Consolidation pool sees few ripples here

2010-09-12T00:00:00Z Consolidation pool sees few ripples hereBy Vanessa Renderman, vanessa.renderman@nwi.com nwitimes.com
September 12, 2010 12:00 am  • 

It's been nearly a year since local leaders gathered in a Dyer meeting room to weigh the pros and cons of consolidation.

The meeting was a baby step, where municipal movers and shakers dipped their toes into the pool that is consolidation. But no one jumped in, and only few have made splashes since.

"There has not been as much movement as I think some were hoping for," said Dyer Town Manager Joe Neeb, who facilitated the meeting.

Since the meeting, Schererville and St. John penned an agreement to have each town's building inspector "cover" for the other when necessary, such as on vacation and sick days. It was a result of both towns scaling back their building and planning departments, leaving only one full-time inspector in each community.

E-mails have circulated among town managers in the region, but nothing substantial or formal has come of it.

Dyer Councilwoman Nan Onest said if citizens truly understood consolidation, as outlined in the Kernan-Shepard Report, they would embrace it.

The report, released in December 2007, makes recommendations for streamlining government, often by cutting and consolidating where possible. The subtitle of the report is: "We've got to stop governing like this."

Onest agrees.

"I suspect that to accomplish this, it's going to take a ground-up, grassroots type of movement," she said.

She said two factors are slowing the consolidation momentum. There's a fear of the unknown, and citizens have received an inadequate amount of information about it.

Hired and elected officials have a natural fear that consolidation means they could lose their job.

"For some of the consolidation, the short answer is, 'Yes, you're going to lose your job,' but it's not a personal affront. It's simply a statement saying this layer of government is unnecessary," she said.

But many people would keep their jobs.

"You still need the same amount of people to cover the same amount of area," she said, referring to public safety.

In Delphi, Ind., the city and three rural townships formalized a fire territory to protect about 10,000 residents. A contractual agreement was in place for 60 or 70 years before that, but township trustees were worried the management would fall into the hands of county government, Delphi Mayor Randy Strasser said.

And creating a territory meant money that the townships had accumulated specifically for maintenance and repairs of fire equipment would stay there. Under county control, it could have been spent elsewhere in the county, Strasser said.

Delphi also consolidated its police dispatch, saving the city $150,000 a year, he said.

It comes down to efficiency and cost savings.

"We're willing to consider all options, and we're looking at how best to serve our community as well as be a good regional partner," Neeb said. "If we can do the same service as now, but cheaper, should we not look at it all the time?"

Neeb said the fear factor can extinguish those efforts, referring to the failed consolidation attempt in the last five years between the Highland and Munster fire services. The discussion turned into personal attacks against some of the people leading the consolidation attempt.

Although there are some efforts, the region as a whole needs to be better about talking about consolidation, Onest said.

"When you want everything to be yours ... and everyone remains so separate, there comes a point that the revenue that comes in is not going to be sufficient," she said. "Maybe that's what it's going to hinge on, the sheer economics."

She is worried that the steps local leaders are taking aren't big enough and that communities will wind up with forced consolidation, with no choices in the matter.

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