Editor’s note: This story is by Jordan Cuddemi, staff writer at the Valley News, where it was first published Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013.
HARTFORD — Interest appears to be growing among municipal leaders in core Upper Valley towns on ways to share services regionally, a development that could affect everything from how residents dispose of hazardous materials and compost to where they call for an ambulance.
Officials from Hanover, Lebanon, Hartford and Norwich have been meeting informally for the past four years, and recently broached the regional talks publicly.
“I see momentum now that I haven’t seen in the past,” Norwich Town Manager Neil Fulton said of the progress. “We are committed to this and I see a group of people who are looking for ways to make it happen.”
The Hanover Selectboard most recently discussed regionalization efforts at its meeting earlier this week. Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin said consolidating services among Upper Valley towns — and potentially beyond — makes sense from economic and efficiency standpoints.
“Particularly in today’s time when we are looking at being the most cost effective as possible, we at a managers level, feel it’s a conversation we need to have,” Griffin said. “It means sort of thinking beyond the four walls of our own community.”
Leaders have examined multiple town services that could be tackled together, such as solid waste, including the disposal of household hazardous waste and the opening of a regional food composting facility; and public safety services, including a regional dispatch center and emergency medical services. Other discussions have touched on big-ticket purchases, such as ladder trucks for fire departments that aren’t used daily, and joining together to purchase fuel oil.
Hartford Selectman Ken Parker brought the regionalization discussions to the forefront at an August Selectboard meeting in his town.
“If we look down the road 25 or 50 years there is opportunity here,” Parker, a former chairman of the Hartford Selectboard, said at the meeting. “It’s just the question of how do we do it, how do we fund it and what would make the most sense for all of us.”
Parker said the officials didn’t want to ignite public “furor or fear” when discussing potential collaborations. In addition, Lebanon officials appear to be proceeding more cautiously in the regional talks.
“None of us wanted to seek any publicity as we worked through dealing with some of these issues,” Parker said in a later interview. Parker said it’s a double-edged sword as small communities are sometimes hesitant to work outside of the walls of their town.
“It’s stepping over the line from local control and the narrow little thinking of New England communities … to get to … a broad community based means of sharing and providing services,” Parker said.
Fulton, the Norwich town manager, said the discussions surrounding solid waste and a regional dispatch center are two of the items of heightened focus.
On the issue of solid waste, a new state law in Vermont — Act 148 — will require individuals to reduce the amount of materials headed toward landfills by certain deadlines.
With that said, communities must search for alternative means of disposing waste and a prime example of one way to divert waste from landfills is to open a food composting facility.
Griffin wrote in a memo to the Hanover Selectboard that a working group has been compiled by the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission to look into composting options, and one development is potentially using Greater Upper Valley Solid Waste Management District’s landfill site in Hartland.
GUVSWD acting Executive Director John Hurd said an open field at the Hartland site is certified for food waste composting.
Another bullet under solid waste is the disposal of household hazardous waste, which in towns such as Norwich, are only collected once every two years. Hartford participates in hazardous waste collections slightly more frequently at two times per year.
“We recognize that many people are forced to dispose of their (household hazardous waste) via their regular weekly trash disposal because of the lack of accessibility to ongoing (household hazardous waste) disposal,” Griffin wrote in the memo. Through discussions though, that could change.
Hartford Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg said his town is considering housing the household hazardous waste facility at the Hartford Recycling and Transfer Station, as the station already has a building designed for the handling of hazards materials. If a regional facility was opened, he said it could operate at least five days a week.
“If we can commingle our activities, resources and power and offer that service all year long, no one will be faced with ‘what should I do with this stuff?’ ” Rieseberg said.
If any of the services were brought together and provided regionally, Rieseberg said each town or city would share the benefits and the responsibilities, cost wise.
A preliminary study by DSM Environmental was finished in the spring and looked at regional efforts to see if there were economies of scale to be realized, Rieseberg said. For another $20,000 to $30,000, DSM Environmental would take the study a step further and look into which community would be best suited for a particular solid waste service.
“But each community has to cough up another $5,000 (for the second study),” he said.
Throughout the talks, municipal leaders have also discussed the possibility of developing a regional communications center to provide dispatch coverage for fire, police and emergency medical services for the four communities, and, possibly, surrounding towns.
Currently, Lebanon handles its own dispatch and the towns of Hanover and Hartford provide dispatch services to several surrounding towns. Through consolidation, Rieseberg said, money will be saved and the quality of service will be heightened. He said dispatch centers are expensive to maintain and the technology used must stay current.
With consolidation, Rieseberg said, services could be increased because more individuals will be in a central location to help if a crisis were to strike, but staffing costs overall would still be reduced.
In addition, there are multiple ambulance services in the Upper Valley, and discussions have arisen around the possibility of consolidating those services.
The meetings have included the municipal managers of the four core communities and, at times, some members of the selectboards. No city councilors from Lebanon have participated in recent years, according to Griffin.
Vital Communities, of White River Junction, a non-profit that encourages regional collaboration, first convened the group.
Town managers expressed additional possibilities for working together, such as shared purchases of fleet vehicles and housing them in a central location, and sharing specialty staff.
The fact that two of the communities are in New Hampshire and two are in Vermont has added another layer to the discussions. Officials collectively described the state border as an obstacle, but said it won’t stop the leaders from trying to collaborate regionally.
“If there is a will, there is a way,” Rieseberg said, agreeing with Parker’s point that small-town New England cultural norms will play a large role in how soon regionalized services are achieved.
“Outside of New England its just the opposite. Most municipalities rely on some level of regional services,” Rieseberg said, noting that having duplicated resources, such as ambulance services and dispatch centers, in each of the core towns is “redundant.”
Lebanon City Manager Greg Lewis did express a level of difficulty associated with consolidating or regionalizing services across state lines. He mentioned, however, that it is possible as police and fire services already work across state lines to provide assistance to neighboring communities.
“It’s not so much the imaginary line of the boundary of the river, it’s the body of laws in the two respective states,” Lewis said. “When you go beyond what’s on the ground (police, fire services) and start deciding you want to share infrastructure, then there starts to be more complications.”
Lewis said he is willing to work regionally to provide services, but said “we need to take care of the home base,” first. Lebanon is the only city involved in the discussions.
Lebanon is home to 13,500 people, but its population more than doubles during daytime hours due to workers, shoppers and hospital patients. Lewis said the “bloom” comes with its own wave of demands.
“The focus of our attention is inwardly,” he said, noting that Lebanon may be interested in more efforts regionally in a few years.
Parker, the Hartford selectman who helped spearhead the regional discussions, said progress has been made in attempts to regionalize certain services, and that he hopes the conversations continue and additional progress is made.
“The leaders in communities here in the core of the Upper Valley have been talking about this and have really kind of expressed a willingness to pursue this sort of thing — beyond just the talking stages,” Parker said. “It will take time … but there is hope, there is promise and there is activity.”
Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3248.