Elections make a difference.

That is why the future of Portland and other municipalities in Maine may very well be decided this November.

A new governor and Legislature will dramatically recalibrate the state’s priorities. Establishing strong and collaborative partnerships between state government and municipalities should be high on the agenda, along with investments that will allow cities and towns to step into a “smart” future.

COSTS SHIFTED TO LOCAL GOVERNMENTS

During the past several years, longstanding partnerships between the state and municipalities have become frayed and, in some cases, openly hostile. Repeatedly, local governments have been asked to shoulder the financial burden of state decisions related to tax policies and infrastructure improvements.

One of the most glaring examples has been the increased dependence on local property taxes to fund municipal services and education. In fact, the Maine Center for Economic Policy states, “There isn’t a community in Maine that hasn’t spent the past several years struggling to deal with ever-increasing pressure on property taxes.”

A significant portion of that struggle is related to the state’s failure to fully fund the cost of public education. For many municipalities, a majority of property tax dollars are devoted to paying for schools. When the state fails to meet its obligation, local taxes make up the difference. To make matters worse, the state enacted a law requiring Portland and other municipalities to pay for a portion of teacher retirement costs that had previously been covered by the state.

Along with inadequate funding for education, the municipal revenue-sharing program has been slashed. In just one year, Portland lost $2 million in state revenue-sharing funds. These funds are often used by municipalities to reduce reliance on property taxes.

Municipalities have also been forced to contend with relentless attacks on the General Assistance program. Services that had been eligible for state reimbursement were arbitrarily cut by state officials and the costs shifted to local government. For Portland, it meant the city had to assume additional costs to assist persons who needed housing and other basic necessities.

Maine’s cities and towns have been hit hard by the state’s unprecedented opioid crisis. Their ability to address the problem has been severely compromised by the state’s failure to expand the Medicaid program. Thousands of local residents have not received substance use treatment services that would be covered by Medicaid, leaving municipalities to respond as best they can with limited resources and programs.

There is little doubt that the financial situation in Portland, as well as every other municipality in the state, would improve significantly if the next governor and Legislature fully funded the state share of education, and the revenue-sharing program and expanded Medicaid.

NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR WIRED CITIES

But that’s only half the agenda.

We now have an unprecedented opportunity to invest in the next generation of local infrastructure and catapult Maine into the leading edge of “smart cities” and municipalities.

Portland City Manager Jon Jennings has said, “As we roll out smart-city technology and overall innovation, we’re going to see an increased interest in Portland and, I believe an improvement in the quality of life.” Recently, Portland has utilized LED energy lighting for its streets, a move now being considered by several other Maine communities.

Beyond street lights, smart-city investments can improve access to broadband and public Wi-Fi and provide better transportation options. A wired city can also upgrade waste management systems, increase energy efficiency and create more transparency in government. Equally important, high-tech and startup companies depend on and are attracted to cities that have smart technologies and an educated workforce.

While smart technologies have tremendous potential, there are also risks that need to be considered and addressed. Citizens should be confident that their privacy and identity will be protected, and appropriate security measures will be adopted as smart technologies are more widely utilized.

The overwhelming majority of Maine citizens live in cities, towns and neighborhoods. It is where they pay property taxes and receive a major portion of government services. The cornerstone to the state’s future will depend on having healthy and prosperous local governments.

That’s why it will be important for the next governor and the next legislature to make the strategic investments that will ensure a strong and collaborative partnership between state government and municipalities.

The difference can start Nov. 6.