Monday, May 6, 2013

Politics Ended Regional Veterans District

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on Monday, May 6, 2013

By Bill Gouveia

If there is one thing (other than New York) that New Englanders seem to truly dislike, it is regionalization.  It's a concept that just doesn't fly here, particularly when it relates to local government.

A perfect example is the recent collapse of the Crossroads Veterans Services District, a joint effort by Easton, Norton, Mansfield and Foxboro to combine efforts to serve veterans in each community.  It started with Easton and Norton working together and sharing personnel, and seemed to gain steam when Mansfield and Foxboro also joined in.

But the organizations death came quickly and abruptly when Easton selectmen voted to withdraw primarily for cultural reasons two weeks ago.  Mansfield and Norton followed suit shortly thereafter, and each town will presumably go back to hiring its own veterans agent and maintaining its own office, staff and workload.

That will be good news to some veterans who never liked the initial creation of the district.  Some believed it was better for each town to have its own agent and focus solely on those needing help within its borders.  They saw regionalizing the service as a sign of weakness rather than strength.

But that response was much more emotional than fact-based.  In many instances it was the perception rather than the reality of the situation that bothered folks.  How can you seriously say you are serving veterans well when you don't even have your own agent, they asked.  To some extent it was a matter of pride.

But the truth is - it shouldn't be.  The district was a good idea.  It allowed for a pooling of resources, expanded availability of personnel, created better access for veterans, and could have save money at the same time.  But it is now dead, and there are several main reasons why.

In Massachusetts, our municipalities and their citizens are very parochial.  We take great pride in having our own local services, and staffing them with our own local officials.  Then we can either complain about how bad they are or brag about how good they are.  But we still have them, and that's what counts.

In most of the rest of the country, regionalization is a way of life.  County government (that's real county government, not the corrupt and self-serving excuse for county government that exists here) usually runs things like schools, police and fire, highway and public works departments.  Towns still maintain their individual identities, but share the tax burden across a wider base.
But not here.  Sure, we have a few regional schools that do a good job.  But most of our county services are overlapping with state and local government.  Their budgets are something we are assessed, rather than decide.

And our political landscape is such that being efficient on a regional basis is almost impossible.  In fact, most of our laws discourage this very thing.  They are more concerned with creating paid positions for political appointees than giving the taxpayers the best value for their tax dollars.

That was pretty much what killed the Crossroads Veterans District.  State laws may well have prevented it from being run in the manner the founders originally planned.  It began to take on all the characteristics of yet another bloated bureaucracy, complete with soaring budget planning and political complications.

By most accounts, that really became a problem when Foxboro became very active in the district.  The aggressiveness of both Town Manager Kevin Paicos and others in trying to expand the budget and reshape the philosophy was largely responsible for breaking up the group.  Though it was not stated publicly, it was pressure and politics from Foxboro that drove out Easton and ultimately ended the experiment.

The fact is towns in Massachusetts just don't seem to play well with others.  Regionalization needs to stop being considered a sign of weakness and start becoming a natural thing.  Mutual aid has long been a tradition when it comes to local police and fire departments, but it must go further in all areas of government.

Becoming less provincial and more productive should be an admirable goal.   With cooperation from state and local authorities, regionalization could make that happen.  But it will only become reality when citizens start caring about and demanding it.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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