Believe it or not, there was a time when government ran a surplus. Even today, in this economy, there are municipalities that consistently close out their annual budgets with a surplus.

Believe it or not, there was a time when government ran a surplus. Even today, in this economy, there are municipalities that consistently close out their annual budgets with a surplus.

Somewhere along the road of good government, the concept of a “profit” became a bad idea. Most taxpayers would argue that government is not a business, but in the same vein they would like to see government operated more like a business.

Successful businesses have a major advantage over government, as they are typically great at one thing. One of the major hurdles for government is how many services it must provide, with often very limited resources.

As we enter a time where government is considering privatization as a means of reducing cost and maintaining services, a roadmap on how to be competitive and what areas to focus on is critical.

It is clear some municipalities, or counties, are better suited than others to provide a specific service.

For instance, the City of Salem, Mass., has one of the fastest response times of any fire department in Essex County. In the business world, that is known as a “competitive advantage.” So why hasn’t Salem offered their services to other neighboring communities? Two reasons: 1) a lack of knowledge on how to market services and 2) the strength of union officials in dictating how politicians will act.

Taxpayers should be at the forefront of demanding outsourced services as a means to cost-efficient government. Why? Because outsourcing already plays a major role in a taxpayer’s daily life. Consider public education as a cost-efficient means around self-educating your children. Grocery stores enable people to not have to grow their own food. Landscapers cut lawns for a fee that is clearly less than most people think their time is worth.

So why are taxpayers not hounding politicians to outsource services to the city next door who can offer a better product at a lower price?

Because taxpayers are consumers, and without awareness of a service, they have no reason to request it. All a citizen knows in terms of government is what they see. Without a progressive politician at the helm to guide them towards a new type of government, there is little chance new ideas will be spawned.

Let’s go back to Salem. The city could identify how much it would cost to fight a fire in a neighboring town. Based on the number of firefighters, vehicles, equipment, time and mileage, a price schedule could be developed showing how much to charge a “client” for fighting a fire. Once the net cost had been identified, Salem could “gross” it up to build in a profit. Maybe it could even charge a small retainer for being on call.

Likewise, neighboring towns could look at how many annual fires there are (often very few) and price out the difference between carrying a full force of firemen (often very high) against the per-fire cost that Salem offered. It’s a win-win. Salem can fight fires less expensively for its neighbors than each neighboring community. We know this because there simply aren’t enough fires in one town to keep a fire department busy every day of the year. So by expanding coverage Salem is simply making more efficient use of under-utilized personnel.

Taxpayers would now have information and the impetus to push politicians for the solution that will bring taxes down while maintaining or improving service levels.

Interestingly, this concept is already in full use in California, where CalFire, a state run agency, offers outsourced firefighting services to municipalities around the state in addition to its mission of protecting the state’s forests.

Barry Greenfield is editor and publisher of and a selectman in Swampscott, Mass.