Public Safety Consolidation ‘Inevitable’

A new article from the Better Government Association explores growing pressures to consolidate public safety services.

…[M]unicipal 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.

I’ve occasionally engaged in casual conversations about formation of a metropolitan police agency or emergency services center belonging to DeKalb, Sycamore and perhaps one or two additional surrounding communities.

Although municipal revenue free falls have generally stopped since the recession ended, yearly revenue increases are now typically small and devoured instantly by increases in expenditures for insurance, commodities and contractual raises. Nobody knows when this trend of flatlined revenues will end. Meanwhile, raising taxes is politically difficult and, in many suffering communities, would be downright cruel. The alternatives are to watch service delivery capabilities erode or to find more economical ways to deliver services.

Careful consolidation could help us realize significant economies of scale by applying a metro or regional focus to eliminate duplicate administrative functions, equipment and software purchases and so on. But we’d have a much better chance of doing it right if we start planning during a relative period of calm. In other words, if we’re going to have the conversation, let’s do it now.