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More information on the Center for Excellence in Local Government is available online at www.albright.edu/localgov/
With one third-class city, 28 boroughs and 44 townships, Berks County has come to resemble one of the colorful patchwork quilts traditionally sewn by its Pennsylvania German inhabitants.
Naturally, this diversity of governmental bodies creates its own set of challenges. So to help each "patch" work with the others, maximize resources, and create efficiencies while providing quality services, John Kramer, director of Albright's Center for Excellence in Local Government, envisioned a one-stop shop that would provide training to help local government officials serve their constituents while fostering a spirit of cooperation among municipalities.
A native of Reading, Kramer had served as director of the Cornell Extension Office in Syracuse, N.Y., which offered training programs for local government officials. After 16 years with Cornell, Kramer moved back to Reading in 1994, bringing the concept of a comprehensive municipal government official training program with him. He approached each of Berks County's institutions of higher education about offering such a program, and found Albright College most receptive to the idea.
"I met with the academic dean and the head of the political science department at Albright," said Kramer, who has a master's degree in city and regional planning from Cornell. "They were looking for something that was not being done in Berks County and would help create a niche market for the College."
Thus, the Local Government Program at Albright College was born. Last year its name was changed to The Center for Excellence in Local Government to better reflect its mission, which has expanded to include encouraging intergovernmental cooperation and helping residents understand the ins and outs of their local governing bodies.
From offices on the third floor of Selwyn Hall, Kramer runs the center with the help of Andrea Weist, his part-time assistant. Together they develop and market programs, identify instructors to present them, and solicit funds to cover the center's operating costs.
Developing Leadership Skills
"The center's basic mission is to help maintain and enhance the quality of life in Berks County by helping municipal officials meet the changing needs of their communities," Kramer explained. "The first part of that involves helping newly elected officials as well as veteran ones understand the responsibilities that come with their positions."
The center also strives to help elected or appointed officials understand changing legislative and regulatory requirements.
"Government is becoming much more complex," Kramer said. "Rules and regulations are constantly changing, so we offer workshops to help them understand what those changes mean."
When certain regulatory or legislative changes suggest the need for specialized training, Kramer has two options: he'll either ask an expert from his extensive network of community partners to conduct a seminar, or he'll put together a planning team composed of area organizations interested in the same topic.
Of course, certain basic skills are always in demand, which is why the center also offers regular, standardized training in areas such as basic budgeting and land-use planning. In total, the center has had more than 8,000 attendees at its programs since its founding in 1994.
A few years ago, the center presented a program on creating a five-year financial plan. Brian Potts, manager of Bern Township, said the information was invaluable. "They showed us the methodology of doing it," Potts said.
"By spending the few dollars to attend the class, we saved tens of thousands of dollars in consultant fees by having the knowledge to do a comprehensive five-year plan on our own."
Fostering Intergovernmental Cooperation
Not long after the center opened, local officials began to recognize it as a neutral, apolitical organization. "We're not city, we're not county, we're not Republican, we're not Democrat," Kramer said. "We are a resource that can bring communities together."
Out of that revelation arose the second part of the center's mission, which is to foster intergovernmental cooperation aimed at finding ways to save money, maintain quality services, and address concerns common to two or more municipalities.
To help municipalities save money, the center helped establish the Berks County Cooperative Purchasing Council, whose members make joint purchases of commodities such as rock salt with the goal of getting a better deal than they could get on their own.
In the interest of maintaining quality services, the center occasionally offers workshops aimed at helping communities understand the advantages of providing water and sewer; fire, police and emergency management services; and parks and recreational facilities on a regional basis rather than on their own. The center also established the Berks Municipal Partnership, whose members meet quarterly to talk about emerging issues that can best be addressed on a regional or countywide basis. Today's hot topic, Kramer said, no pun intended, is fire service.
"Five or ten years ago we had about 82 fire departments in the county," he explained. "Now there are about 60. The equipment is getting too expensive, and you just can't afford the duplication. Also, volunteers are more difficult to find during daytime hours. So we're seeing mergers within a community like Spring Township, which merged four fire departments into one, or among several communities, as we saw with the new Western Berks Fire Department."
When it comes to merging the municipalities themselves, Berks County is Pennsylvania's leader—despite what may seem to be a paltry number of consolidations. "In the last 12 years we had three municipal mergers," Kramer said. "People might say 'Big deal. You went from 76 to 73.' But that's one quarter of all the municipal mergers that were completed in the entire commonwealth in the last 40 years!
"We don't take credit for all the cooperation going on," Kramer continued,"but we certainly have tried to create a culture of cooperation."
Tried and succeeded, said Fred Levering, Wyomissing Borough Council president and chairman of the Berks Municipal partnership. "There is no question about it," he said. "I've been on council in Wyomissing since 1993, and I've seen a lot of things change. Some of the cooperation I see going on today you wouldn't have even dreamed about in the '90s or '80s. It's very refreshing."
Helping Citizens Understand
The third part of the center's mission is to help area residents understand how local government works. Its Berks County Citizens Academy taught county residents about county government, services and funding sources, while the Reading Citizens Academy did the same for city residents. And, every few months Kramer hosts a "Local Government in Berks" program on Berks Community Television, where he and his guests discuss timely topics of interest to Berks County residents.
Whether it's developing leadership skills, fostering intergovernmental cooperation or helping citizens understand how government works, the center receives a great deal of advice and guidance from a unique public/private/academic partnership. Its Community Advisory Board, for instance, is composed of nine to 11 representatives from the public, private and academic sectors who address the center's marketing, financial and administrative concerns.
A separate Local Government Advisory Council, composed of 17 to 20 representatives from the city, the county, and various townships and boroughs, meets with Kramer about three times a year to talk about their training needs and other ways the center can support them. The center remains committed to involving the very people it's dedicated to serving.
From the very beginning the center was intended to be self-supporting, and today its salary and administrative costs are largely offset by program fees, grants and contributions from sponsors. Even so, Kramer said, the center would not be in business were it not for Albright's assistance.
"We've always been employees of Albright College," he said, "and the assistance we get in the form of office space, meeting space, and support from the Human Resources Department, the Controller's Office and others has been invaluable. If we had to do it all on our own there's no way we could survive."
As far as Lex McMillan, president of Albright College is concerned, it's been a beneficial relationship for all parties. "The center's work is a direct expression of Albright College's strategy of engagement with the local community," he said. "We've long been interested in helping educate local municipal leaders to address the problems facing their communities, and we're enormously proud of the contributions the center has made under John Kramer's leadership since it was founded in 1994."
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