Regionalization Efforts Gain Momentum
(from Maine Townsman, June 2003)
By Jim Katsiaficas, Senior Staff Attorney, MMA
Recently, several municipalities throughout the state have been discussing whether to cooperate on a regional basis to provide municipal services. The ever increasing cost of providing services to residents plus the ever increasing pressure of demands on property tax revenues has caused municipalities to re-examine how they deliver services to the public. In addition, both the press and the Governor’s office are urging municipalities to provide governmental services more cost effectively.
Regional delivery of services by Maine municipalities, however, is not a new phenomenon. In the past, Maine’s municipalities have cooperated where it has made sense to do so, either to become more cost effective in their delivery of services or to provide a higher level of service. This grassroots, common sense regional approach can be seen in the number of water districts, sewer districts, solid waste districts and organizations and transportation districts that have been created in Maine over the years
As a result, several groups of municipalities have begun discussions to determine which, if any, services may be offered in a more cost-effective manner on a regional basis. This article describes some of those efforts and progress to date.
Cumberland, Falmouth, Freeport, North Yarmouth, Yarmouth
This group of municipalities has formed a Regional Consolidation of Municipal Services Committee. Its members, appointed by the town councilors or selectmen in each of the member municipalities, began meeting last year. The committee has decided to pursue regional dispatching of emergency services in order to begin to examine the cost and benefits of a regional service. The committee also has been working with the interlocal agreement as a governance model in order to create a regional entity that perhaps may take on other duties in the future as the members gain experience and confidence in the regional approach. At the request of the committee, MMA Legal Services has provided advice on the range of governance models (from services agreements to interlocal agreements to formation of a special district) available to implement the delivery of regional services.
Sebago, Raymond, Naples, Casco, Bridgton, Frye Island
This group of municipalities had been discussing with Cumberland County the creation of a regional dispatch center operated by the county on behalf of these towns. These municipalities hoped to achieve cost savings and greater response coordination by contracting with the county for this service. It appears that Raymond had offered the county the use of at least 2,500 square feet of its new public safety building at no capital cost to the county, and was prepared to ask the town’s voters to pay for constructing additional space to accommodate the county’s dispatching needs in return for free dispatching services. This would have allowed for a central county dispatching center between Portland and Bridgton. The county, instead, has opted to pursue constructing a 6,000 square foot addition to its Windham facility, and Sebago, Raymond, Naples, Casco, Bridgton and Frye Island are preparing to establish their own regional dispatch center in Naples.
Bangor, Brewer, Old Town, Orono
These four municipalities commissioned a report in 1996 regarding the consolidation of fire, emergency and rescue services. Since then, Bangor and Brewer have been working together on several projects. They have been coordinating waterfront development planning so that their development proposals complement each other. They also have undertaken a joint bridge lighting project to share the cost of upgrading lighting on the Chamberlain Bridge. In addition, Bangor and Brewer have undertaken joint purchasing of goods and services.
Arundel, Kennebunk, Kennebunkport
These three communities have begun to examine regional services provisions. The town managers and their department heads met in an all-day session earlier this year to investigate potential areas for cooperation. This investigation is ongoing, but as yet, no specific directions have been agreed upon.
Gray, New Gloucester, North Yarmouth
After approximately 10 meetings, these three municipalities have agreed to explore establishment of a regional police department. All three currently contract with Cumberland County for police patrols by the sheriff’s department. These communities are looking to see whether in combination, they can more cost-effectively provide their own police protection; however, the pace of discussion has slowed as the focus of the discussions has shifted from what service to provide regionally to what governance model to adopt.
Mechanic Falls, Minot, Poland
The selectmen and managers of these three municipalities began early this year to explore areas in which regional cooperation might benefit their residents. The group chose to examine two specific areas to begin their analysis — dispatch and assessing. They established a subcommittee to compare the cost of shared dispatch with the cost of current dispatch arrangements, and concluded that it may be more cost effective for each town to eventually contract with Androscoggin County. In addition, contracting with one dispatcher would allow the three to provide automatic mutual aid and could help accommodate regional police, fire and rescue services in the future if the towns decide to proceed in that direction. They established another subcommittee to compare the cost of shared assessors’ agents with the cost of current assessing arrangements, and concluded that when all of the towns have completed revaluation, it may be cost effective for each town to contract with one assessors’ agent. The towns also agreed to continue to examine other potential opportunities for regional provision of services. MMA Legal Services has assisted in this effort by, on a trial basis, providing facilitation services for these joint meetings.
Local budget pressures are forcing municipal officials to again examine how services can be provided more cost effectively without decreasing existing levels of service. This is causing many municipalities, as described above, to consider whether a regional approach would meet these goals of achieving a greater cost efficiency without degrading levels of service (or by improving service levels). However, it appears from these communities’ efforts that regionalization may work for some services but not for others, and that a careful analysis of the costs and benefits of each service that might be offered regionally is needed before a decision to regionally provide that service can be made. Where the analysis shows that cost savings and/or level of service improvements can be made, municipalities are going forward with regionalization.