Ten cities and seven counties govern most of the 1.7 million people in Hampton Roads. Each has its own police, fire and public works departments.

And in the decade that ended in 2010, the region’s population grew slowly, by about 6 percent.

Contrast that with the Charlotte, N.C., area, where half of the area’s 1.8 million people reside in Mecklenburg County, a sprawling jurisdiction of 524 square miles that is larger than the cities of Virginia Beach and Norfolk combined.

Charlotte and Mecklenburg essentially act as one government, jointly providing everything from water service and police protection to the construction of a downtown sports arena. And the Charlotte metropolitan area’s population grew by 32 percent – among the fastest in the nation – from 2000 until 2010.

The message in those statistics is clear to Virginia Beach City Councilman Glenn Davis – in order to thrive, Hampton Roads’ largest cities should, where possible, begin sharing services.

“Either we truly become one region, or we will fall while the Charlottes and other cohesive regions rise,” he said.

Davis said a critical step in achieving regional cooperation will come this afternoon, when the Beach and Norfolk city councils are to be briefed on a study by Hampton Roads Partnership on sharing services [Shared Services Project]. They will be told that the region’s three largest cities could save between $11.5 million and $15.1 million per year by pooling services such as police and fire training and the use of heavy equipment.

If the cities and school divisions pool their employee health insurance plans, total savings could skyrocket by an additional $50 million.

A consultant hired by the partnership suggests moving slowly. Merging health insurance, for instance, likely would take years.

At least one suggestion wouldn’t save a dime but would make the area more attractive to businesses: adopting a regional building permit.

The partnership organized the study late last year in response to a suggestion from Virginia Beach City Manager Jim Spore, said Dana Dickens, who heads the partnership.

Dickens will present the study today at 4 p.m. to the Beach council. City Manager Marcus Jones will present the study to the Norfolk council at 2.

The study was paid for in part by five of the region’s largest corporations – Amerigroup, Dollar Tree, Huntington Ingalls Industries, Norfolk Southern and Smithfield Foods. The partnership hired Management Partners, an Ohio-based consulting firm, which helped a steering committee identify duplicate programs in Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Chesapeake, the region’s three largest cities.

Davis, Norfolk City Councilman Barclay C. Winn and Chesapeake City Councilman Rick West served on the steering committee, as did the three city managers.

Davis acknowledged the study may be a tough sell to some members of the Beach City Council.

“I have some people on my council who don’t like the word ‘regionalism,’ ” he said. “But gone are the days when you live, eat and work in just one city. This is one region.”

West said the timing is right for such a study because of the sluggish economy.

“Every city in the region just went through the difficult process of balancing their budgets,” he said. “We all have scarce resources.”

However, he said some proposals, such as pooling health insurance, may prove controversial. He said many workers are drawn to city government because benefits traditionally have been more generous than in the private sector.

When you start tinkering with those benefits, employees may react angrily, he said. So the cities need to proceed cautiously.

Winn agreed but said regional cooperation has to occur.

“There’s no need for Norfolk, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake to all have their own police firing ranges,” he said. “Do we need a SWAT team or a riot squad in every city? Maybe, but in this economic climate, these are the kinds of questions we should be asking.”

Jim Hixon, an executive vice president for Norfolk Southern, said the corporate community has long urged the cities to pool services just as the private sector has.

“Everything they’re doing here,” he said, referring to the partnership study, “we’ve already done.”

Chesapeake City Council will be briefed on the study when it meets next week. All three city councils will then be asked to pass resolutions endorsing the study.

The three city managers would then be charged with initiating piecemeal changes, such as the cooperative hiring of private companies to do elevator inspections and coming up with a regional building permit.

The city managers would be asked to include more ambitious cost savings, such as public safety training and the provision of human services, for the city budgets to be adopted next spring.

Davis said this is an opportunity the cities can’t afford to fumble.

“If we don’t follow up on this, I fear we won’t have another chance for a long time,” he said.

By Harry Minium, The Virginian-Pilot

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