IOW officials get advice on consolidation

Published 8:41 am Wednesday, December 16, 2009

SMITHFIELD—Mindful of looming budget cuts from the state and a reduction of tax revenue, Isle of Wight County officials were interested in hearing details about a shared services agreement from their counterparts in Pulaski County on Monday.

At a joint meeting of the Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors and the Isle of Wight County School Board, three Pulaski officials spoke of the challenges and benefits they discovered from working together.

“We realized that our best allies in the situation we found ourselves in were our fellow supervisors and fellow localities,” Pulaski County Administrator Pete Huber said. “Learning from each other was the best thing we knew how to do, and we’re trying to help each other through difficult times.”

Huber said that after more than a year of negotiations between their respective boards, Pulaski County Public Schools and Pulaski County entered into a shared services agreement in 2005, one that was loosely based on a similar agreement in Fauquier County. The agreement primarily covers three areas of collaboration: fiscal management, information technology and operations.

“We’ve had our share of challenges over time,” Huber said. “This isn’t something that just came along that was particularly easy or not without its challenges. I’m sure that the coming fiscal years are going to be a continuation of those challenges.”

According to an internal report of the Pulaski agreement, shared services maintains about 250 acres of county and school grounds, including athletic facilities, playgrounds, trees and shrubs. The county and school systems also share vehicles and mechanics.

“(The agreement) gave me a great deal of latitude in how I could use resources — people, vehicles and equipment,” said Director of Operations Ron Nichols. “It was never an issue for me to be able to move personnel or equipment over to one side or the other.”

The Pulaski agreement also created a Joint Services Oversight Board, whose primary purpose is to study and recommend areas for collaboration. The oversight board meets at least four times a year and comprises the chairmen and one member from both the county and school boards, the county administrator and the county school superintendent.

“One thing that we’ve talked to both boards about a lot is that this isn’t something that’s naturally set up in the Virginia system,” Huber said. “I think it helped our boards to understand that to try to do things jointly was like swimming upstream. The whole (state) system is set up differently, and almost works against this kind of collaboration.”

Dr. Donald Stowers, the superintendent of Pulaski County Public Schools, said that although the shared services agreement wasn’t precipitated by the loss of a major employer like International Paper Co., economic issues were still the driving factor.

“Out in the southwest (part of Virginia), we are really feeling the economic crunch, particularly for jobs,” Stowers said. “We needed to start thinking about how we could be more efficient.”

Asked how much money Pulaski County has saved since the implementation of the shared services agreement, Stowers said, “We don’t have that quantified. But we have wonderful cooperation among our boards, and wonderful opportunities with everything that we’ve set up for them to talk and help us with efficiency.”

Stowers added that Pulaski has not raised taxes since the agreement started and has built two new schools.

“We’ve had reassessments and there have been some adjustments based on that to build the new schools,” Stowers said.

Isle of Wight officials wasted no time in scheduling a follow-up meeting for Jan. 4 to discuss shared services at more length. The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. in the large conference room of the School Board Office, located at 820 W. Main St. in Smithfield.

“We’ve got to push this interaction,” said Smithfield District Supervisor Al Casteen. “The key, and the hope, for any success is improved communication and understanding.”

Isle of Wight County Board Chairman James Brown concurred, adding, “I think we’ve seen some areas that we could probably make a lot of progress on.”

JoAnn Hall, supervisor-elect for the Hardy District, also attended the meeting.

“I think it’s a very interesting concept,” Hall said. “I certainly think it’s worth exploring. We already do nearly as much (collaboration) as Pulaski does. I’m looking forward to finding out more about it, more about what we can do, and particularly how it can save us some money.”