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Towns may join on waste plant

For underused industrial parks in communities bordering Brockton, the key to success could be solid waste.

After a recent $100 million renovation, Brockton’s regional waste water plant is now operating well under capacity, creating an opportunity for surrounding communities to send their waste into the system.

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Such an arrangement would pay off for Brockton, which would profit from selling hundreds of thousands of gallons of waste water capacity to its neighbors, and for the other communities, which would subsequently become more attractive to potential commercial development projects with substantial water and sewer demands, according to regional planners.

Sharing the waste water capacity is the latest in ongoing attempts by regional planners to encourage the consolidation of municipal services in communities south of Boston to spur economic development, cut costs, and increase efficiency.

“Regionalization” became a prominent buzzword during the recession, as cities and towns struggled to provide services amid deep budget cuts and were forced to turn to one another to combine and maximize services, including sharing road equipment or health inspectors.

‘Even though the economy is picking up a little bit, the communities are still struggling with providing services.’

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But with the economy on the upswing, the desire to combine services has lost some urgency among area communities that have always approached the idea with apprehension.

“It’s not as easy as it seems in some cases, but it’s moving forward,” said Pat Ciaramella, executive director of the Old Colony Planning Council, a regional quasi-governmental agency representing 16 communities south of Boston. “Even though the economy is picking up a little bit, the communities are still struggling with providing services. . . . State aid hasn’t gone back to what it was. Some of the bigger things that could really improve and save money are yet to come.”

Whereas some communities bristle at the suggestion of, for instance, regionalizing law enforcement services, they are still open to consolidation measures that don’t threaten local control of services, such as Brockton’s initiative to share sewer capacity with Abington, Avon, East Bridgewater, West Bridgewater, and Whitman, said Eric Arbeene, community planner at the Old Colony Planning Council, which is working with Brockton on that plan.

The council has worked with several communities, but “we didn’t have a great amount of success thus far,” persuading some cities and towns to share personnel and equipment, such as snowplows or street sweepers, despite evidence of cost savings, Arbeene said.

In 2011, the council used a $175,000 state grant to study the regionalization of 911 services in Bridgewater, Duxbury, East Bridgewater, Halifax, Kingston, Plymouth, Plympton, and Whitman. Although the communities were initially interested in a central dispatch center, eventually many balked at the idea because it would have meant shutting down police stations overnight. Reluctance to “go dark,” ultimately made the idea of a central 911 dispatch center economically unfeasible, Arbeene said.

In the end, only Duxbury and Plympton agreed to share 911 services.

“If you looked out at the western part of the state, it’s a lot easier to regionalize because their towns are smaller,” he said. “Communities around [the southeastern part of the state] have their own fire and police departments. Some communities might be afraid of the loss of local control. Here we’ve pretty much abolished the county form of control.”

The Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District, representing 27 communities spanning Norfolk, Bristol, and Plymouth counties, experienced similar results when attempting to regionalize 911 dispatch services, said Stephen C. Smith, executive director.

“We did a big 911 study that showed that if 18 communities plus UMass Dartmouth were to consolidate into two regional dispatch centers, they would save in excess of $4.8 million every year,” Smith said. “But that, of course, involves communities giving up their local dispatch centers and going to a regional center; it involves local layoffs and regional hires. Politically, it was too big a nut to crack. It does speak to the difficulty of doing this because you can show real big savings, but what you’re ceding is local control.”

Where the agency has had more recent success is with cooperative purchasing, where cities and towns lump their purchasing needs together, such as for office supplies or software, to reduce prices, said Ross Perry, director of municipal management.

In partnership with Kingston, which was doing a small-scale version of cooperative purchasing, the agency combined office supply-purchasing with 22 communities, the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department, and the Wareham Fire District into one account totaling $1.4 million a year. The result was competitive bidding from several supply companies, with the winner ultimately offering a 54 percent discount off catalog prices, with some items priced as low as one cent, for the next three years, Perry said.

The agency has also been successful persuading 11 fire departments to combine their e-permitting software purchasing power; and 25 communities with town-sponsored ambulances to get in a group bid for Emergency Medical Services supplies.

Although success stories are not on a broad scale, the state continues to encourage local regionalization, increasing its funding to the state’s planning councils from $2 million this year to $2.8 million in 2014.

“We’ll try anything that will stick,” Perry said. Regionalization “doesn’t have to have all the bugaboos that people think it does. . . . It’s not the swear word that people think it is.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.

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