Local Road Maintenance: Working Together
(from Maine Townsman, April 2003)
by Mike Laberge, Freelance Writer
 

       On a Sunday morning in January, two public works directors bumped into each other at a Wal-Mart in Presque Isle and began talking shop. Wouldn’t it be nice, they agreed, to meet regularly to share ideas.

       Dave Sokolich, public works director for Aroostook County, liked the thought of regional cooperation and began mulling it over after he left the store. The concept appealed to him so much, in fact, that he mentioned it while meeting with four colleagues later that week. They, in turn, sent letters to road commissioners and public works directors throughout The County, seeking to gauge the level of support for a regional group. The mailing drew such a favorable response that leaders set up an initial meeting April 9 that exceeded expectations, attracting representatives from 21 communities.

       The group, named Aroostook County Public Works Directors, chose Sokolich as chairman and formed a committee to draft bylaws. Supporters hope the new association will strengthen the region through joint training sessions, equipment-sharing agreements and a broader system of cooperative purchasing. “I see only good things coming out of this,” Sokolich said.

       The case reflects the nature of regionalism in Maine perhaps as well as any: Regional cooperation is more likely to grow from chance encounters in store aisles than formal, concerted efforts. Facing similar issues, road commissioners and public works directors are talking as much as ever, leading to greater regional cooperation. From Portland to Presque Isle, they share a need to create efficiencies and reduce expenses to keep property taxes in check.

       A two-part series that began in the March issue of the TOWNSMAN examines Maine’s municipal road maintenance structure. Part 1 reviewed how communities currently handle road maintenance. This month’s issue explores the growing trend of regionalism in greater detail, with an eye toward highlighting not only success stories, but also lessons learned.

       Regionalism in public works is nothing new, but it has been limited largely to cooperative purchasing. The Greater Portland Council of Governments runs one of the oldest such programs in Maine. In 1969, shortly after the organization was formed, five bedroom communities of Portland pooled their buying power and to purchase items such as road salt and diesel fuel. “It kept with the theme of why the COG was formed,” said Carol MacKenzie, director of the organization’s Joint Services Division.

       Like most regional planning organizations, the COG has a core membership of 22 municipalities, most in Cumberland County. In the interest of regional cooperation, the agency has opened the purchasing program to communities in York County. The COG now coordinates 15 bids each year on a variety of items, including tires, fuel, road striping and office supplies. Road salt remains the program’s most popular commodity, drawing 57 communities and five to six bidders. Acting alone, municipalities would pay at least $42 per ton. Together, they can buy salt for less than $30 per ton. “It’s very, very beneficial to the towns,” MacKenzie said. “Having a good, solid cooperative purchasing program in place drives the pricing.” 

       Participants say the discounts obtained through the program help to stretch their annual budgets. “There’s strength in numbers,” said Bob Malley, public works director in Cape Elizabeth. “You’re going to get a better deal if you purchase 100,000 gallons than if you purchase 5,000 gallons. It’s just simple mathematics.”

       Farther north, communities in central Maine also save money through cooperative purchasing. Five years ago, a few public works directors and road commissioners around Waterville and Skowhegan jointly purchased engineering services for related projects. As in other places, the venture grew from an informal meeting. “My initial thought was just to share information,” said Greg Dore, road commissioner in Skowhegan for 11 years. “The thought was, `I’m paying the same guy you are. Why don’t we put it together?’ It worked so well with the engineering firm that now we’re looking at other things.”

       Road commissioners and public works directors from 13 communities now meet regularly to discuss issues and share ideas. They currently are developing cooperative-purchase programs for other services, including road paving. “It saves the little towns big bucks,” Dore said.

       Communities in the region can save money by working with the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments, based in Fairfield. For about a decade, the organization has offered bulk-purchasing programs to member communities in three counties — Kennebec, Somerset and part of Waldo. Participation varies, depending on the item. The most popular goods are calcium chloride, road salt, weight-limit signs and culverts. Roughly one-third to one-half of the organization’s member municipalities participate, depending on the item. “It works when there is a sufficient quantity of towns,” said Sarah Flaks, an environmental planner with KVCOG. “The larger the quantity we can bring to [a bidder], the larger the savings for the towns.”

       Flaks, who has coordinated the regional purchasing program for five years, has faced some of the challenges inherent in such large-scale operations. Although communities enjoy the discounts, they often want items delivered on their terms and not necessarily those of the contractor. Flexibility, however, is vital to cooperative ventures. “There’s a desire to explore” regional purchasing, Flaks said. “But there’s reluctance to give up some of the autonomy that comes with making your own decisions.”

       Regionalism requires, most of all, trust among participants. Flaks cited cases where communities pledged to join the program, then worked independently to seek a better price. “They try to play both sides of the fence,” she said. When communities back out, such action undermines the process. “The manufacturers get angry,” Flaks said, adding that KVCOG is considering adopting penalties for early withdrawal from the process.

       Still, Flaks said the program works well, overall, and she is working to raise participation. “The program really benefits the smaller, more isolated towns,” she said.

       Pat Gilbert, public works director in Gardiner, agrees that regionalism can work. But he, too, said it would need awhile to take root. Communities traditionally have been reluctant to relinquish control over projects and purchases. Municipalities that are considering making agreements with neighbors would do well to begin slowly — by sharing a smaller piece of equipment, assessing how the arrangement works, and moving on from there.

       “There are still a lot of turf issues,” Gilbert said. “It’s going to be building in-roads, building relationships, and slowly looking at what you’re doing within your town.” Still, he’s optimistic. “I think it’s absolutely do-able, in a lot of cases.”

       Increasing numbers of municipalities seem to share that view. As Gov. John Baldacci urges communities to expore opportunities for regional cooperation, public works directors and road commissioners around the state have begun doing just that.

       In February, councilors in the riverside city of Hallowell sent selectmen in nearby Farmingdale a letter seeking greater cooperation in public works projects. Hallowell Mayor Barry Timson said both communities run fairly small highway departments, and he thought it might make sense for them to share some capital expenses. Although Farmingdale selectmen have yet to respond to the overture, Timson said one of the town’s three selectmen has indicated privately that the issue is worth discussing, making him optimistic that something will be done.

       Timson has seen regional cooperation work. Last year, the city purchased heating oil jointly with School Administrative District 16, which serves Hallowell and Farmingdale. Both organizations received a far better price than they would have alone. That is why the mayor wants to explore other cost-saving measures with Farmingdale.

       “We want to save money, over the long run,” Timson said. “Both communities can save money on equipment purchases. We may only need one front-end loader for both towns.”

       Other officials warn that communities must be cautious, because regionalism tends to work best with non-seasonal items. Sharing some pieces of equipment isn’t practical. Consider, for example, street sweepers.

       “Street sweepers can’t sweep the streets of Yarmouth in May and Cumberland in August,” said Tony Hayes, public works director in Falmouth for 17 years. “Those citizens demand that their streets be swept before Memorial Day.”

       Still, Falmouth and some of Portland’s other northern suburbs have been working well together for some time, maintaining an informal cost-sharing arrangement. Jim Plummer, public works director in Freeport, said several towns routinely sponsor joint training sessions and other classes, spreading out the costs. They also share smaller pieces of equipment, such as shoulder boxes, that don’t require much upkeep. “We communicate well,” Plummer said.

       The communities, however, have stayed away from the shared use or purchase of larger machines, such as front-end loaders and road graders. For one thing, there is the matter of apportioning the cost. For another, there is the maintenance: How do you cover the upkeep, and who pays if a machine breaks down?

       Public works directors in Aroostook County must confront similar issues as they head into the new regional organization. Jay Kamm, director of regional planning for the Northern Maine Development Commission, said the turnout at the initial meeting told him the desire for regional cooperation is there. “What impressed me was there was representation from all over Aroostook County,” he said.

       Kamm said regionalism in the state’s largest county is vital. Regional agreements already exist for ambulance services, municipal management, solid waste and code enforcement. A regional public works organization would strengthen ties among communities. Regionalism “is the mother of necessity,” Kamm said. “You have a small population and a large geographic area.”

       The Caribou-based NMDC has offered cooperative purchasing for 12 years, allowing members to obtain lower prices on road salt, signs and culverts, among other things. In addition, some communities share smaller pieces of equipment, like their counterparts in southern Maine. The new Aroostook County Public Works Directors organization will build on previous successes.

       “It only makes sense because it comes from the ground up,” Kamm said. “To me, it makes good business sense. It cuts everybody’s costs — or at least keeps them in check.”

       At the very least, Kamm said, the new organization will save money on training. Rather than having to head to Bangor for conferences and workshops, municipal officials could organize regional events in The County. In addition, Kamm sees the organization giving Aroostook County a greater presence at statewide events through representatives sent to look out for the region. “Hopefully, they can go down and be a voice for Aroostook County and bring back information,” he said.

       Kamm, however, envisions the organization having an even larger impact. He believes that the arrangement will lead to regional grant applications, reciprocal agreements for certain pieces of equipment and, in time, cooperative purchasing. “Three municipalities right now are looking to purchase very similar types of equipment,” Kamm said. “What they said was, `We can develop [specifications] together, rather than seeing three different bids going out.’ ”

       More importantly, such cooperative ventures could save money by eliminating duplication or avoiding it altogether. “If Presque Isle has something, does Westfield really need to go out and buy the same thing?” Kamm said. “It strengthens what we have. It will identify additional opportunities for us.”

       Still, Kamm realizes the group will have to guard against turf battles. The key lies in talking frequently, sharing information and being honest. “It’s the us-versus-them that we need to be careful of,” he said. “I think there’s always the pitfall of the smaller towns feeling like they’re at the mercy of the larger ones.”

       Sokolich, the group’s chairman, is convinced the organization can avoid such pitfalls by building upon existing relationships. As Aroostook County’s public works director, he oversees about 40 miles of roadways in 108 unorganized townships. He stays in touch with colleagues during his travels, often stopping in at local highway garages to talk shop.

            That is how the public works association began, in the first place. Sokolich saw Gerry James, public works director for Presque Isle, at a Wal-Mart one weekend. James mentioned a conversation he’d had with a colleague a few days earlier, discussing the need for a regional group. Sokolich liked the idea and ran with it. “It seemed like a no-brainer, to me,” he said.  “ . . . The timing of this couldn’t have been better.”