Viewpoint: Looking to cut costs? Take a good look at consolidation

Eliminate bureaucracy and save millions through shared services

M. Scott SotebeerBy M. Scott Sotebeer

One of the most fundamental organizational structures we have in this country is local government. Our residents cherish local control and identity in our cities, villages, townships and counties. However, it is time to acknowledge that the local government structure is in trouble — stuck in an archaic, outdated business and operational model that no longer can be sustained.

Any business, in order to survive, must continuously focus on its cost centers and its revenue streams. Through that lens, it is time to look government redundancy straight in the eye. As one example, in my county there are 39 cities with 39 separate police departments. In addition to law enforcement, there are separate municipal courts, competing jails, multiple 911 call centers, and multiple taxing districts for fire and emergency medical response services.

That implies that there are layers of separate management, administrative and bureaucratic infrastructures to “support” all of those agencies and their facilities and resources, including employees. But the problem is the underlying machine — not the people we put in the positions.

It is time to force the practice of government consolidation into the political arena and into local action. It is not complex; it is not overwhelming; and it does not mean that we have to sacrifice local jobs, identity or control.

It starts by focusing on those public services that:

  1. are at the top of the cost chain (people heavy),
  2. must be delivered consistently as governed by local, state and/or federal law (no freelancing),
  3. have no brand requirement when they are needed (no ego-centric identity), and
  4. are common services across jurisdictions where the investment and cost can be measured and shared (slashable bureaucracy that will not be missed).

The public test is very simple. Ask your friends, coworkers, neighbors or strangers at the coffee shop if they care what 911 center answers their call for help, which police department shows up when they dial 911, which court handles the parking tickets online, or who is managing the emergency medical response team that comes to your kids’ soccer game to attend to a broken leg or unexpected seizure.

One consolidation model that is working is in local criminal justice. In our county, 12 cities contract with the sheriff for police services. The two local transit authorities, one regional airport and a tribal authority also contract for policing. Much like a co-op but more independent, they collectively save millions of their own budget dollars annually through significant economies of scale. The partner cities, transit, tribe and airport police have their own uniforms and cars, police chiefs and managers they select, and their own local brand right down to the department logo. But the officers are all sheriff’s deputies wearing distinctly different blue uniforms for cities like Seatac, Woodinville and Maple Valley. You would never know the difference.

The sheriff most recently closed outdated county police precincts and consolidated the deputies serving the unincorporated areas into the contract city police departments. In exchange, the cities get credits on their bills for the increased use of space and facilities. The residents get more visible police presence throughout the county and in their cities. Savings: more than $12 million for the next 20 years.

This movement is gaining ground. In states like Michigan and Illinois, the consolidation discussion has begun in earnest at a statewide leadership level. Snohomish, Wash., with 9,200 citizens, located in an adjacent county just to the north, voted this November to disband its police department and contract with its county sheriff. The city found that key services could be preserved through a projected $2 million in sustainable long-term savings that will be realized by consolidating the police department into the sheriff’s office. No police officer lost his or her job, either.

Is government consolidation the answer? Not everywhere, or even just anywhere, and not for everything or everyone. But it is a sustainable strategy for addressing some of the fundamental and significant cost drivers of the local government equation.

M. Scott Sotebeer, Ph.D., is the civilian chief of staff for the King County, Wash., Sheriff’s Office.

Discuss this Blog Entry 10

Anonymous (not verified)
on Feb 1, 2012

Take a look a city services. You have municipal water and sewer districts. Regional water and sewer districts. Public Works departments. All buy and maintian their own fleets of equipment. They have separate maintenance teams, separate facilites,and on and on. Certainly there is allot of cost in maintaining this infrastructure. The equipment in these fleets is worth millions. Talk about an area for consolidation.

Scott Sotebeer (not verified)
on Feb 2, 2012

I agree completely. When I did a mini-literature search on this topic-- there are discussions going on throughout the US. All types and sizes of communities and governments are just beginning to explore how to do this across many different government organizations.

People don't have to lose their jobs-- we have to get smarter about how the structure around them is organized, managed, and sustained!

on Sep 2, 2012

I wonder if you could clarify something in your column of February 2012. After the criminal justice consolidation, the partner governments were still served by vehicles and uniforms that were specific to their jurisdiction? Is that correct? I am writing a column for and want to be accurate in the representation. Thank you.

JAG (not verified)
on Feb 1, 2012

Right On. most states and local governments(including schools ) are operating in 19th Century mode and hanging onto outdated and parochial notions of control,impact,service delivery and effectiveness. We have consolidated County wide E911 service, privatized ambulance service for most of the 60,000 residents of our Rural WNY county ( great cooperation with our acute care hospital), are approaching County wide real property assessment coordination and eventual consolidation with N YS incentive program and will continue to pursue other opportunities like youth bureau services , multi county incarceration sharing and maybe even a regional jail along with ongoing Highway depts equipment and joint paving projects collaboration because it makes sense , we deliver better , more cost effective service , the money isnt there for fiefdoms and unilateral outdated deliver models and lastly 2012 NYS Property tax cap law of the land which will likely even create momentum for the local school districts to not just functionally cooordinate but truly consolidated and form a single county wide school district like VA, NC , MD et al. WE should only live so long? No more studies, it's time to act , implement and reap the long term rewards to citizens, taxpayers/students and the viability of our communities. Jay A. Gsell, County Mgr , Genesee County NY

Scott Sotebeer (not verified)
on Feb 3, 2012

CONGRATULATIONS! Now THAT is true leadership and ingenuity! Your state is truly leading the way in providing the invcentives nmeeded to move all of this forward.

Brian (not verified)
on Feb 2, 2012

On paper, everything you’ve said is true – very, very hard to argue with.
But here are the realities we have to deal with: In the region I live in (Ohio) there have been numerous attempts at combining jurisdictions over the years, all with the promises of cost-savings – the City of Riverside merging with Mad River Township, Kettering merging with Van Buren Township, Huber Heights merging with Wayne Township, Trotwood merging with Madison Township, and there are more. None of them resulted in any measureable cost savings.
True, there have been collaborative success stories – local jurisdictions collaborating to purchase electricity, asphalt, road salt, etc. in order to negotiate lower prices. Those have worked extremely well in documented cost-savings.
The public test you mention is the easy part – that’s child’s play in comparison to what really holds things up. The trouble that we have in this area of Ohio – and my intent here is not to open up these old (and some new) wounds, but just to make the point for discussion – is that most of our political jurisdictions have collective bargaining agreements in place that prevent these jurisdictions from looking “government redundancy straight in the eye” and taking the common-sense steps that you mention to reduce those layers of unnecessary infrastructure.
(As just one specific example – the jurisdictions of Fairborn and Beavercreek shared Fire Department services for a while, until the union rules in Fairborn prevented the Beavercreek Fire Department part-time firefighters from serving with them in a Fairborn firestation. So, the departments had to split up and Fairborn had to pass an increased tax levy to properly staff that firestation. That’s what we’re up against.)
The 4-point public services that you recommend we all focus on – fantastic ideas – but, the realities of collective bargaining agreements prevent us from addressing those in any substantive manner, except for minor tinkering around the edges, which makes it hardly worth the time and expense.
In the meantime, we are continually looking at our local services and reaching out to surrounding communities for shared areas that aren’t unionized – few and far between – and that have the potential to benefit all jurisdictions.

Scott Sotebeer (not verified)
on Feb 3, 2012


You make great points. In looking at this nationally-- the key themes I found around obstacles for most communities currently trying to make headway include:
1. labor
2. political will and fear of the loss of power and control
and other legislative barriers
3. public trepidation --- is there an outcry for change????

The good news is that at least 12 states have been very successful in dealing with the issues you raise. Some form of shared services, contracting, metropolitan consolidation, and merger have been addressed and the union issues resolved. The door was opened in 1954 in California when the citizens adopted what is now known as the Lakewood Model. It was the beginning of cost-based and managed contracting of police services that has spread to other concepts and government services. There are some successful models in place in Ohio-- hopefully you can find them out and maybe get some ideas about how others in your state have handled union, community, and political issues.

I will also point you to an outright failure-- and that is the Metropolitan Policing model set up in Indianapolis. From the ashes come great lessons as well. Nothing is ever easy. It is only somewhat easier when you do not have to be the trailblazer behind change.

on Feb 20, 2012

Interesting points. Certainly looking at improving efficiencies should be looked at on a regular basis. How far do you propose consolidation should take place, eliminating all local government agencies and contracting with the state or federal government?

on Feb 21, 2012

I think the decisions around how far to go rest with the analysis of cost and practicality related to logistics and similar operational factors. In our state for example, it is more effective to use the state patrol for policing support services in remote, rural areas. They have the statutory responsibility to be on the highways-- so there are instances where they can simply do it better and cheaper. On the other end of that discussion- I do not understand why state parks and other related facilities located in large urban areas (such as ours) do not contract back to the local jurisdiction for maintenance and other services rather than have facilities, staff, and physical resources/equipment dedicated to "islands" of work. It would be a worthwhile cost study to undertake. Likewise, rather than build more prisons, states have found it smarter and cheaper to contract for jail beds with local jails. The steel is just as tough!

I believe that common sense has really driven many of the advances in consolidation and collaboration. Simply adding to already-large and inefficent or ineffective bureaucracies does not make sense either. The only way this works is when folks do a detailed and thorough analysis, creating sound information that can support informed decisions.

on Nov 21, 2013

I really appreciate your ideas. It is good that the city found that key services could be preserved through a projected $2 million. They are trying hard to reduce the cost. I really enjoyed what you had to say. Well, at least I am interested. Thanks.

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