By Marisa Helms
The definition of collaboration is simple. As City of St. Anthony Village Mayor Jerry Faust likes to point out, it literally means “to work together.” And in practice, this simple act of working together—though not always smooth or easy—has potentially deep rewards. At least, that’s what St. Anthony Village has discovered.
Since the early 1990s, leaders in St. Anthony Village (population 8,400) have looked to intergovernmental collaboration as a way to find efficiencies and enhance the city’s public safety infrastructure, earn income to fund city services, and help other governmental entities gain efficiencies and cut costs through partnership. The city’s robust collaboration program was the winner of a League of Minnesota Cities 2013 City of Excellence Award.
Faust, who has been the mayor of St. Anthony Village since 2004, has a long history serving the city. Since 1980, Faust has held several positions, including serving on the City Council and the Planning Commission. Faust believes strongly in collaboration. He says the best ideas in government come about collectively because cities can’t—and shouldn’t—try to provide certain services alone, or “in a vacuum,” as Faust puts it.
“To survive and thrive, you must collaborate,” asserts Faust.
“We’re always looking for better ways to do tasks and share other tasks—or a person—with another governmental entity or through contracting,” he adds. “It’s a constant evaluation of how to do things better, faster, and cheaper, and provide a better product to constituents.”
Efficiencies born of necessity
A defining example of St. Anthony’s success with intergovernmental collaboration is its police contracts with two smaller neighboring cities, Lauderdale (population 2,400) and Falcon Heights (population 5,400).
In the early 1990s, St. Anthony Village and cities across the metropolitan area were having financial problems due to a strained economy, and some cities were seeing losses in local government aid (LGA) from the state. Everyone was looking for ways to save money without eliminating city services.
So, leaders in St. Anthony Village invited Lauderdale and Falcon Heights to pool their resources and share in the cost of maintaining a tri-city police force, based in St. Anthony Village. Lauderdale and Falcon Heights liked the idea, and starting in 1994, the three cities began working together.
By all accounts, the St. Anthony Village police collaboration with Lauderdale and Falcon Heights has been a lasting, solid success for the past 20 years.
“From my vantage point, it’s obviously great to have this contract,” says Lauderdale City Administrator Heather Butkowski.
Lauderdale and Falcon Heights each pay St. Anthony Village about $600,000 annually for law enforcement services. In return, the two cities are each assigned one police officer to patrol their cities 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There is flexibility during every shift for the officers assigned to the different cities to help each other out, and both cities also have access to St. Anthony Village’s entire police force in the case of an emergency.
Butkowski says the statutory requirements and the administrative and infrastructure costs required for Lauderdale to run its own police department would be too much for Lauderdale’s taxpayers to bear. She says it’s more efficient and economical for Lauderdale to contract with St. Anthony Village.
“It’s much better going with a contract and the best possible price,” says Butkowski. “Every month, we pay [St. Anthony Village] money, and they assume all the risks and headaches involved with managing a police department. Plus, they try hard to provide service that both Lauderdale and Falcon Heights want.”
Butkowski says the police collaboration runs well because of the strong personal relationships built among the leadership in the three cities.
Falcon Heights City Administrator Bart Fischer agrees that successful intergovernmental partnerships like the St. Anthony Village police contract are rooted in trust and clear communication.
St. Anthony Village “provides quality service, and they don’t treat us like a contract,” Fischer says. “The chief, though he is with St. Anthony Village, always says, ‘I have to work for three city managers.’ He views it like the department is part of our city, not just coming in for a call. And that mindset really flows from the top down through the officers, too. They’re an integral part of our community.”
Through its law enforcement contracts with Lauderdale and Falcon Heights, St. Anthony Village Police Chief John Ohl says his department has been able to leverage its resources and grow from about 15 officers in 1994, to 23 full-time officers today.
St. Anthony Village “now has available the resources that we could not afford on our own,” says Ohl. “Those resources include not only people, but also equipment and physical resources, like [police cars]. We can operate a better schedule, and the officers are able to train better, and at a higher level.”
St. Anthony Village’s success with its law enforcement collaboration has encouraged the city to seek out even more partnerships over the years. Here are a few examples:
Since 2012, the St. Anthony Village Department of Finance has made its accounting expertise available to other governmental entities. St. Anthony Village handles all utility billing for the City of Birchwood Village, and takes care of payroll and other accounting needs for the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization (MWMO), a local unit of government with a $5.4 million annual budget.
MWMO Executive Director Doug Snyder says his organization has received a higher level of service from St. Anthony Village than it had been able to in the past when the organization relied on outside contractors.
“We’re paying a little less money for a lot more service,” says Snyder. “St. Anthony Village has expertise and the understanding that, as a local unit of government, we operate under the same restrictions they do in terms of employee management and state reporting requirements.”
Importantly, Snyder says the St. Anthony Village financial services contract allows him and the other employees at MWMO to focus their time where it’s needed most: providing scientific and technical expertise to the seven cities located in the watershed district.
The ‘new normal’
St. Anthony Village City Manager Mark Casey says partnering with other entities has been key to St. Anthony Village’s success over the years because it has helped the city meet the ever-in¬creasing demand for high-quality services without having to significantly increase the tax burden for residents.
“Collaboration is the ‘new normal.’ It’s what is expected of us, and it’s just good government,” says Casey. “[citizens] don’t care who plows the street as long as it’s plowed. Sure, there can be some loss of identity, but how important is it to have that city logo delivering the service when there may be a better, more economical and efficient way for [the task] to be done?”
Casey points out that intergovernmental collaborations don’t work unless everyone has something to gain. He says everyone needs to “play together well in the sandbox,” and the partnership has to be a true “win-win” for all parties.
And one size doesn’t fit all, adds Mayor Faust. “What’s good for one city won’t necessarily be good for another city. Part of that is size, location, and culture. There are all kinds of variables.”
Lastly, Faust recommends cities “think outside the box” when seeking out collaborations with other entities. “Don’t always look for like partners, i.e., cities,” says Faust. “Look at water districts, school districts, colleges, and universities. You really have to ask yourselves, ‘What if?’ and ‘Why?’ and ‘Why not?’”
Marisa Helms is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.
Read the July-August 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities Magazine
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