Theresia Morandell and Karl Kössler, Eurac Research
Relevance of the Practice
The issue of how to overcome the pronounced territorial fragmentation of Italian municipalities is of high relevance also to the Autonomous Province of Bolzano/South Tyrol. Of the 118 municipalities in the province, only seven count more than 10,000 inhabitants, while 68 (57,6 per cent) have a population below the mark of 3,000. On average, South Tyrolean municipalities count 4,500 inhabitants. At the same time, local governance faces increased complexity. Citizens expect modern and high quality services that safeguard employment and a high quality of life even in the most peripheral areas. In order to preserve rural areas and prevent depopulation, municipalities have to stay competitive and meet those expectations.
Contrary to the neighboring Autonomous Province of Trento, mergers of municipalities have never been a political option in South Tyrol. Rather, the province displays a tradition of horizontal cooperation between municipalities, with voluntary agreements, consortia, conventions, concessions and unions of municipalities as forms of inter-municipal cooperation (IMC) aimed at tackling the challenges arising from a highly fragmented municipal landscape. In 2017, the Provincial Law no 18/2017 on the Re-Organization of Local Entities conferred a set of new responsibilities to South Tyrolean municipalities. However, numerous municipalities are too small to deliver high-quality performances on the full set of their responsibilities. In particular, they lack the financial means, specialized personnel and infrastructure to do so. Other than reinforcing local self-government, it is therefore another central pillar to the Law on the Re-Organization of Local Entities to encourage practices of horizontal cooperation among municipalities in order to increase the quality and efficiency of municipal service provision, as well as to guarantee minimum standards in the provision of local public services.
Description of the Practice
At the outset, it is important to emphasize that IMC in South Tyrol is a broader phenomenon and not limited to the new instruments provided by the above-mentioned Provincial Law of 2017. In fact, municipalities may form corporations with only public capital or private corporations and they also engage in certain informal forums, especially in the essential area of tourism. Some of these promote soft tourism (‘Alpine Pearls’) or bring together the province’s seven biggest cities and towns (‘Städtenetzwerk Südtirol City’). Interestingly, such cooperation rather seems to integrate municipalities of similar size and nature and thus to involve little urban-rural collaboration. Moreover, the 2018 Code regarding Local Entities in the Autonomous Region Trentino-South Tyrol (which is composed by both above-mentioned Autonomous Provinces) provides for five instruments of IMC. However, these do not deviate significantly from instruments in other Italian regions. It is rather the 2017 Provincial Law which attempted to create and establish a distinctive new framework of IMC so that it deserves closer attention.
The above-mentioned law makes provisions, on the one hand, for a transfer of additional tasks by provincial legislation in agreement with the Council of Municipalities (Rat der Gemeinden) and, on the other hand, for the fulfilment of these tasks within a new framework of IMC. The latter builds on agreements between municipalities on the joint management of services as a main instrument of horizontal cooperation. Collaboration is voluntary, yet strongly encouraged through financial incentives. To this purpose, an amount of EUR 7 million, drawn from regional funds, was allocated by the provincial government for a three-years’ time period from 2019 to 2021 and with the possibility of further extension. Financial incentives amount to EUR 25,000 annually per 2,000 inhabitants for each jointly managed service. To be eligible for funding, two municipalities must cooperate in the management of at least two services or, alternatively, at least three municipalities must jointly manage at least one service. In order to obtain funding, cooperation must occur within pre-defined functional and geographical areas and, critically, on the basis of a Model Agreement, a legal template elaborated at and approved by provincial level. South Tyrol therefore relies on a pronounced top-down approach to horizontal cooperation, with the provincial level retaining a strong role in planning, coordinating and monitoring of the cooperative approaches between municipalities, thereby securing a desired level of homogeneity.
The Model Agreement determines the range of possible functional areas for cooperation that include the municipal secretary and secretariat service, the management of taxation and fees, accounting, construction and landscape matters, public works, licenses and trade, demographic services and human resource management (Article 4). This contrasts sharply with a 2012 agreement between the Province and the municipalities in which the latter had pledged to cooperate in terms of services, but in services of their own choice. Within these functional areas, three forms of cooperation are admissible (Article 3(1)):
- joint coordination of single municipal services with own personnel and a supra-local senior official;
- one municipality (‘competence center’) manages certain services on behalf of cooperating municipalities;
- shared use of municipal infrastructure and buildings.
The Model Agreement further requires a periodic dialogue between the mayors of the cooperating municipalities (Article 14) and provides for the creation of a supervisory panel, composed of the mayors and municipal secretaries. The latter’s task is to monitor, assess, guide and coordinate the joint management of municipal services and to assist the development and improvement of the cooperation (Article 15).
In order to create a homogenous setting for the joint management of municipal services, cooperation under the Model Agreement is possible only within pre-defined geographical areas, the so-called ‘ideal catchment areas’ (Optimale Einzugsgebiete/Ambiti territoriali ottimali). 25 catchment areas that account for ‘homogenous socio-economic and geographical characteristics’ were designed by the provincial government in agreement with the Council of Municipalities. Interesting from an urban-rural perspective is the exclusion of eleven South Tyrolean municipalities, which are big in terms of territorial and/or population size, from the ideal catchment areas, among which the provincial capital of Bolzano/Bozen. Cooperation with the excluded municipalities is still possible, but only if the bigger municipalities assume a leading role in the provision of the service in question and if there is no other municipality that has already assumed responsibility over the management of that service on behalf of other local governments in a catchment area. Cooperation with municipalities across several catchment areas are possible in this specific case. However, the leading municipality must deliver the offered service to all the other municipalities within a certain catchment area if need be.
Hence, whether or not a municipality is included in the catchment areas significantly impacts on the context for cooperation. The 2017 framework leaves little room for municipalities that were assigned to a certain catchment area to freely choose the partners for cooperation (top-down approach). An exclusion from the pre-defined areas leaves more flexibility in the choice of junior partners for cooperation and allows spontaneous bottom-up associations of municipalities across several catchment areas. This greater flexibility comes, however, at the risk of considerably broadening the pool for potential junior partners. The possibility of being required to deliver a service on behalf of all the municipalities within several catchment areas might constitute a disincentive for the eleven excluded municipalities to actively engage in cooperation projects within the new framework.
Assessment of the Practice
As of December 2020, out of the EUR 7 million allocated to projects of cooperation on the basis of the Model Agreement, EUR 4,5 million have been assigned to municipalities presenting a total of 53 requests for funding. The new framework aimed at further incentivizing horizontal cooperation among municipalities and this incentive seems to have worked. Within a year after the opening for requests in December 2019, half of the reserved funds were already assigned. This speaks for a high demand for the new framework, even though it is still a little early for a more in depth assessment of this fairly young practice.
The requests that were so far presented proved to be heterogeneous. While some groups of municipalities take advantage of the full range of functional areas eligible for funding, others limit cooperation to two services. Among the requests for joint management of services presented so far, the municipal secretary, secretariat services, accounting, as well as construction and landscape management rank prominently. The Municipality of Schenna/Scena is a particularly interesting case because it entered into different partnerships for cooperation concerning the management of different services: While the municipal secretary, secretariat services, management of taxation and fees as well as demographic services are jointly managed with the Municipality of Hafling/Avelengo, Schenna/Scena cooperates with Tirol/Tirolo, Riffian/Rifiano and Kuens/Caines on accounting and public works.
The framework rather seems to incentivize small, rural municipalities to jointly manage services. In fact, 40 out of 53 requests (75 per cent) were presented by municipalities with less than 5,000 inhabitants, while 7 (13 per cent) came from municipalities with a population count between 5,000 and 5,500. There has also been a small number of requests for joint service management by two of the bigger municipalities that were not specifically assigned to any of the catchment areas. While the Municipality of Kastelruth/Castelrotto (6,919 inhabitants) presented a single request of limited financial scope, the case of the Municipality of Schlanders/Silandro (6,261 inhabitants) is of greater import. Within the first year of the new framework, a sum of EUR 253,000 was assigned to the municipality for 5 cooperation agreements that include different cooperation partners and span over three distinct catchment areas. When looking at the total amount of funds assigned within the new framework so far, it must however be underlined that these cooperation initiatives with bigger municipalities are fairly limited in scope, with financial contributions amounting to around EUR 300,000 as compared to the EUR 4.2 million assigned to cooperation agreements initiated by smaller municipalities. As Bolgherini, Casula and Marotta suggest in their study of municipal reactions to functional rescaling in Italy, fear of a loss of identity and autonomy as a result of being dominated by a bigger municipality may be an explanation for the higher resistance of small municipalities to cooperate with bigger neighbors.
One of the main critiques towards the new framework is the top-down approach adopted by the Province in the definition of both the thematic and geographical areas for cooperation. The rigid nature of the Model Agreement is symptomatic for this approach, as it allows cooperation exclusively within the previously established functional areas. To be sure, the thematic list provided by the Agreement is extensive and most likely covers almost all typical areas of collaboration. Yet, the framework lacks a flexibility clause that would enable municipalities to broaden the scope of cooperation beyond the pre-defined functional areas to any areas of their choice. At this point, a wider and more flexible thematic framework could reinforce the financial incentives and further increase cooperation among South Tyrolean municipalities.
The Province thus appears to maintain a strong say on matters of IMC and this seems to hold true beyond the thematic scope of cooperation. There appears to be a similar pattern regarding its geographical scope, even though, for example, the exclusion of bigger municipalities from the catchment areas seems to go back to an initiative of the municipalities. Indeed, the South Tyrolean Council of Municipalities, as advisory organ on the provincial level, has been actively involved in the elaboration of the new framework. Article 4 of the Provincial Law no 18/2017 explicitly mandates a decision on the ideal catchment areas in agreement with the council, thereby enabling the municipalities to express their perspective on the matter. As some observers highlight, a (mostly) top-down approach with the provincial government playing a leading role must not be necessarily a negative thing because this often enables more efficient, rationalized cooperation outcomes. In particular, clear top-down indications on the territorial and functional basis for cooperation as well as on the minimum duration may prevent practices of short-term cooperation which are currently widespread in many parts of Italy.
Anyway, the issue what specific criteria are applied for the inclusion of municipalities in the various catchment areas and how they are weighted against each other, ultimately remains unclear. On one hand, there is the vague criterion of socioeconomic and geographical homogeneity of neighboring municipalities. On the other hand, there is the even broader reference to the general principles of subsidiarity, adequacy, differentiation, effectiveness, quality, economic efficiency and simplification which are to be realized through cooperation. From an urban-rural perspective, it remains unclear, why some urban municipalities (such as Brixen/Bressanone) are included in a catchment area with smaller, rural municipalities, while others (e.g. Bruneck/Brunico, Merano/Meran or Sterzing/Vipiteno) fall within the list of the eleven left-outs.
In sum and despite the points raised above, the 2017 framework on IMC, with its financial incentives and standardized approach to guarantee uniformity in the provision of municipal services, has proven able to further incentivize horizontal cooperation among South Tyrolean municipalities in the first years since its implementation. It can be viewed as an asset especially for small and rural municipalities in as far as it allows for the creation of synergies, as well as the sharing of expertise, financial and personnel burdens.
References to Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications
Provincial Law no 18/2017 on the Re-Organization of Local Entities
Resolution of the Provincial Government no 1161/2018
Resolution of the Provincial Government no 960/2019
Resolution of the Provincial Government no 961/2019
Scientific and Non-Scientific Publications:
Bernhart J and Promberger K, ‘V Interkommunale Zusammenarbeit in Südtirol‘ in Peter Biwald, Hans Hack and Klaus Wirth (eds), Interkommunale Kooperation. Zwischen Tradition und Aufbruch (Neuer Wissenschaftlicher Verlag 2006)
Bolgherini S, Casula M and Marotta M, ‘Municipal Reaction to Functional Rescaling in Italy’ (2018) 31 The International Journal of Public Sector Management 448
D’Orlando E and Grisostolo FE, ‘La disciplina degli enti locali tra uniformità e differenziazione’, in Francesco Palermo and Sara Parolari (eds), Le variabili della specialitá (ESI, 2018).
Happacher E and Terzer B, ‘Il governo locale. Alto Adige/Südtirol‘ in Esther Happacher and Roberto Toniatti (eds), Gli ordinamenti dell’Euregio. Una comparazione (FrancoAngeli 2018)
Klotz G, ‘Gemeinden in Südtirol: ein Blick auf ihre vertikalen und horizontalen Kooperationsformen‘ in Europäisches Zentrum für Föderalismus-Forschung Tübingen (ed), Jahrbuch des Föderalismus 2019: Föderalismus, Subsidiarität und Regionen in Europa (Nomos 2019)
Pallaver G, ‘Kooperation statt Fusion. Interkommunale Zusammenarbeit in Südtirol‘ in Alice Engl, Günther Pallaver and Elisabeth Alber (eds), Politika 2016. Südtiroler Jahrbuch für Politik (Politika and Raetia 2016)
 If the provincial capital of Bolzano/Bozen, with 108,000 inhabitants by far the largest municipality within the province, is excluded, the average size of South Tyrolean municipalities amounts to 3,700. Istituto provinciale di statistica ASTAT, ‘Banca dati “Dati comunali”’ (ASTAT, 2020) <https://astat.provincia.bz.it/it/banche-dati-comunali.asp>.
 Greta Klotz, ‘Gemeinden in Südtirol: ein Blick auf ihre vertikalen und horizontalen Kooperationsformen‘ in Europäisches Zentrum für Föderalismus-Forschung Tübingen (ed), Jahrbuch des Föderalismus 2019: Föderalismus, Subsidiarität und Regionen in Europa (Nomos 2019) 395.
 Günther Pallaver, ‘Kooperation statt Fusion. Interkommunale Zusammenarbeit in Südtirol‘ in
Alice Engl, Günther Pallaver and Elisabeth Alber (eds), Politika 2016. Südtiroler Jahrbuch für Politik (Politika and Raetia 2016).
 Josef Bernhart and Kurt Promberger, ‘V Interkommunale Zusammenarbeit in Südtirol‘ in Peter Biwald, Hans Hack and Klaus Wirth (eds), Interkommunale Kooperation. Zwischen Tradition und Aufbruch (Neuer Wissenschaftlicher Verlag 2006) 107.
 Bernhart and Promberger, ‘V Interkommunale Zusammenarbeit in Südtirol‘, above, 107; Klotz, ‘Gemeinden in Südtirol‘, above, 393 and 406.
 Art 1 of the Provincial Law no 18/2017.
 Elena D’Orlando and Francesco Emanuele Grisostolo, ‘La disciplina degli enti locali tra uniformità e differenziazione’, in Francesco Palermo and Sara Parolari (eds), Le variabili della specialitá (ESI 2018) 98f.
 For details on the Council of Municipalities of South Tyrol as Facilitator of Local-Subnational Relations, see report section 5.3.
 Resolution of the Provincial Government no 961/2019.
 Art 1(1) of the Resolution of the Provincial Government no 961/2019.
 Resolution of the Provincial Government no 1161/2018 (amended by Resolution no 1349/2018).
 Klotz, ‘Gemeinden in Südtirol‘, above, 400; Arts 1, 7 and 8 of the Provincial Law no 18/2017.
 Resolution of the Provincial Government no 1161/2018.
 Art 7(4) of the Provincial Law no 18/2017.
 Resolution of the Provincial Government no 960/2019.
 Art 1(2) of the Resolution of the Provincial Government no 961/2019.
 Resolutions by the Provincial Government no 1120/2019; 219/2020, 308/2020; 585/2020 and 953/2020.
 LPA/JW, ‘Über eine Million Euro für die zwischengemeindliche Zusammenarbeit‘ (Südtiroler Landesverwaltung, 1 April 2020) <http://www.provinz.bz.it/news/de/news.asp?art=637221> last accessed 31 July 2020.
 Silvia Bolgherini, Mattia Casula and Mariano Marotta, ‘Municipal Reaction to Functional Rescaling in Italy’ (2018) 31 The International Journal of Public Sector Management 448, 459.
 Klotz, ‘Gemeinden in Südtirol‘, above, 401.
 ibid 407.
 ibid 401.
 Statement by Sabrina Iommi, Economist, IRPET – Istituto Regionale Programmazione economica della Toscana (LoGov Country Workshop, Structure of Local Government, 23 October 2020).
 Art 3 of the Provincial Law no 18/2017 on the Re-Organization of Local Entities.
 Klotz, ‘Gemeinden in Südtirol‘, above, 407.