Still waiting on consolidation

Published 10:32 am Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tis the season for much handwringing by local governments and school divisions about their bleak fiscal condition and the need to raise taxes or reduce services in order to make ends meet.

Until Franklin and Southampton County get serious about shared services, if not outright consolidation, count me as unsympathetic to the annual ritual of budgetary moaning.

Last month in this space, I commented on the lack of serious discussion about increased cooperation between Franklin and Southampton County in the 16 months since International Paper Co. announced that its Franklin mill would close, dealing a body blow to the economies and treasuries of both localities.

Make it 17.

The lone joint meeting of the Franklin City Council and Southampton County Board of Supervisors during that period, on economic development, turned into a love fest of mutual admiration, rather than what was critically needed: a substantive exchange of ideas about how to create jobs and rebuild Western Tidewater’s economy.

The Franklin and Southampton County school boards haven’t met jointly in years, despite a plethora of opportunities to cooperate in ways that would benefit students and save money.

Meantime, a rare moment of hope was dashed when Southampton County blew off an overture from Franklin about consolidation of the two localities’ welfare agencies. The timing was perfect, with Southampton’s director of social services having just retired. Instead, without even the appointment of a task force to explore the merits of consolidation, Southampton hired a new director, perpetuating a large, separate bureaucracy that duplicates services provided by a neighboring locality. A community of fewer than 30,000 people simply doesn’t need two departments of social services and the huge administrative expenses required to operate them.

The recent departure of Franklin Department of Social Services Director Beth Reavis creates another opportunity for Franklin and Southampton to come to the table of cooperation. Here’s hoping that the topic will be approached more seriously this time around — that a task force will be created quickly and given a reasonably quick deadline for completing its work.

It is important that the task force not consist entirely of social-services bureaucrats, who have a disincentive to be objective. Consolidation means that some government employees — especially administrative types — will lose their jobs. It is a necessary and painful part of operating more efficiently — and thereby reducing the tax burden on property owners.

Though a social-services perspective is needed on the task force, it needs to be heavily populated with business-minded people who are experienced in cost control, service delivery and organizational management.

Cooperation should not stop with social-services consolidation. Every administrative job opening — whether an assistant county administrator or a building inspector — needs to be looked at with a critical eye and assessed as an opportunity for Franklin and Southampton County to cooperate.

History has shown that cooperation, much less consolidation, won’t happen as a voluntary endeavor of elected officials or their appointed staffs. It must be demanded by the citizenry every time a government board proposes to raises taxes or cut a service.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is