BGA Exclusive: Why Public Safety Mergers Are Inevitable
A Better Government Association investigation finds municipal budget shortfalls are forcing a growing segment of Northern Illinois suburbs to consider what was once unthinkable: Merging basic hometown public safety operations with neighboring or regional governments, such as the county sheriff's departments.
Skittish residents, however, are concerned these reconstituted public safety departments will be more widespread and less responsive to their local safety and emergency needs. Nonetheless, the trend is likely to extend deep into other suburban areas and rural Illinois, say public finance and municipal experts.
"There's a great necessity to consolidate services because no one has the money to do all the stuff by themselves anymore," said Bill McLeod, former president of the Northwest Municipal Conference, which represents 42 municipalities in the north and northwest suburbs.
McLeod, currently mayor of northwest suburb Hoffman Estates, said his village's budget is down $8 million in the last five years, and has forced the layoffs of 60 employees. And even emergency services aren't immune.
Recently, McLeod told his police and fire departments they had to forego raises for one year or lose members of their staff. In the end, four police officers were let go.
"If you want top-rate fire and police services, you've got to think regionally because every community simply can't afford [it]," he added.
Municipal finances have become so dire the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus — made up of the region's 273 mayors — convened a task force and commissioned a study in 2009 to explore emergency service consolidation options.
|Western Springs Police Chief Pamela Church|
Municipalities have downsized and individually done as much as they can, but are now looking at consolidation as "the next phase," according to David Bennett, executive director of the caucus.
Options range from consolidation of technology — including dispatch services — to fully consolidating departments into new regional emergency response entities.
The long-term study's findings have been, so far, a mixed bag. The current operations, needs and financial constraints of municipalities differ across the region, as do their willingness to even consider consolidation options. Everyone agrees something must be done, but no one can agree on what, or when.
"Probably the biggest takeaway is there's no one size fits all, and that you really need to have discussions at the local level and come up with solutions that fit the affected units of local government," Bennett said.
According to BGA sources, to date, consolidation discussions have reportedly occurred in Clarendon Hills, Hinsdale, Burr Ridge, Willowbrook, West Dundee, East Dundee, Sleepy Hollow, Oak Lawn, Chicago Ridge, Alsip, Franklin Park, Highwood, Lake Forest, Highland Park, Lake Bluff, Orland Park, Palos Park, Winnetka, Kenilworth and Northfield with differing results.
Testing the waters
Many local officials are still in initial stages of exploration and are conducting further studies to determine next steps. But, some are also coming up against significant roadblocks and are waiting to see if other areas first prove successful.
One area taking the lead is La Grange, La Grange Park and Western Springs; the southwest suburbs are in talks to consolidate emergency dispatch services.
|La Grange Police Chief Michael Holub|
According to La Grange Police Chief Michael Holub, the towns currently have three dispatch centers within four miles of each other, and each requires expensive equipment to update and maintain, as well as round-the-clock staffing.
"Right now, in this day and age, to have your own dispatch center is a luxury, and our equipment is aging and it's very expensive to replace," said Western Springs Police Chief Pamela Church.
"We're on board that [consolidation] needs to move forward and we realize that it will in the long run provide us a better enhanced service, we believe, as far as technology and the ability to do emergency medical dispatching," she added.
Chief Holub hopes the consolidation takes place in less than a year and serves as just the beginning of sharing — and cost-saving — efforts.
"We believe this dispatch [consolidation] will open the door for other opportunities to make themselves pretty apparent and obvious to us," he said. But one thing that is apparent to Holub now is he and Church are "the exception and not the rule" when it comes to openly embracing such efforts.
No room at the top
Oak Lawn Fire Chief George Sheets also sees consolidation as an uphill battle, saying talks often get mired down at the administrative or bureaucratic level because the people who determine if consolidations should take place are often the very people who may end up losing their jobs because of a merger.
"There are a number of layers of administration, middle and upper management that might be duplicative," he explained.
|Oak Lawn Fire Chief George Sheets|
Blending public safety departments can save money by centralizing equipment purchases, closing facilities and cutting administrative costs. Officials declined to estimate just how much local governments could save through future consolidation efforts, but several sources noted roughly 80 percent of municipal budgets are dedicated to employee salaries and benefits.
Eliminating potentially redundant positions, particularly at the top administrative levels, could immediately realize big savings in the hundred of thousands.
For example, a spot check of average police chief salaries in Chicago suburbs hovers around $100,000 annually, according to Salary.com. If three districts merge, it stands to reason that at least one or two of those high-paying posts would be eliminated.
And consolidation advocates argue that cash-strapped taxpayers could use some relief.
For example, Cook County taxpayers are on the hook for at least $140 billion in debt, or an average $35,774 per household in Cook County suburbs, owed by hundreds of taxing bodies from mosquito abatement to library districts as well as municipalities, according to Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas, who spearheaded a debt-disclosure campaign featuring a web site that allows taxpayers to view the levies and finances of all the local taxing districts that contribute to their bill.
"It's [difficult] for them to say yes because they might lose their position and maybe their authority," Sheets explained. But "there would be a huge savings if we would just pool our resources and apparatus and there would certainly be a huge cost savings to the citizens if that took place."
Illinois Sen. Terry Link has also seen firsthand the reticence of local officials to move forward on consolidation talks because their authority may be usurped by the effort.
"The biggest concern is [those in] local units of government that . . . don't want to give up their fiefdoms," he said. Link described some public officials who were more concerned with remaining the president of a fire district, for example, than being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
"They think no matter what you do, you're going to take something away from them they think they should have," he added.
Getting past roadblocks
Employee unions are skeptical about consolidation but not outright opposed to it.
|Illinois Senator Terry Link|
Pat Devaney, president of Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois, said his group "completely supports the concept of consolidation in areas where it makes sense to do it."
And John Swan, president of the Illinois Firefighter's Association, said he is "leery" of consolidation.
"I have real thoughts on merging and cutting staffing that's already short," he said. "Fires can burn longer and the safety of residents and firefighters can be put in jeopardy because of longer response times."
And if unions aren't on board, they can also stop consolidation talks cold. Discussions underway between Burr Ridge and Willowbrook reportedly ceased due to police union opposition, said Bennett.
"The two police unions in those communities made it a point to fight any potential consolidation," telling residents police services "would decline," he explained.
"They got people riled up in the opposite direction, and it made it very difficult for those two communities to even have discussions about consolidation as a result, so they both pulled the plug on the idea," Bennett said.
Community support is crucial when it comes to ensuring consolidation success. But convincing taxpayers to accept change when it comes to their public services can be difficult.
Many citizens identify with their community and expect emergency services to come from their local police department or firehouse as it has for decades.
But that model is simply no longer a reality.
Frank Bilecki, director of governmental affairs for the Cook County Sheriff's Office, says many police departments across the county are already eliminating positions and using the sheriff's office to fill in the gaps.
In 2012, the sheriff's office reported 9,996 assists to other agencies, a significant increase from the 6,787 in 2011. In the first six months of 2013, that figure has already reached 5,092, according to Bilecki.
With an already "stretched" staff of only around 380 responding officers, the sheriff's office sees the trend as far from an ideal solution, Bilecki added.
The choice is no longer business as usual or consolidation, many said. Business as usual no longer exists, and consolidation could ultimately provide citizens with more, rather than less.
Bilecki reports most towns already aren't receiving the same level of protection they used to from their local police department, which has likely cut back on patrols, gang or narcotics policing, for example.
|Community support is crucial when it comes to ensuring consolidation success. But convincing taxpayers to accept change when it comes to their public services can be difficult.|
The joining together of emergency service departments could shrink the number of costly management positions at the top and cut down on the amount of expensive equipment required, thus creating more funding for first responders, said Bilecki.
"I could say with some confidence that you could probably put more people on the streets, more people in narcotics and gangs [squads] and [areas] that need to be beefed up," he explained.
But, as La Grange moves forward with their dispatch consolidation, Chief Holub says the time to deliver a better service model is now.
"I think these little small provincial models are not really the most effective way to deliver services . . . They're not the most efficient model because it's not the same policing that it was 30 to 40 years ago and it's not the same fire service," he said.