Rethinking Government: A Smarter Way to Put Out Fires

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A full-time fire department can be expensive and, in many places, unnecessary. It's time to think about outsourcing services to the city next door.

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Believe it or not, there was a time when government ran a surplus. Even today, in this economy, there are municipalities that consistently close out their annual budgets with a surplus. Somewhere along the road of good government, the concept of a "profit" became a bad idea. Most taxpayers would argue that government is not a business, but in the same vein they would like to see government operated more like a business.

Successful businesses have a major advantage over government: They typically provide a particular type of product or service. One of government's biggest hurdles is the sheer number of services it must provide, often with very limited resources.

Yet it is clear that some municipalities or counties are better suited than others to provide a specific service. For instance, the city of Salem, Massachusetts, has one of the fastest response times of any fire department in Essex County. In the business world, that is known as a "competitive advantage."

So why hasn't Salem offered its services to other neighboring communities? Two reasons: 1) a lack of knowledge on how to market services and 2) the strength of union officials in dictating how politicians will act.

Taxpayers should be demanding outsourced services as a means to cost-efficient government. Why? Because outsourcing already plays a major role in a taxpayer's daily life. Consider public education as a cost-efficient alternative to self-educating your children. Grocery stores enable people to not have to grow their own food. Sanitation workers save residents a drive to the local landfill.

Let's go back to Salem. The city could identify how much it would cost to fight a fire in a neighboring town. Based on the number of firefighters, vehicles, equipment, time, and mileage, a price schedule could be developed showing how much to charge a "client" for fighting a fire. Once the net cost had been identified, Salem could "gross" it up to build in a profit. Maybe the city could even charge a small retainer for being on-call.

Likewise, neighboring towns could look at how many annual fires there are (often very few) and price out the difference between a full force of firemen (often very high) and Salem's per-fire cost. It's a win-win. By expanding coverage, Salem would be not only saving its neighbors the cost of a full fire department but making more efficient use of its own under-utilized personnel. (A similar concept is already in full use in California, where CalFire, a state-run agency, not only protects the state's forests but outsources its fire-fighting services to municipalities.)

So, why are taxpayers not hounding politicians to outsource services to the city next door if it can offer a better product at a lower price? Because taxpayers are consumers, and without awareness of a service, they have no reason to request it. Without a progressive politician at the helm to guide a city towards a new type of government, there is little chance new ideas will be spawned. It's time for taxpayers to gather enough information to push for change, bringing taxes down while improving services for everyone. 

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Barry Greenfield is a selectman in Swampscott, Massachusetts, and the editor and publisher of EfficientGov, where his mission is to cross-pollinate innovative and cost-effective government policies.

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