisions done, and citizens still elect the Select Board, so they’re entrusting them to act on what’s best for their town.”

“We already have a lot of this in Franklin County,” Kulik said, pointing to the county solid waste district and other approaches.

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