GRAY — In his second inaugural address, Gov. LePage called for increased regionalization of public services. Although there are indeed opportunities, there may be fewer than he thinks.

Cumberland County already has a positive, but limited, record of accomplishment in supplying regional services. The Sheriff’s Office patrols 14 of the county’s 28 municipalities, many on an extended contractual basis. The jail, the probate court and the deeds office serve the entire county.

The Cumberland County Regional Communications Center acts as a 911 answering point for 19 towns. The Greater Portland Council of Governments, a regional agency, provides countywide cooperative purchasing of fuel, road and office supplies.

The recent creation of the county’s property assessing department, at the request of three towns, testifies for the benefits of contractual agreements between municipalities and regional government.

Towns that have switched to county dispatching or assessing have claimed to save money. Additional municipalities have been able to provide regular local police patrols using contracted county services, which they could not afford on their own.

The key characteristics of these arrangements are that they’ve been effective, voluntary and demonstrably economical.


The most frequently discussed possibilities for further regionalization are fire-rescue services, public works, public health and information technology. These options are more problematic.

Fire-rescue expenses for vehicles, equipment and training continue to rise. Volunteerism is declining, resulting in a transition to full-time paid personnel with associated costs of benefits and collective bargaining agreements. Call volumes are up because of a combination of an aging population, a trend toward calling for help over self-reliance, increased invocations of mutual aid agreements and protocols requiring automatic response to a scene and transport to a hospital.

An aerial-ladder truck costs over $1 million, but may respond to many chimney fires in a small town in a single winter. Even accepting a dangerous travel delay between rural towns in response to a regional fire, conversion of a local volunteer ladder squad into a full-time, multi-town specialty team adds personnel costs.

Further, such a plan multiplies overall vehicle mileage, which is the trigger for maintenance and replacement. Town meeting voters already choose the lowest bidder and hold on to current vehicles as long as possible. The possibility of net savings beyond simple mutual aid agreements is illusory.

Public works, on the other hand, seems more disposed to at least some potential savings. Town roads are unevenly maintained across the region, as any winter driver can detect when crossing town lines. A centralized public works “winter department” could potentially respond more efficiently to events, if local supervisors are retained to determine needs.

However, a year-round central public works organization would imply a countywide road plan. Since no one would want to see a decrease in road quality in their own community, increased taxes would result. A parallel argument could be made for regional trash pickup.


A similar situation exists with public health. Portland’s department provides clinics, education, monitoring and inspections. These services hardly exist at all in the rest of the county.

Citizens living in rural areas, who could benefit from local subsidized medical care and counseling, either travel to Portland or go without services until their conditions become an emergency. Rural restaurant inspections are haphazard. Public health education efforts in the outskirts are rare. Countywide services would not save money, but they could provide regional health equity.

Finally, there has been talk at the county level of offering information technology services. In my view, governments at any level are ill-equipped to provide such capabilities in any quantity. They should leave this to private businesses and consultants, which are efficient and highly skilled.

It seems unlikely to me that towns can be forced to purchase services that they do not want, at prices they cannot afford, even under the threat of loss of revenue sharing from the state. Town officials are smart enough to know that regional services may very well provide more uniform services to underserved areas, but do not always save money.

Until each county’s Board of Commissioners is much larger and represents smaller districts, citizens will have difficulty trusting the county with a bigger share of their taxes. Perhaps if there were 15 commissioners instead of five, the towns would feel better represented.

I believe more towns will discover the benefits of county law enforcement and assessing services. They will design local, practical, mutual agreements for additional savings in other areas. Regionalization could also extend some services to outlying areas if desired, but at a significant cost.

Regardless, county government will never supplant municipalities in Maine.


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