The Case for Regionalization in Massachusetts

James Hayes-Bohanan, Ph.D.
Professor of Geography
Bridgewater State College

Updated October 3, 2012
All contents reflect the views of Dr. Hayes-Bohanan

NOTE: The news is full of examples of the need to regionalize government services. Increasingly common are failed searches and/or exhorbitant salaries for administrative positions at the town level, or the limitations imposed by extremely high overhead. See the regionalization articles on my Environmental Geography blog for some of these examples.

In the spring of 2009, I was invited to join an online forum by the office of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. The purpose of the forum was to gather citizen input on the improvement of government and the setting of priorities in the context of a shrinking economy. Although much of my concern about Massachusetts state government has been focused on its deplorable record of underfunding higher education, I decided to focus my energy on suggestions that might improve some very difficult situations at the local level. I live in a town, after all, that has been suffering from an inability to fund local services. That is, our town had not approved needed increases in its property taxes for many years (though it finally took this necessary step in June 2010).

Part of that inability arises from the fact that many older voters are reluctant to pay annual taxes that might approach the prices they paid for their homes forty or more years ago. Part of it arises from a knee-jerk reaction to public-sector spending in general, and part of it arises from a lack of recognition that property values are in part a reflection of local services that are funded by land taxes. That is, an investment in local services is a way of protecting the value of one's home, but many see escalating home prices as "earned" wealth. (I learned this way of thinking when I objected to the whole concept of property taxes in a conversation with my colleagues at the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy Studies.)
Massachusetts Town Names
(Click to Enlarge)
351 Towns by Name Origins

UMass-Boston Our Town, Our City Project

The history, character, and heritage of our towns are impressive. That does not mean they should be our form of government.


I stand by these observations, but I recognize that they may be more useful for parlor discussions than for actually solving the current difficulty of funding local services. I therefore focused my comments on how the geographic principle of scale could be used to improve the quality and effectiveness of services, while reducing costs. I posted a few ideas and hoped they would have some influence, but did not give the forums much thought until I was contacted by the governor's staff a few weeks later. I was invited to join a task force that was selected from among the participants in the forum process -- online and in town-hall meetings -- to prepare a summary of the citizen input. The task force "met" a few times by phone and through our own electronic forum, and prepared a summary of the ideas gathered from hundreds of Bay Staters. Each member of the task force focused on a particular area, such as education, ethics, and transportation. We then met with Gov. Patrick to discuss the proposals and formally issue the Task Force report.

I was asked to focus on the concept of regionalization, or the sharing of services among neighboring towns to reduce overhead. Having lived in six other states, I was familiar with such models -- Maryland has fewer than one-tenth as many police departments, library systems, and school boards as Massachusetts, for example, though it is of comparable size. Because of the illusion of local control, however, the idea of services being administered at the meso-scale is enathma in much of Massachusetts. It is clearly time, however, to start moving away from the seventeenth-century model in order to compete with other states in terms of taxation and the quality of life. My contribution to the report is the beginning of a strategy for starting that journey.

The executive summary of the report is available online from the governor's office. Task force members received copies of the full report, but I am not aware of an electronic version. Below I have copied the section on regionalization of services that I contributed to the report. I have decided to post it at this time because it seems that although Gov. Patrick and Lt. Gov Murray are sincere in their support for these ideas, a series of crises have precluded the sustained attention required to implement these recommendations. I have mentioned to both gentlemen that I am eager to work on implementation, and I believe that many of my geography and urban development colleagues, students and alumni are well-positioned to help. As the governor pointed out to me during our discussion last June, even the regional organization of state services themselves could stand a strategic review. I hope that as the national economy improves, the time will be found to take another look at long-term solutions such as these. I also look forward to the release of the full report to the general public -- it contains many well-reasoned ideas from across the political spectrum -- and reconvenes the task force, with whose members I was most proud to serve.

Learn more about the forum process from technology blogger John Moore's interview with the governor's new-media director about the project or the "Governor Patrick Meets" article on

The rest of this page is taken directly from the REGIONALIZATION section of the report,
for which I was the lead author.

Task force meets with Gov. Patrick
More photos at event page on Flickr


In response to the invitation to identify ways to improve government services and lower their cost, many participants cited regionalization either directly or in the context of other reforms. In most of these comments – and for the purposes of this document – regionalization refers to the consolidation of services areas that currently are based in individual towns and cities. Forum participants mentioned education more often than other government operations, but many other areas of local government activity were also cited. Comments varied in the degree to which such consolidation should be voluntary, the kinds of services that should be included, and the geographic scale of consolidations.

Possible consolidation of school districts received the most attention, perhaps because it is the only local service that has experienced significant consolidation to date. The major benefits of consolidation in education were the reduction of administrative overhead and the ability to gain economies of scale when buying goods and services. Nobody expressed interest in further consolidation of schools, fire stations, or the like. The focus of the discussion was on administrative overhead.

Other areas for consolidation include police and fire services, especially dispatch operations.

Forum participants who advocated for regionalization identified a number of potential barriers, the entrenched interests of those employed in the current systems being most often cited. The desirability of local control and oversight is also mentioned – sometimes as a value shared by the poster but sometimes mentioned dismissively.

The geographic scale of proposed regionalization varied as well. Some suggestions called for cooperation within pairs or small clusters of towns. Others called for the institution of county-wide systems for schools or other services. For some participants, regionalization of specific services at the statewide level was advocated. For example, one participant pointed out that the state of California has three emergency dispatch (911) call centers, whereas Massachusetts has three hundred. Others suggested statewide systems for the administration of payroll services and retirement plans, such as already exist for state government.

A number of concerns were raised by forum users who did not mention regional solutions, though regionalization might ameliorate some of these issues. Examples include frequent concerns about planning and zoning regulations, targeted growth districts, and even casino gambling.

Forum participants varied widely on the proposed balance between mandating regionalization and creating incentives for doing so. For example, some proposed calibrating local aid to the degree to which local governments engage in regional cooperation. Others suggested the creation of state- or county-wide services to which towns could be encouraged or mandated to subscribe. Still others suggested a minimum threshold for some services, such as 6,000 students for a school district. All seemed to understand that local governments that predate the Republic will not be able to change quickly or easily.


A. Potential areas of focus and analysis

Costs and benefits of the status quo: Task force members discussed real and perceived benefits of the current, localized orientation of many government services. Many communities have a tradition of hundreds of years of local control over services, and this cannot be dismissed lightly. Any moves toward consolidation of services will need to balance gains in efficiency against real or perceived losses in equity and democratic representation.

In some cases, local control is illusory. That is, local residents have the ability to vote on many matters, but the votes are often so tightly constrained by fiscal reality that no real choices are available. In other cases, concerns about ceding local control to larger administrative units may be legitimate. Consolidation must proceed in a way that maintains equitable opportunities for participation in decision-making and the allocation of resources.

The task force identifies several ways in which the status quo contributes to higher costs, some of which may not readily be apparent. Collectively, Massachusetts supports a large number of police chiefs, water department heads, fire chiefs, school superintendents, and assistants and support staff for all of these leaders. The costs of these often-redundant positions are compounded by the artificial scarcity that has been created. Turnover in these positions is relatively high, as leaders can often find a nearby town searching for talent. Frequently vacated positions create incentives for personnel committees to raise salaries beyond what might otherwise be considered reasonable.

Shift from property tax to income tax: Several forum participants suggest shifts away from reliance on property taxes, which foster inter-regional and inter-generational inequities in a number of ways. Proposals include shifting the tax burden toward income tax and sales tax, increasing one or both of these and then distributing the greater proceeds on a regional basis. Such shifts are worth exploring even in the current context of service provisions, but this discussion creates a real opportunity for encouraging regionalization with new resources. For example, the formula for allocating any new tax revenues with towns could be proportional to the extent to which the towns engage in serious regionalization. Even greater incentives could be offered to municipalities cooperating on a county-wide basis or in more than one area of service provision (water and highway for example, or school and police).

Incentivize cooperation: Many initiatives that could improve the quality of life and support economic growth would benefit from smoother cooperation among neighboring towns. Many forum participants, for example, advocated regional approaches to rail and highway transportation, but many of the details of such proposals are handled by multiple institutions. Strengthening the regional planning authorities could be combined with the elimination of some redundant, local planning and transportation functions to ensure more rapid approvals of projects and more coherent outcomes. Proposals for the rapid develop of green industries would also benefit from streamlined planning and approval processes.

B. Best practices to consider

Many of the services currently provided by towns in Massachusetts are more commonly provided by counties in other states. Other states with town-based services have explored regionalization. New Jersey is often cited for its thorough examination of the issues involved, though progress there appears to be slow. This Task Force recommends further review of the New Jersey case, including its 1998 Advisory Panel report, the reasons for slow progress in that state, and more recent proposals in both education and emergency services. Relevant citations are provided below.

Careful study of recent efforts to consolidate police services in Hanover and Wenham. A Boston Globe article listed below describes the motivations of and obstacles to this effort. Other Globe articles and editorials cited below discuss further arguments for and against regionalization.

Reference is also made to basic data about school districts, available from the U.S. Department of Education. Further study of New Jersey and Maryland are recommended. The smallest school districts in Maryland serve about as many students as average districts in both Massachusetts and New Jersey. The smallest districts in these states serve 100 students or fewer – the extreme case being two students served by a district in Massachusetts.


U.S. Department of Education Institute for Education Statistics
Common Core of Data This database provides access to information about schools and school districts nationwide. Data can be downloaded so that comparisons can be made among states regarding the number and size of districts and schools.

Selectmen reopen police regionalization talks (Hamilton & Wenham)
David Rattigan Boston Globe March 22, 2009

User fee hikes urged to aid towns and cities
Matt Viser Boston Globe Staff, May 7, 2009

Let's blow up whole notion of cities and towns
Boston Globe letter to the editor by Paul E. Pakos of Sudbury  May 14, 2009
New Jersey Regionalization Advisory Panel Final Report (January, 1998)

Regionalization, Funding and Leadership 
By Scott A. Kasper, President of the New Jersey Association of Paramedic Programs
originally published in New Jersey Municipalities magazine. Vol. 86, No. 5, May 2009

Regionalization: When money's tight in New Jersey . . . it pays to share
Star-Ledger Editorial January 07, 2009