Local Governments Try to Cut Costs via Efficiency

Governments big and small are embracing cooperation, consolidation and efficiency to wring a few more dollars out of the budget as the effects of the Great Recession linger

In some places, it's as simple as pulling the plug on thousands of unused telephone lines or installing software that automatically shuts off idle school computers to save on electric bills. Other places are doing such things as merging town fire departments, combining 911 centers or outsourcing collection of parking fines.

Around the country, governments big and small are embracing cooperation, consolidation and efficiency to wring a few more dollars out of the budget as the effects of the Great Recession linger.

"What we're seeing is that many places are really taking a look at doing more with less," said Steve Hamill, a former administrator in Alameda County, Calif., and founder of the U.S. Communities Government Purchasing Alliance, which helps municipalities learn of money-saving opportunities.

During the worst of the downturn, many local governments resorted to layoffs and other blunt means of cutting spending. Now, with the economy still shaky, they are looking in less obvious places for ways to save money.

Earlier this year, Long Island's two counties and several townships announced anticipated savings of more than $1 million annually by joining forces to buy such things as medical supplies for ambulances and chemicals for wastewater treatment and swimming pools.

"Joint purchasing is an example of where we can do more with less by finding efficiency," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said.

In neighboring Nassau County, officials are in the midst of a review of unused telephones and telephone lines in the wake of large staff cutbacks. The county comptroller's office estimates as many as 3,000 phone lines could be disconnected by the end of the year, saving more than $535,000.

Idaho's Coeur d'Alene School District set up a system to turn off all computer monitors after five minutes of inactivity. Computers are put in standby mode after 90 minutes. The district expects to save $300,000 over three years, Hamill said.

An effort in Los Angeles County that includes disconnecting unused phones and buying efficient light bulbs is expected to cut costs by about $218 million annually.

Last year, three cities in San Diego County — El Cajon, La Mesa and Lemon Grove — struck an agreement to combine their firefighting, emergency medical treatment and emergency planning services. They expect to save a combined $560,000 annually. Fire response times haven't suffered, according to Heartland Fire and Rescue Fire Chief Mike Scott.

Three counties in New Jersey are each trying to combine their local 911 call centers under one roof. Something similar has already been done in Lincoln Park, Southgate and Wyandotte, three cities in Michigan's Wayne County.

In other places, discussions are under way to consolidate school districts. And some municipalities are outsourcing data processing operations that manage such things as the collection of property taxes and parking fines, Hamill said.

"Officials are taking a look at what core services are needed and that they need to be involved with and what services someone else can do," he said.

Police departments on Long Island and elsewhere are employing high-tech sensors in high-crime areas to alert officers to exact locations when gunshots are fired.

"This allows departments to cut down on the number of patrol cars that may be needed to investigate these cases, which can save money," Hamill said.

State governments also are striving to cut costs by consolidating or reorganizing agencies, according to Todd Haggerty, an analyst for the Conference of State Legislatures. Among them:

— Connecticut placed nine state agencies within a new Office of Government Accountability, resulting in a reduction of 23 positions and a savings of $1.5 million in 2012 and a projected $1.8 million in 2013.

— Kansas estimates it will save $3 million in 2012 by abolishing its Health Policy Authority and shifting its responsibilities, including the administration of Medicaid, to the Department of Health and Environment.

— Missouri transferred the responsibilities of the State Water Patrol to a division within the State Highway Patrol; $3 million a year in administrative cost savings are anticipated.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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