Regionalization: The Rhetoric vs. The Reality
by MMA State & Federal Relations Staff
(from Maine Townsman, November 2002)
Local government in Maine – municipal government, school administration, and the utility districts — has recently been characterized by the business community as inherently inefficient. The theory seems to be that because there are so many towns and cities and special service districts, and because many of them serve a relatively small population, they simply must be inefficient. The solution being touted to address this perceived inefficiency is regionalization, or the consolidation of municipal and educational services.
The purpose of this article is to take an objective look at regionalization in Maine giving an historical perspective on the issue, providing some concrete data and examples of collaboration, and attempting to distinguish between the rhetoric and the reality.
There are 492 units of local government in Maine. 22 cities, 435 towns, 32 plantations, and three Indian Nations are classified as units of local government. The unorganized territories of Maine make up the remainder of the state. For (property) taxation purposes these unorganized territories are treated as one unit of government.
There are 285 school administrative units, 261 of which are in the organized areas of the State. Eighty-seven of those school units are multi-municipal school districts, either School Administrative Districts or Community School Districts. 48% of Maine’s school population of 211,000 students is educated in district schools. Of the 174 school administrative units that are not in districts, 47 are in Maine’s cities or towns with individual supervision, and 127 are organized in school unions, where the superintendent’s office is shared among two or more municipal school units.
On the municipal side, if one were to assume that all the towns and cities provide the same services – but scaled proportionately according to the community’s population – then there would be obvious weight to the argument that consolidating municipalities would save money. Municipal services in Maine, however, are neither the same in each municipality nor are they delivered in the same way.
Just as an example, most of the medium-sized to larger communities provide snowplowing services using municipal employees, while in smaller communities this service is almost always contracted out to the private sector. Larger communities typically provide an array of human services, whereas medium-sized and smaller communities provide little, if any, of these types of services beyond General Assistance, relying more heavily on social service agencies and religious organizations to meet some of the human service needs.
A LOOK AT REGIONALIZATION
During the past year, MMA has conducted a couple of projects to supply information to the debate over whether or not Maine’s municipalities or schools need further consolidation.
This month, TOWNSMAN contributing writer Doug Rooks offers the second article of a two-part series on “Police Services In Maine”. In the January and February issues, Rooks authored articles on “Fire Services In Maine”. These articles reviewed the structure and delivery of police and fire services in Maine, with a special focus on historical trends and prospects for further consolidation and collaboration.
Early this fall, MMA’s State & Federal Relations staff prepared a special report, “Efficiencies in Municipal Government”, for the MMA Executive Committee. This report began the process of identifying and quantifying the types of municipal collaboration that currently exist in Maine. A compendium of all the municipal efforts to collaborate around service delivery is an enormous task, and the first draft of this report does not comprehensively detail all the areas where municipalities are collaborating. The report is a good starting point, however, for getting a handle on the extent to which collaboration exists and identifying areas where further cooperation could take place.
Much of the remainder of this article is based on data that was gathered from that report. Four general observations can be made from the report: (1) municipal collaboration is widespread but collaboration is achieved today in many different forms so it is not as visible to the naked eye as it might be; (2) some forms of collaboration are deeply historical or traditional; (3) the private sector plays a significant and important role in the delivery of local government services; and (4) municipalities engage in alliances of several types, both purchasing and service delivery, in an effort to find efficiencies.
THE BIG PICTURE
In order to see the big picture of regionalization, it’s important to have a good understanding of how local government is structured and how it operates.
The fact that municipalities are “creatures of the State” is an important concept to understand. As political subdivisions, municipalities derive all their authority, and a good share of their obligations, from state law. Much of the law that governs municipalities can be found in MRSA, Title 30-A. Since 1969, with the passage of the “Home Rule” constitutional amendment, municipalities are generally authorized to expand their service delivery obligations to meet local needs without specific authority in statute. Under Home Rule municipalities can adopt, amend and revise charters without legislative approval and they can enact ordinances that do not conflict with state or federal law.
The structure of local government is important to understand because many of the services municipalities provide and much of the “how” municipalities provide those services begins in state law. Many municipal positions, for example, are created in state law and the duties of these offices, or positions, is generally specified by state laws. For example, the town clerk, tax collector, treasurer, assessor, general assistance administrator, code enforcement officer, animal control officer, etc. are municipal positions whose core functional responsibilities are guided almost entirely by state statute. The general answer to the question the proponents of regionalism often ask…”Does every town need a such-and-such?” is ‘yes’. At least that’s the starting point of state law. School law is even more demanding. Although no municipality is required by law to employ a manager, every school administrative unit is required as a matter of state law to employ a superintendent who meets certain qualifications.
State Mandated Positions
When MMA staff collected the data on municipal collaborative efforts, it became especially evident that many functions of municipal government are directly required by state government. With respect to the relatively recent mandates, those enacted in the last 30 years or so, municipal practice reveals a pattern of first complying with the state mandate in the most straightforward way and then seeking to implement the collaborative systems to find some savings, provided accountability to the local taxpayers is retained.
As an example, in 1973 the Maine legislature enacted the Mandatory Shoreland Zoning Act, which required municipalities with saltwater frontage, rivers, lakes and streams to have shoreland zoning ordinances. Additionally, the law mandated that municipalities enforce their shoreland zoning ordinance by appointing a code enforcement officer (CEO).
In addition to the mandatory shoreland zoning administration, the CEOs typically enforce municipal land use regulations such as site plan review, subdivision law, zoning ordinances, as well as junkyard ordinances and Maine’s nuisance laws. It is certainly typical for the CEO to wear several enforcement hats in his or her municipality, including building inspector, local plumbing inspector, Planning Board staff, etc. The next step in collaboration is sharing, and a survey of the universe of CEOs in Maine suggests that roughly half of Maine’s municipalities (222) share their CEO or plumbing/building inspectors with one or several other municipalities.
The towns of Perham, Frenchville, Van Buren, Madawaska, Wallagrass, St. Agatha, Grand Isle and Hamlin share one CEO. The CEO works in Van Buren two days a week, Madawaska two days a week and St. Agatha one day a week and serves the other communities as needed. These municipalities do not have an interlocal agreement that pertains to the CEO’s employment. The informal arrangement works because all the town officials involved are well aware of the CEO’s responsibilities and commitments to the other towns and are flexible with their demands on his time.
An example of the way state mandates can complicate the development of collaborative delivery systems could be cited in the area of animal control. A steady stream of additional obligations have been placed on the office of the local animal control officer, dramatically changing the job from that of a dog-catcher a couple of decades ago to a person now who needs to be skilled in court procedures, public health control, and the psychopathology of animal abuse. One of the first unfunded state mandates enacted by the Maine Legislature in 1993, less than a year after a constitutional amendment was adopted by the voters to restrict the practice, was a state law that requires the municipal ACO to investigate all reports of rabies. When the itinerant ACO who is serving multiple communities is unable to keep up with the demands of the office, demands that in this case have been increased by a series of state laws, the multi-municipal approach becomes that much harder to maintain. Still and all, MMA’s surveying shows that 169 municpalities still share their ACO with one or more neighboring towns.
In the same venue, Maine’s animal welfare laws require all municipalities to provide shelter to lost or abandoned animals but the vast majority of Maine’s towns and cities contract with private animal shelters, rather than operating a municipally-owned shelter. The Greater Androscoggin Humane Shelter, for example, provides services for nine municipalities including Lewiston, Auburn, New Gloucester, Minot, Turner, Greene, Leeds, Wayne and Poland. With the exception of Poland, the shelter accepts and holds lost or abandoned animals that are found in the municipality.
THE TRADITIONAL COLLABORATIONS
The two most traditional or historic collaborations are found in the area of fire protection, through mutual aid agreements, and education, through the implementation of regional school systems. Although many voices argue that that there remains a treasure-trove of additional efficiency in a more aggressive consolidation of school systems, it is a valuable exercise to at least recognize the extensive, multi-faceted approach to school system regionalization that has occurred over the last several decades, and what influences drove those changes.
Mutual Aid Agreements
One of the oldest forms of cooperative delivery of services is mutual aid agreement for fire protection services. Historically, mutual aid agreements were a “gentlemen’s handshake,” but throughout the course of time, these agreements have become formalized written contracts.
The core purpose of the agreements are to ensure back-up and collaborative fire protection services across municipal lines when coverage capacity is low or the fire event is particularly serious. The actual written agreements typically cover such communication and liability contingencies as damage sustained to a fire truck while responding to a call in a neighboring town, workers compensation issues, and whether the response will be automatic or only after a request for service.
But the effect of the agreement typically goes far beyond simple emergency response back-up. Mutual aid often bleeds into mutual training and mutual planning as part of a coordinated equipment purchasing system.
If you took a map of Maine and used colored pins to denote every consortium of municipalities involved in a mutual aid agreement, the compendium of data MMA is putting together suggests there would likely be precious few towns untouched on the map, and many municipalities would be stuck like a pin cushion to capture several different agreements they may have entered for fire protection, first response, ambulance services (which are also significantly provided by private carriers), and police protection services. Knox County may get the prize for most comprehensive in this regard with its Knox County Mutual Aid Agreement, which creates a collaborative fire protection system for all 18 towns in Knox County and beyond, into Waldo.
In response to current world events, local fire departments are now being called on to have trained and certified personnel to respond to weapons of mass destruction. Municipal hazardous materials specialists were in high demand during the last year’s anthrax scares. The South Portland Fire Department was called out nearly 20 times to respond to suspected anthrax contamination and the Freeport Fire Department responded to over 50 reports of anthrax. Most departments lack the financial capacity to have teams of personnel who are certified in weapons of mass destruction, creating a new type of “firefighting” service where multi-municipal cooperation is a financial imperative.
Before the homeland security issues raised by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the most sweeping test of Maine’s fire protection system was the ice storm of January, 1998 which paralyzed the bottom two-thirds of the State for days and some areas for weeks. During the darkest days of that event, more than any other single factor, this remarkable network of fire departments throughout Maine, most of them volunteer, very competently protected all the affected communities at a cost pennies-to-the-dollar when considering the value of the services provided.
According to “The Evolution of School Consolidation in Maine,” a report published in 1997 for the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, the State of Maine operated 5,010 public elementary and secondary schools in 1922. In 1996, the report says there were 712 primary and secondary schools in Maine. Six out of seven of the schools that existed in Maine before the Depression no longer exist.
The bulk of school consolidation in Maine occurred during the 1930’s. During this period, financial considerations appear to have been influential to consolidation. The Depression forced many communities to close elementary schools because they could not afford to keep them open and the federal government’s public works program – WPA – allowed for the replacement (and consolidation) of many one room schools. By 1941, the report says the number of schools in Maine had been cut in half from what existed in 1931.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s the focus of school consolidation shifted from elementary and one-room schools to small high schools. The Community School District (CSD) law of 1947 laid the conceptual framework for school districts and the Sinclair Act of 1957 provided the financial incentives for communities to move ahead in the consolidation of schools, particularly the small high schools.
Today, a decline of student population in the State’s services center communities and in many regions outside of southern Maine has reinvigorated discussions about greater school consolidation.
ROLE OF PRIVATE SECTOR
MMA’s study of regionalization confirmed something that people who work in municipal government already know – that the private sector plays a significant role in the provision of municipal services in Maine. The private sector provides municipal services by taking over the responsibilities of individual positions (e.g., plumbing inspector or assessors agent) or by contracting to provide a particular service (e.g., snowplowing or trash disposal).
The Municipal Assessor
The large number of small towns in Maine has created a niche for private assessing services. Municipalities have the option of electing a board of assessors, having a single assessor, or forming an assessing district. Rarely have municipalities created assessing districts. If the municipality does not appoint a single assessor, the board of selectmen will frequently serve as the board of assessors for that town. Larger towns typically have both the resources and the demand for a full-time assessor.
It is the smaller municipalities that have turned to the private sector and hired Certified Maine Assessors (CMAs) as “assessing agents” to assist the boards of assessors in carrying out their responsibilities. In addition to the routine assessing work, sometimes the assessing agent conducts a town revaluation. MMA discovered that one of the larger private assessing agents performs assessing services for over 70 municipalities.
Interlocal agreements for assessors’ agents or single assessors are rare. To the best of our knowledge, the only towns that share an employment contract for an assessor are New Gloucester and Casco. The two towns created an interlocal agreement that split the assessor’s salary, benefits, and training on a 50-50 basis. The assessor is subject to the personnel policies of Casco with respect to vacation and sick time.
Several years ago, New Gloucester had a similar arrangement with the town of Gray, but the agreement had to end when Gray required the services of a full-time assessor. New Gloucester reached out to the neighboring communities and found Casco receptive to the interlocal agreement approach. Similar to the towns that share ACOs and CEOs, flexibility is the key for Casco and New Gloucester in making the shared-assessor arrangement work.
Water & Sewer Services
The federal Clean Water Act in the early 1970’s was the stimulus for the creation of water and sewer districts. During the 1970’s and early 1980’s, the federal government pumped millions of dollars into Maine to help construct wastewater treatment plants and water filtration facilities. Water and sewer operations are capital intensive and the federal government insisted that plants be built large enough to allow for future growth. For the vast majority of Maine communities that provide water and wastewater services, districts were the most viable option from an efficiency point of view.
The private sector has also been actively involved in the provision of water and sewer services. Consumers Maine Water Company (CMWC) currently owns and operates 17 of the 126 water utility systems in Maine while providing various services to additional municipalities.
During the annual meeting of the Maine Water Utilities Association, water district staff from around the state gathered to discuss the potential for consolidation and mutual aid agreements. In a roundtable discussion, participants from the Kennebec Water District, Bangor Water District and Consumers Maine Water Co. remarked that excess capacity and increased federal mandates have encouraged consolidation and regional cooperation in an attempt to lower the cost of delivery.
The broader discussion by the group revealed that informal inter-district cooperation is occurring. Several districts currently share resources and staff. For example, Augusta and Hallowell share an operator for on-call duty on weekend shifts. “Mutual aid” philosophies are even played-out at the water district level. Municipalities experiencing demand for water at different times of year, such as the Kennebunk, Kennebunkport and Wells Water District joined forces with the York District to create “Emergency Mutual Aid” agreements. York connected to the Kennebunk Water District and draws water from their supply during times of need, paying a marginal cost.
Solid Waste Disposal/Recycling
It is within the arena of solid waste disposal that the private sector has greatly expanded its involvement over the past 25 years.
Municipalities may contract with a private company for either the collection or disposal of solid waste, or both. Over 300 municipalities take their solid waste to a private sector disposal site. Casella Waste Systems, one of the country’s largest waste management companies, owns waste-to-energy incinerators in Orrington and Biddeford that handle trash from about 200 municipalities. Another national trash heavyweight, Waste Management Inc. provides disposal capacity for over 100 organized and unorganized municipalities at its landfill in Norridgewock. A few municipalities use privately owned landfills that are located across the border in New Hampshire or in Canada.
Two quasi-municipal solid waste entities, Regional Waste Systems (RWS) in Portland and Mid Maine Waste Action Corporation (MMWAC), serve communities around Portland and Lewiston-Auburn.
Historically, each municipality was equipped with its own “town dump.” In 1989, Maine experienced a shift in the solid waste disposal hierarchy from landfilling solid waste to recycling and incineration, with landfilling as a final option. This shift caused the closure of almost all municipal landfills. There are now only six publicly owned and operated landfills in Maine, and they typically provide yet another form of regional cooperation. The Tri-Community landfill in Fort Fairfield is used by 27 municipalities and 7 unorganized territories. The Hatch Hill landfill in Augusta provides disposal services to eight communities around the Capital City.
Regional transfer stations are everywhere. According to data from the State Planning Office, there are currently 201-licensed transfer stations in the state. Many of these transfer stations accept municipal solid waste from several communities. Because there is a limit on how far people are willing to drive to dispose of their trash and recyclables, the single-town transfer station is also not uncommon.
The State of Maine has a recycling goal of 50%. While recycling is not mandated, most municipalities have established collection programs for designated recyclable goods to help reach the state goal. These programs vary from curbside pickup to providing recycling bins at either the transfer station or a stand-alone recycling facility.
The City of Bangor has a recycling program that serves 38 municipalities. Participating municipalities pay the city a fee for processing the recyclable material. Municipalities that have their own baler pay a fee for the handling and storage of the material while the towns that ship their materials to the city as loose material pay a larger fee.
In an effort to turn the recyclable products back into revenue, Bangor contracts with Maine Resource Recovery Association (MRRA) for marketing strategies. Based on population, MRRA charges a fee that covers the costs of marketing the product and delivering it to a buyer. MRRA charges a handling fee of $4 per ton for recycled materials that it sells.
The Sandy River Recycling Association (SRRA) is a municipal recycling facility that provides recycling services for over 31 municipalities, with a total population of about 26,500. SRRA picks up the recyclables from member-municipalities, sorts and bales the materials, and then sells the recyclables.
The State’s Universal and Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) regulations require municipalities and businesses to properly collect and dispose of mercury-added products and household wastes such as paints and pesticides. The high cost to collect and dispose of these low-volume contaminants has fostered regional collection programs. A “HHW Collection Day” has been used by groups of communities to collect and dispose of HHW and universal waste. In southern Maine, Berwick, North Berwick and South Berwick have sponsored such events, and in central Maine, the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments conducts HHW collection for over 43 municipalities.
JOINT PURCHASING ALLIANCES
Another way to achieve cost savings through cooperation is the development of purchasing alliances, some of which are organized to purchase commodities, and some of which are organized to purchase services. Informal cooperative purchasing alliances have been used for years in Maine. As one of a hundred examples, Bowdoinham, Dresden, Litchfield, and Richmond recently joint-purchased 2,500 tons of road salt. Litchfield estimated a $3.50 per ton savings on its share of the salt (500 tons), saving the town about $1,750 on its purchase.
Many municipalities participate in the joint purchasing alliances more formally through regional planning commissions and councils of government. The Northern Maine Development Corporation (NMDC) offers their 71 member-municipalities joint purchasing services. This year 43 of the 71 towns took advantage of the bulk purchase of road salt. NMDC has also put out bids for culverts, road signs, computers and laptops. Eastern Maine Development Corporation offers similar joint purchasing opportunities, but has extended beyond the typical items such as calcium chloride and road salt and found a demand for police cruisers and fire equipment.
St. Agatha and Frenchville have joined together to jointly purchase public works equipment. The towns have an interlocal agreement that spells out how the equipment will be maintained and what happens if it is damaged. Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor, Southport and Edgecomb have also used joint purchasing to obtain lower bids for public works equipment.
On a statewide level, many municipalities participate in the group, self-insurance programs of Maine Municipal Association. Municipalities have joined together to bulk purchase and tailor their coverage for workers compensation, unemployment compensation, public officials liability, and property and casualty insurances. Additionally, approximately 20,000 municipal employees and their dependents are covered under the Maine Municipal Employees Health Trust. The Legal Services and Personnel Services programs offered to members by MMA could also be viewed as a large, statewide joint purchasing system.
TAX REFORM AND REGIONAL EFFICIENCIES
There is a natural tendency for municipal officials to try to find more cost effective ways to deliver services to their constituents, but the number of local governments in Maine and the creative variety of methods they employ to collaborate in their multi-faceted missions can lead outside observers to speculate that not much is being done, a stubborn parochialism runs rampant, and that significant cost efficiencies can still be obtained.
The municipalities would argue that a constant attention is being paid locally to ways to provide local services at less cost, and they are always open to exploring new ways of doing business.
To that end, when the municipal leaders who developed the tax reform citizen initiative were creating their product last summer, they made sure to squarely address the issue of more effective delivery systems on both the school and municipal level in what has finally become "The School Finance and Tax Reform Act of 2003" (see article on page 5 of this issue).
A critical component of the tax reform proposal is an incentive program set up for municipalities and schools to enable them to break through the barriers that frustrate more efficient ways of delivering services. This incentive system utilizes existing revenues. The “Fund for the Efficient Delivery of Local and Regional Services,” sets aside 2% of municipal revenue sharing dollars and the “Fund for the Efficient Delivery of Educational Services” sets aside 2% of the state’s annual appropriation for K-12 education. Established in parallel, these two funds would provide resources to school units and municipalities outside the established distribution formulas when those schools and towns can demonstrate significant and sustainable savings in the cost of delivering educational and municipal services through changes in governance, administrative structure or adopted policy, joint purchasing alliances, interlocal agreements, and the like.
When it comes to saving money without sacrificing an important service, there are few people more interested than elected local leaders.