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Ashland, Hopkinton

Merging fire, EMT services explored

Similar efforts in area communities

By Jose Martinez
Globe Correspondent / February 2, 2012
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Economic belt tightening has the neighboring towns of Hopkinton and Ashland exploring the possibility of merging their fire departments into a regional operation, and officials are seeking funds to determine how such a move could be realized.

Several similar collaborative efforts are in the works among area communities, as local governments struggle to get by with fewer resources.

From the development of a regional crime analysis center to a consolidated effort to deal with the need for affordable housing, communities are banding together in an attempt to deliver broader, more efficient, and less costly services, according to Stephen J. Daly, director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council’s municipal governance section.

“There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes,’’ Daly said.

Not everyone agrees with the merger proposal in Hopkinton and Ashland, but some officials say it could help ease staff needs.

The fire departments, which have long worked closely offering mutual aid, are similar in size and structure, with about two dozen staff members. On most days, Ashland and Hopkinton each have four firefighters and a dispatcher on duty. Mutual aid is not just an option, it is the rule.

“I need more people. Hopkinton needs more people,’’ said Ashland Town Manager John Petrin, who joined his Hopkinton counterpart, Norman Khumalo, last month in applying for a $150,000 state grant to explore how the departments could be merged.

Petrin and other local officials say there is no law in Massachusetts that lays out the groundwork for combining departments across municipal borders. . The towns hope to use the grant money to address how a joint department would be governed, how union contracts would be handled, and how the towns would divide the costs.

“I’m sold on the concept, but the particular model is still in transition,’’ said Hopkinton Fire Chief Kenneth Clark, who said it would be important for the combined department to be large enough to meet standards for response times and manpower for multiple calls - something the individual operations struggle to do now.

Daly sees the potential merger as one of several examples of towns contemplating shared services to save money.

Ashland is also joining Framingham, Marlborough, Milford and Natick in seeking funding from the state to set up a regional crime analysis center, which would help local police better track trends, share information, and, ultimately, solve crimes quicker, Daly said.

Bedford, Concord, Lexington, Lincoln, Sudbury, and Weston want to address affordable housing services on a regional basis, and Wayland is exploring how to locate a regional compressed natural gas fueling station in town that would also serve Framingham, Lincoln, Natick, and Sudbury.

Hopkinton and Ashland also are jointly applying with Medway for a $15,000 state grant to buy tablet computers and portable printers for restaurant and food inspections. The grant would cover training while updating and streamlining the inspection process.

Despite slight improvements in the economy, and promises from Governor Deval Patrick that local aid won’t be cut, MAPC’s Daly sees more collaboration coming as towns seek new methods to maintain their level of services without having to resort to raising property taxes.

“Local governments know they have to be smarter going forward,’’ he said. “Already they are not as willing to spend everything available to them. They are not overbuilding their organizations.

“What I don’t think will happen: I don’t think we will see any local governments do things that will sacrifice their sovereignty,’’ Daly said. “They are willing to work on things collaboratively but not erase borders.’’

In Ashland, Fire Chief William Kee said the increasing demands to provide ever more complex emergency services despite cutbacks is driving the two departments to seek alternatives.

“I think it is something that is certainly worth exploring, and exploring thoroughly,’’ Kee said.

Both towns want to improve call response times, cut costs, and avoid duplication of effort in training and equipment purchases, but neither wants to lose decision-making authority over their department. Petrin figures it is a traditional Yankee sense of independence that keeps Massachusetts towns from taking more advantage of shared resources.

But the strain of going it alone is felt daily, Petrin said, particularly in delivering emergency medical services.

“We both have two ambulances, but putting two on the road at the same time in both towns is tough,’’ Petrin said. “They have four people on duty, we have four people on duty. It’s hard to get out past the first call.’’

“I need 10 more people. . . . Hopkinton could use 10 more people, too. Doing it individually is impossible,’’ he said.

Not all officials view regionalization as a solution, however.

Hopkinton Selectwoman Michelle Gates voted against applying for the state grant to fund the study, saying she believes a shared department would serve Hopkinton less effectively.

“I was elected to first and foremost protect the citizens in our community,’’ said Gates, who stressed the need to preserve local control over contract negotiations, hiring, and equipment purchases. “Sharing compromises that.

“We would be looking to Ashland’s elected officials to decide what values Hopkinton’s citizens express to keep their families safe,’’ Gates said. “I don’t think that is what we were elected to do. I voted against the grant application because I think it would be a waste of tax dollars to even consider it.’’

Todd Cestari, chairman of Hopkinton’s Board of Selectmen, cautioned that the grant money is meant only to study the possibility of combining fire forces.

“I wouldn’t say it is a project right now - we are trying for a grant to do a study to see what it would look like if it happened,’’ he said.

However, Daly said the towns have been discussing merging their fire departments with the MAPC for the last three years, and their grant proposal is meant to fund not a feasibility study but an action plan that the towns either would endorse or drop.

The merger would require either a special act of the Legislature or an intergovernmental agreement between both boards of selectmen.

Either way, Daly said, the question is expected to be put before voters in both towns by next year.

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Joining forces
Ashland and Hopkinton are collaborating on a couple of fronts in search of ways to increase efficiency and cut costs: