Think two letters can create a major political debate? How about “L-A”?
Beyond the casinos, MaineCare expansion, more than $100 million in new debt, and a technocratic constitutional amendment all appearing on the statewide November ballot, Maine’s municipalities have put their own questions to voters. In Portland, rent control and super-NIMBYism are up for debate alongside how many millions should be borrowed to refurbish schools the city failed to maintain.
And those in the “cities of the Androscoggin” will be asked whether they want two to become one, taking on the creative name Lewiston-Auburn, following in the footsteps of Dover and Foxcroft. The debate will continue right up until the final ballots are cast, and probably thereafter. There isn’t a clean, simple, easy, correct answer to the question.
However, the major selling point for proponents appears to be the envisioned savings from reduced redundancy; they book it as at least $2.3 million per year. That is a lot of money and shouldn’t be dismissed. Yet, when the 2018 budgets for Lewiston and Auburn are added together, they total about $200 million. That means the savings are around 1 percent.
Regardless of the outcome of that consolidation vote, there is an underlying logic in Maine municipalities trying to work together to reduce their overhead. Other options and models exist; we can rip one such idea from a different political headline in our state.
Gov. Paul LePage caught the national spotlight when he said he was willing to remove sheriffs from office if they did not support federal immigration enforcement. Set aside that policy; the coverage highlighted an oft-overlooked aspect of our state. Counties.
Maine has 16 sheriffs, one for each county. We have 18 registries of deeds, with Oxford and Aroostook each split into two. And, for many areas, their county government leads their 911 answering service.
There is no reason why county government cannot take on more. Well, there is one reason; towns hate to give up control. The legacy of local control, town meetings, and municipal governance is a hallmark of our state. For many reasons, Maine culture can lead to opposition of outsiders, be they from the next town over, another state, or another country.
It doesn’t need to be that way.
The LePage administration has followed the Baldacci administration approach to education. Regardless of your political affiliation, the data is clear that Maine’s student enrollment is declining, student test scores are flat, and spending is up. So the question becomes how do we gain more efficiency in our education system? How do we spend dollars better, leading to better results for students?
The difference in approach between the Republican and Democratic administrations lies in the old analogy about carrots and sticks. Gov. John Baldacci decided to compel towns and schools to consolidate. Hitting someone with a stick, understandably, leads to resistance. LePage took the other tack. He put a carrot of state dollars on the table; it was met with numerous innovative proposals from Fort Kent to Farmington.
That same innovative approach, based on voluntary cooperation and incentives, can apply to other areas of governance. Does every town really need its own public works department, or can road maintenance be regionalized? Sheriffs already provide law enforcement services to large portions of the state; can other public safety functions be improved by consolidation? How about code enforcement? After all, we now have a statewide code known as MUBEC; can building review occur at the county level?
Like the proposed Lewiston-Auburn merger, there aren’t simple or easy answers to these questions. However, economies of scale are a real thing. If we leverage them appropriately, we can reduce the cost of government services, which can reduce our tax burden. Which can further incentivize new investment, which can lead to new jobs and native Mainers moving home, alongside those who appreciate the way life should be.
And it all started with two letters. Told you it could make a great debate.