Earth Matters: Intermunicipal cooperation would bring better services

“Most people don’t give it much thought if it goes away after they flush.” A colleague made that observation to me 15 years ago, also noting that this same principle held true for many things.

You expect the snow to be removed from your street after a winter storm. Set out your trash and recyclables, and they magically disappear before you awaken. Turn the spigot, and clear water flows from your faucet.

These are all services provided by or overseen by your local municipal workers or their private sector business partners. While we sometimes hear people say that they want government out of their lives, you seldom hear the public complain about clean water, snow-free roads, efficient and affordable trash service or free-flowing sewer lines.

You will hear complaints if prices go up too quickly or if service is subpar.

With this in mind, the Blair County Chamber of Commerce invited the county’s 24 municipalities to a forum to discuss how they might work together to provide better services for less money.

Interestingly, we found out that as we talked more, an amazing amount of cooperation is already taking place. Much of it is connected to environmental services and protection.

Our water and sewer authorities almost always service multiple municipalities. Many municipalities work together on storm water management. (Watersheds, hills, valleys and stream beds pay little attention to municipal boundaries.) Equipped with well- qualified environmental professionals, the Blair County Conservation District does the erosion and sedimentation control work all across the county.

The Intermunicipal Relations Committee oversees recycling and operates two composting facilities that provide service to more than half the people in the county. Blair County Sanitary Administrative Committee oversees on-lot septic system installations in many county municipalities. Several recreation commissions offer recreational programs to multiple municipalities.

In each case, the municipalities have realized better services for less money. It has also allowed smaller municipalities to have the specialized staff for that work that they could never afford on their own. The communities have saved tax dollars while providing more and better services.

Though less formalized, many municipalities have established mutual aid agreements for police and emergency services. In a more formal way, AMED and several other ambulance cooperatives have provided services to multiple municipalities.

This intermunicipal cooperation is even greater in Centre County. But the turnout at this week’s meeting showed that many Blair County municipalities see the worth of expanding their own cooperative ventures. Without this cooperation, important services will generally cost more and be difficult to deliver.

New approaches can sometimes make us nervous. But if we keep several principles in mind, these efforts should go more smoothly.

* Be sure that intermunicipal agreements clearly state the rules and responsibilities of the members.

* Find a way to make representation as fair as possible for each member.

* Realize that compromise and openness to change are the keys to successful cooperative efforts.

If this next level of intermunicipal cooperation can come to pass, Blair County may place itself in a better position than many Pennsylvania counties, making for better government and a better environment, too.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ writes on environmental issues every other weekend and has been active on the Blair Chamber’s Municipal Cooperation Subcommittee.