A new way of doing business

Published 1:52 pm Monday, December 10, 2012

For years, many have begged officials from both the City of Franklin and Southampton County to explore with each other the possibility of sharing services.

I, as well as others who write for the Opinion page, am among them. It is an approach that, to me anyway, has seemed so obvious.

For one community, artificially split into two localities, to continue to double its spending on repetitive services in the name of maintaining separate governments and school systems just seems foolish.

But for whatever reason, whether it be old grudges or limited vision, civic and government leaders have previously been unwilling to wade into the waters of good common and business sense.

Until now.

The memorandum of understanding, the written framework outlining the exploration of shared services, that in November was unanimously agreed upon by both governing bodies signifies a new spirit of cooperation, perhaps spurred on by a mutual sense of financial desperation that, thanks to strong leadership from both localities, has brought the appropriate parties to the table and provided them an opportunity to make real progress for the benefit of all who live in Western Tidewater.

There are two important aspects of this new agreement that I find significant. First, it was clearly not entered into with intent to provide window dressing for those who have been calling for action. Almost immediately upon adopting the memorandum of understanding (“MOU”), the city and county agreed to combine their respective building inspectors’ offices. By not filling a vacancy due to a retirement in the county office and contracting for the required services with the city’s building inspector, the county will immediately save over $32,000 in salary and benefits and generate up to $31,200 per year in revenue to the city.

In the grand scheme of municipal budgets, on their own those numbers are not game-changers. But when we consider all of the opportunities that are available to eliminate duplicate operations, such as transportation maintenance, information technology and social services, combined with the opportunity to pair resources in areas like utilities and economic development, suddenly the opportunity for substantial savings in expenses and meaningful growth in revenue becomes a very real possibility.

Secondly, the language contained in the MOU itself is quite striking. Part of the reason that people have been dissatisfied with our local governments is that, whether real and perceived, our elected officials have not appeared to be very progressive in their thinking towards strategic planning. And there is enough supporting evidence at this point to bear that out. Yet here I will share with you, directly from section two of the MOU, the particular verbiage used to describe how the two governing bodies will proceed together:

(The) COUNTY and CITY will utilize the following shared values when evaluating, developing and implementing shared services:

• Innovation – seeking innovative and imaginative solutions to improve service delivery and sustainability and reduced costs;

• Challenge – being open to challenge from each other

• Best fit – adopting a “best fit” approach in search of solutions

• Partnership – developing positive and effective partnership working through the respective governing bodies

• Accountability – achieved through delivery of agreed outcomes; and

• Transparency – making open and clear decisions and demonstrating the improvements and savings achieved by shared services

It’s not often that I read a legal document, such as a memorandum of understanding between two governing bodies, and find the ability to stay awake for very long much less read words that cause me genuine excitement. But in this case, I am. Let me put into my own words what I have heard and decide for yourself if you hear the same thing:

“We, the governments of Franklin and Southampton County, have decided to put away the ways of the past; to look for new ways of doing business; to find common ground upon which to build a better future; to work together for the common good; and, to do all of this while operating in such a way that our constituents know what is going on, know that we are working in their best interest and, ultimately, will have confidence in us that we will implement ideas that will make their lives better.”

I may be wrong, but I hope I’m not. And if carried out this agreement opens up a world of possibilities, among them reduced costs, better service delivery, lower taxes and increased revenues. This community has needed, and begged for, visionary leadership for years. This new partnership is an indication that it might well be on its way.

TONY CLARK is the Associate Publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at tony.clark@tidewaternews.com.