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Taking regionalization a step further

So I have this nearly lifelong friend whose experience includes significant time as an elected public official and lots of other years on a number of public and government organizations.

Let’s call him Joe.

Joe is used to running things or at least being a big part of the decision making. He is open-minded and respectful of the people part of government and other public entities.

But Joe is also endlessly practical and blunt as a bulldozer when assessing what works and does not work.

Joe read my recent column on the need for regionalizing services in local municipalities and public education. He kinda liked it, which made me feel pretty good, given his knowledge on the topic.

But Joe said I didn’t go far enough, which made me feel pretty bad, because it means I turned into a marshmallow when they gave me the Medicare card.

Joe says the more consolidated version of our public services network should start at the state level, where we have one of the country’s largest legislatures. There should be fewer lawmakers and those fewer lawmakers, after setting the example, should reduce the number of school districts. So Joe and I agree we don’t need eight school districts in Lycoming County and 500 of them in Pennsylvania.

Reducing the number of legislators and school districts should save a ton of taxpayer money, according to Joe.

On a county level, Joe thinks the next slate of Lycoming County Commissioners should take the lead in getting municipalities to form a county police department. At the very least, there should be the core police service made up of Williamsport, South Williamsport, DuBoistown, Montoursville, Old Lycoming Township and Loyalsock Township that I was pushing.

But he wants the commissioners to push the municipalities. And that probably makes sense, because without a firm push, the municipalities will hold onto their fiefdoms as long as possible, to the detriment of everyone.

As for fire services, Joe advocates a paid group of firefighters in Williamsport, Old Lycoming and Loyalsock townships and South Williamsport, which he believes would result in a quicker response than the current setup of a paid, small fire force in Williamsport and volunteers everywhere else.

The result also would probably be more firefighters.

This might cost outlying areas more than it does today, but most of those residents make a fire and ambulance donation every year anyway right now.

Suppose, Joe says, there were a $50 tax to cover everyone’s fire services and maintain firefighters, trucks and equipment. That might cover it, especially given that there would not be the need for as much equipment because the municipalities would be sharing it.

The $50 tax probably would be less than the donation most of us make annually and perhaps the volunteers would not have the burden of weekly bingo, summer carnivals and endless fundraisers necessary just to stay afloat on a limited basis now.

You probably could apply Joe’s model to highway services, tax collection and codes enforcement. That’s how it’s done in many other states, including Florida, which is larger than Pennsylvania.

And, who knows, you might, a generation from now, find yourself with a county government serving all municipalities, with satellite offices sprinkled throughout the largest county by area in Pennsylvania.

Sound harsh or disrespectful of the setup for public service today and the people who manage it? Well, it’s not meant to be insensitive or critical of those managing the works from the smallest municipal and school administrative building to the halls of Harrisburg.

Most of these people are doing a good, responsible job. But someone like Joe needs to tell them the existing models are economically unsustainable in the future.

The lawmakers, if they were put under a truth serum, would admit that. The next slate of county commissioners probably knows that. Hundreds of local public officials, firemen and policemen certainly know that.

They just don’t want to say it out loud. It might offend someone. It might seem ungrateful toward those who have served in these public models. It seems impossible or politically unsavory to change the setup. You pick the reason.

But this is about the future coexistence of public services and the taxpayers who foot the bill. And that’s the thing about dollars and cents. Eventually they force us to make dollars and sense.

You know that. I know that.

And, clearly, Joe knows that.

David F. Troisi is retired as editor of the Sun-Gazette.

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