County Reform: Municipal managers discuss future of counties

(from Maine Townsman, November 1999)
by Frank O’Hara, Bill Bridgeo and Cornell Knight

"Managers rush in, where fools fear to tread . . ."

This could have been the theme song for the 54th Annual New England Management Institute held at the University of Maine at Orono this past August. The reason was that the Maine Town and City Management Association had reserved one full day of its Institute for a discussion of the future of Maine counties.

The future of Maine counties! Hadn’t MMA and the State Planning Office worked up an elaborate proposal that died without a whimper only last year? Wasn’t that just the latest of a long series of county reforms that ended up in the trash heap? What were those managers thinking?

Well, this is what they – or rather we – were thinking. The fact that a reform loses in the legislative process does not mean that the issue disappears. In this case, the need for county reform remains. Sometimes the best thinking about controversial issues can be accomplished away from the spotlight and glare of the legislative process. In this case, a leisurely summer workshop of the most informed local government observers in the state – Maine’s town and city managers – offered the promise of creative thinking.

Did the session deliver on the promise? We think so. As a group, we began in roughly the same place as the general public. A survey of twenty-two managers prior to the meeting revealed that five (23%) would abolish counties entirely, eight (36%) would restructure and expand counties, seven (32%) would reform the existing operation without expanding it, and two (9%) would leave everything alone. The same kind of division exists in the general public. It explains why 9% view – don’t do anything – has prevailed over the past 25 years.

That’s where we all started. After a day of small groups, speakers, and discussion, here’s the consensus, which the 55 Maine managers in attendance forged:

• Mandated charters. Every county government should have a charter, which clearly lays out roles and responsibilities. The charter should provide for professional administration; for the appointment of officials (such as registrar of deeds) who are now elected; for a finance committee of municipal officials; and for additional commissioners (between 5 and 9). Aroostook County was mentioned as an example of how much improvement a charter can bring.

• Pilot counties. Maine State Government should create a package of financial incentives, which would be offered to one or more counties, which undertake aggressive reform efforts.

• There should be a study of "best practices" among the fifty states with regard to county structures, and among Maine counties with regard to the delivery of specific services. We need a better picture of what counties, at their best, could be.

• The Executive Board of the Maine Town and City Managers Association should approach the Maine County Commissioners Association and begin a dialogue about how to accomplish points 1-3 above.

How did the managers reach such a consensus when they arrived with so many different viewpoints? The answer is that they listened to each other; listened to the guests who spoke to them (Evan Richert of the State Planning Office, Bob Howe of the County Commissioners Association, and Geoffrey Herman of MMA); and were willing to take risks.

It is possible to exaggerate the differences among the managers and the public at large about counties. It is true that there is a difference of opinions about solutions. However, there is practically no disagreement about the problem. Everyone, from abolishers to expanders, agrees on the following two facts.

First, there are many services often delivered by local government, which could more efficiently be delivered at a regional level. These include: radio dispatch, solid waste disposal, economic development, zoning and planning, recreation, adult education, social services, tax assessment, education administration, and the like.

Second, most county governments in Maine lack the administrative capacity and the public confidence to take such regional tasks on. The most frequent expression used by managers to describe the county’s administrative condition is "lack of accountability." Taxes are set by county government but collected by local government. Bureau heads in county government are elected independently, and feel no need to report to or follow the instructions of the county commissioners. Commissioners themselves lack the administrative tools and staff support to monitor, much less oversee, what is going on.

It was this common analysis, which lead the Maine Town and City Managers to, in the end, recommend reform rather than abolition or expansion. Abolition had its appeal. It would require state government to pay for its own responsibilities for corrections and public records. But abolition would reduce regional government capacity at a time when regional needs are growing. Likewise, expansion had its appeal. Experience in one province in Australia, seen first-hand by Bill Bridgeo on an ICMA-sponsored trip, showed that a radical consolidation of local governments and regionalization of service delivery was able to reduce local property taxes by 30% to 40%. Though the managers recognized such potential cost savings, they felt that Maine’s traditions made such a radical approach unlikely to be tried.

Thus reform became the preferred answer. Mandated charters would provide accountability that is now lacking. A pilot county or counties could demonstrate to the rest of the state all of the benefits of regional cooperation. Likewise, a book of best county practices would open people’s eyes about the possibilities for high-performance regional government in Maine.

With this idea in mind, the Maine Town and City Managers voted, at the end of their day-long session, to open up discussions with the Maine County Commissioners Association about how to proceed and initiate reform. A new century is coming. In the view of the Maine Town and City Managers, it’s time for a new local-county relationship in Maine.