This Just In: Municipalities Collaborate

(from Maine Townsman, December 2010)
by Eric Conrad, Editor

The headline at a news website read, “Towns Already Cooperating.”

As if we didn’t already know that.

One of the biggest misconceptions out there – one we’re trying hard to overcome – is that municipal leaders protect their turfs first and collaborate only when they must.

It’s not true, hasn’t been for decades (if ever) and a meeting on Mount Desert Island last month was just the latest example of municipal leaders putting their citizens first and leaving their “turfs” and egos at the door.

During the evening of Nov. 17, some 25 elected officials and town managers from the League of Towns on Mount Desert Island held their first “Collaboration Meeting.” It was a joint session involving six communities; the Mount Desert Islander newspaper editor who covered the event called it “the mother of all selectmen’s meetings.”

What surprised even some selectmen in attendance was a three-page memo used to start the meeting, showing all the collaborative steps that municipalities on the island already had taken. From a consolidated high school to mutual aid in public safety to self-funded insurance programs offered through Maine Municipal, it was clear that many decisions were made over the years in the name of governmental efficiency.

More can always be done.

For nearly three hours, selectmen and four of their managers brainstormed about consolidating dispatch and other public-safety departments. They talked about coordinating solid-waste disposal and recycling operations, and having consistent regulations for cell towers – an iconic issue in one of the prettiest corners of the world.

Here is a partial list of areas that the selectmen agreed to explore:

Public safety: While some consolidation already has occurred, selectmen felt more possibilities remain, including having departments communicate beforehand when equipment is purchased.

Roads and transportation: There was agreement that state roads on the island are in rough shape and state funding will be limited for at least a few years to come. One idea was for the island communities to work together to prioritize state maintenance projects, and present that to Department of Transportation officials in a unified way.

Human resources: Hiring decisions around the island are pretty similar in terms of what jobs exist, what candidate qualifications are most desired and what challenges there are to attract and retain top employees. Would a centralized HR department be more effective than hiring separately?

Solid waste: There are several different approaches to handling solid waste and recycling among the League of Towns’ communities. One selectman suggested a study be done to show exactly how a garbage bag gets from a citizens’ kitchen to the incinerator, looking for efficiencies all along the way.

Those weren’t all the topics explored. Assessing, planning, purchasing, island-wide goal-setting and more school consolidation all were debated without rancor or defensiveness.

One selectman noted that convincing citizens of each town that collaborating and possibly consolidating poses a challenge in moving forward. Several heads nodded in gentle agreement.

Home-grown, municipal collaboration is just one of the positive messages that we cannot repeat enough. Another is municipal efficiency. A recent report from Envision Maine, a governmental think tank organized by Alan Caron, found that town and city services Maine aren’t just efficient – they’re extremely efficient, costing Maine taxpayers 33 percent less than what they do in other rural states in the U.S.

About collaboration, the Envision Maine report said “the key is to figure out how to help towns do” more of it. While that’s hard to dispute, collaboration is happening anyway. The League of Towns meeting on Mount Desert Island provided further proof.

By the end of the meeting, it was agreed that the League’s first “Collaboration Meeting” would not be the last. Selectmen from six different island towns shook hands, said their goodbyes and headed home.

ABOUT THE MEETING

MMA Director of Communication & Educational Services Eric Conrad was asked to moderate the collaboration meeting and did so. The meeting lasted a little less than three hours and was held at the Somesville Fire Station.

COLLABORATION CORNER

This article continues a regular feature in the Maine Townsman, highlighting ways that municipalities work together to become more efficient and better serve citizens.