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Editorial: Regional Services; Exploratory Talks Hold Promise

Anyone with an interest in government efficiency will welcome recent news that municipal leaders in four core Upper Valley communities are seriously discussing delivering some services on a regional basis. And anyone who has lived here a while will not underestimate the difficulties of doing so.

As staff writer Jordan Cuddemi reported Saturday, regionalization talks among municipal managers and officials in Hartford, Hanover, Norwich and Lebanon have been taking place informally for four years, but recently gained momentum. The point of consolidating would be to eliminate duplication, increase efficiency and save money. Among the possibilities being discussed for a regional approach are solid waste disposal, including a food composting facility and a household hazardous waste center; dispatching for police, fire and emergency medical services; and ambulance services.

These are all promising avenues of inquiry. For instance, the city of Lebanon does its own dispatching, and Hartford and Hanover each handle their own and that for several surrounding towns. Hartford Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg points out that dispatch centers are expensive to maintain and that the technology has to be kept current. Not only could towns save money by eliminating duplication, but also enhance the quality of service with a regional dispatch center. That’s because in a crisis, more staffers would be available in a regional facility, but overall staffing costs would be reduced, Rieseberg says. The same could be true for ambulance service, given how many different services operate in the area.

We have long thought that regional cooperation is something well suited to the Upper Valley, which constitutes a fairly coherent whole despite being divided by a major river and subject to very different state political cultures. Many people commute to work from one side of the Connecticut to the other, and commerce, recreation and entertainment do not recognize the state line between Vermont and New Hampshire. Even a couple of education districts are bi-state enterprises, so there is a model at hand.

On the other hand, there is a strong tradition of municipal independence in New England, rooted partly in the town meeting form of self-government. New Englanders do not generally think in regional terms when it comes to government, unlike many other areas of the nation. And county government does not play as prominent a role here as in other places.

Moreover, a previous effort to regionalize solid waste disposal fell apart in the mid-1990s, not on the merits but because of political intrigue in Lebanon and Hartford. So there are a lot of hurdles to overcome.

But times have changed in ways that favor adopting a regional approach. Duplication of services costs money, and with municipal governments starved for cash these days, the argument for ceding a little independence to save money and promote efficiency gains force. And in this case, the four towns involved are roughly equal when it comes to professional management and resources, which enhances the chances that regional efforts might succeed. As Hartford Selectman Ken Parker puts it: “If we look down the road 25 or 50 years, there is opportunity here. It’s just a question of how do we do it, how do we fund it and what would make the most sense for all of us.”