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COUNTY, CITY MAKE PROGRESS

The recession forced many local governments this summer to once again cut jobs and public services for the coming year. But there is at least one bright spot amid the gloom in Hillsborough County. The city of Tampa teamed up with the county to buy new computer software for such back-office operations as purchasing, accounting and payroll. This is hardly a major step toward consolidation. But it helps lay the groundwork.

It should not have taken the collapse in housing and sales tax collections for the county and city to begin examining ways to join hands and save taxpayers money. For all the differences between the urban and rural areas, the city and county offer many of the same services. Indeed, the two governments work together to operate a range of agencies, from the port and Raymond James Stadium to the bus and library systems.

The software purchase is more about cost-saving, but it also will put city and county staff on the same wavelength. The county will contribute $20 million and the city will contribute $8 million toward the project. Officials said the joint purchase will allow both sides to upgrade their operating systems while saving money through bulk buying. The new software will enable the city to integrate hundreds of outdated programs now used by various departments. While the two governments will continue to operate their own computer systems - at least for now - having two major clients use the same software provides trouble-shooting opportunities. The two will also ask vendors to bid on having a third party run the entire operation.

It's about time the city and county started getting serious about consolidating purchases and becoming more efficient. While the real money savings in consolidation are in merging police, fire and solid waste services, this step lays a foundation. The two governments could never merge major operations without their computer systems having the ability to communicate with one another. The purchase should be the start of a more serious effort in the coming year to consolidate city and county services.

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