Consolidating services has long been seen as a solution for Maine’s high tax burden. Gov. John Baldacci pushed through sweeping reform of school districts during his two terms, and would have moved on to local and county government if the first step hadn’t been met with such resistance. Gov. Paul LePage has picked up the mantle, vowing to withhold revenue sharing to force municipalities to become more efficient.

But developments in Westbrook show just how difficult it can be to get people working together, not just across borders but also across departments in the same city.

Last week, our sister publication, the American Journal, reported that Westbrook had ended its 21?2-year experiment to share city and school finance departments. The effort was the result of years of discussions between the two sides, and began in earnest in 2010, when new Mayor Colleen Hilton, a former school board member, began her term by firing the city’s finance director and starting the search for the first city-school CFO.

It was the school that initiated the split. Dean Flanagin, the school department’s director of operations, began working more heavily in finances last August. Then in October, school Superintendent Marc Gousse let the state know the department was no longer a shared enterprise, a surprise to some staff members on the city side.

According to school officials, separating the departments will save the school department $73,000 in next year’s budget.

“First and foremost, both as a superintendent and as a taxpayer, it’s all about being fiscally responsible,” Gousse said. “We’re able to do the school finance piece for less money and that’s really where the rubber meets the road.”

However, the municipal budget is up $190,000 due to the change, a net loss for Westbrook taxpayers who have to foot the bill because, for whatever reason, city and school leaders could not figure out how to make it work.

Officials should take notice in South Portland, where Mayor Tom Blake made increased cooperation with the school department part of his inauguration pledge.

“This is critically important, since the better that relationship and the communication, the better our city’s students are served,” he said. “We must discuss possible merger and consolidation ideas to save costs.”

But just a few months later, the relationship between the city’s municipal and school governments remains cool, and the prospects for any significant collaboration seem dim.

It’s not that consolidation efforts haven’t worked in some cases. Regional dispatch and trash disposal have been a success, as has mutual aid in public safety, though it hasn’t kept some fire departments, such as Westbrook and Portland, from running into problems with overtime. Gorham has shared fire stations with Windham, Scarborough and Standish for years, saving money at no expense to service.

But even when it goes well, consolidation can be difficult. The Windham and Raymond school district, Regional School Unit 14, formed as a result of Baldacci’s education law, has by most indications worked out. But an undercurrent of “us versus them” still exists between the two towns, as evident in the debate last year on whether to move some Windham students to Raymond schools with low enrollments.

“I live in Windham. I don’t live in RSU 14,” said one parent.

Regional and institutional protectionism is always going to be a roadblock to collaboration. But without changing the basic structures of Maine government, costs will continue to rise while services slowly erode. What is necessary are big ideas: regional government, perhaps, smaller than counties but bigger than municipalities where it makes sense; regional economic development that lowers the local cost and removes the bidding among communities; and further consolidation of school administration, to name a few. But it is not going to happen without someone showing the way.

Combining fiefdoms throughout the state is as difficult as it is necessary, and but it will take determined and creative leadership of the kind not often demonstrated by those in charge.

Ben Bragdon is the managing editor of Current Publishing. He can be reached at [email protected] or followed on Twitter.

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