New Regionalism: Opinions, Issues and Operations

(from Maine Townsman, August 1991)
By Jo Josephson

There's a "new" regionalism sweeping the State of Maine these days, as municipalities struggle to comply with the state's solid waste mandates and goals.

Under the hammer of the Department of Environmental Protection (read landfill closures), the carrot of the Maine Solid Waste Management Law (read recycling goals and recycling grant preference for regional associations) and the demands of the private sector (read increased tipping fees), municipalities are, for the most part, abandoning (or putting on hold) their historic antipathy toward regionalism and joining forces with their near and not so near neighbors at an unprecedented rate.

In doing so they are going far beyond the interlocal agreements of the past where one fire department shook hands with a neighboring department and promised to come "to its aid." Municipalities are not only signing contracts and interlocal agreements with each other, they are also forming and joining solid waste corporations and refuse disposal districts, complete with by-laws and wide-ranging powers.

Some of the associations they enter into agreement with are single purpose, cooperating in recycling or jointly owning and operating a transfer station or landfill or incinerator. Some are multipurpose. This has resulted in municipalities joining more than one in order to meet all of their needs, or pulling out to form new broader based alliances.

Some of the associations have few members, others many. The formulas they have derived for equality are simple, and complex. But not all members are equal or want to be.

To say that there is no neat package, no neat definition of the "new" regionalism in solid waste here in Maine, other than to call it the "new regionalism," is an understatement.

It is also by design and it is still evolving.

If you doubt it, check Maine's now not-so-new solid waste management law. It contains very few references to regional associations, points out David Blocher of the Maine Waste Management Agency.

"It was a conscious decision, in keeping with Maine's tradition of home rule. Rather than mandate regionalism, we are promoting it with financial incentives--casting our bread (or carrots) upon the waters, so to speak giving preference to regional associations for recycling grants and seeing who bites," says Blocher, who administers the agency's recycling grants program.

Don Meagher of the Penobscot Valley Regional Refuse District was one of those who argued against original proposals to carve the state up into six solid waste regions when the Maine solid waste management law was being hammered out. "It would have been an artificial exercise that threw some communities together that shouldn't be and separated some that should have been together," Meagher told a gathering of the Maine Bar Association last year.

Arguing against what is referred to as the "top down" style of regionalism that is occurring in a number of states, Meagher made a case for the "bottom up--born of necessity--breed of regionalism. As he saw it given Maine's traditional distrust of big government, regionalism would be much more successful in Maine if it developed from "choice rather than by mandate."

Left to their own devices to chart their own course, municipalities are creating and joining a wide variety of associations. The direction has not always been clear nor the road smooth.

This article looks at some of the issues they are currently confronting; it also looks at the operations of some of the more "veteran" associations to glean some understanding of the subtle and not so subtle reasons for their success.

Opinions/Issues

To Join or Not?

There are those who are totally sold on the new regionalism, saying it is cost effective. There are those who remain skeptical saying it is not cost effective and even if it is, you have to give up too much control (it's hard enough controlling the school districts they argue). There are those who say its worth the loss of control if you have no other options.

It all depends on where you sit. If you have a viable landfill, one not slated for closure, you can afford to go it alone. If you have a good tax base, a major industry or a high summer population that contributes to your tax base you can also afford to go it alone and control the show if and when others seek to join you.

But if you have a limited tax base and face imminent closure of your landfill, like many Maine communities, your choice has been made for you. It's then just a matter of doing your homework and creating or shopping around for the best existing deal to suit your needs.

The Town of Belgrade is a current example of the dilemma. Faced with the closure of their landfill next year, it has at least three options, according to Town Manager Scott Cole: (1) go it alone and build their own transfer station; (2) build their own and contract with neighbors Rome, Mercer and New Sharon to their northwest; or (3) join with neighboring Oakland in its plans to build a transfer station with Sidney and Fairfield.

"Oakland will build with or without us. And we can also go it alone; we've done decent cost projections," says Cole. Until a straw vote taken at a recent public hearing indicated that the residents were interested in exploring some kind of association with Oakland, Sidney and Fairfield, officials in Belgrade were looking into going it alone.

Prior to the straw vote, Cole had pointed out to the TOWNSMAN that joining Oakland meant a loss of control (among other things, Oakland would have an additional vote because it was the host town), loss of convenience (given the abundance of lakes in town, the road system is anything but direct; at least a third of Belgrade's residents would have to drive 15 miles to the Oakland site), and there would be no significant savings (Cole argues that capital and operating expenses are not where the major costs are, transportation and tipping are).

There was good reason to be skeptical of a joint solution based on their experience with their school district. Of the three (Belgrade, Oakland and Sidney), Belgrade, which has a lot of shorefront property, has the highest state valuation at $192,750,000 and pays 42 percent of the school bill. However, it only has three seats on the school board. Neighboring Oakland pays 37 percent with a state valuation of $169,150,000 but has seven seats on the board because of its population. Sidney also has three seats but only pays 21 percent of the budget with a $95,100,000 state valuation.

So why did the straw vote indicate the residents were willing to go along with the regional approach? News reports of the hearing indicated that money appeared to be a major factor: a tax rate that jumped 33 percent this year was cited; a reliance on user fees and not taxes was proposed. The "Not In My Backyard" syndrome could have been another factor as there were reports of a opposition to some of the potential sites for the transfer station should Belgrade build its own.

Since the straw vote, Cole has had one meeting with the other three towns. He is frustrated with the lack of hard data. "One of the major obstacles is getting good information to make a decision," says Cole who has offered some of the $20,000 the town set aside for its landfill closure costs to obtain that data. "You've got to get hard data to arrive at a starting point, right now it's like we are all circling the gym floor and no one is dancing," says Cole.

How To Go About It

While Belgrade is just beginning it journey towards a regional approach to solid waste disposal, six towns in Washington County have just formed the Washington County Solid Waste Disposal District. Approval of the district's charter by the Maine Waste Management Agency was granted on July 29.

The six towns Cherryfield, Cutler, Eastport, Baileyville, Princeton and Whiting representing a cross section of the county, organized the district on behalf of the whole county, according to Jerry Storey, former town manager of Princeton and the new manager in Milbridge. Storey expects all 27 municipalities in the county to join eventually.

While they have formed the district, the group has yet to determine what direction it wants to go in, purposely. Had they done so prematurely, Storey says there might have been too many excuses for not joining like saying it cost too much money or the site was unacceptable. "We didn't want to give them excuses for not joining," explains Storey.

Rather the group worked on identifying their immediate problem (closure of their landfills) and how joining the district could help them (buy time and space from DEP and have an answer for their taxpayers when asked: What are you doing,) The time and space was critical; they needed it to determine just what they would do. They also agreed that no one municipality could do alone what the group could do together.

Storey, who has considerable experience in group dynamics having served once as head of interagency communication for the Tennessee Valley Authority is high on process, saying if you pay attention to it, trust and the appropriate solution will result.

He warns those getting involved in a regional venture not to be sidetracked by the definition of the "thing" they are creating. The "thing" is merely the "tool" for accomplishing what they want to accomplish, he says. Success tends to occur where the group first defines what they want and then seeks the appropriate tool to bring it about.

How Not to Go About It

What happens when you try to force it? When you try to bring groups with a sometime shaky political past together and the timing is bad and their goals are different? When you try to "top down" or mandate the regionalism, rather than let it come about by choice from the bottom up?

It happened earlier this year in Franklin County when the Maine Waste Management Agency tried to arrange a shotgun wedding between the town of Jay and the rest of Franklin County, when it tried to get them to sit down together to apply for a joint recycling grant.

Despite a $300,000 carrot, local attempt at mediation between the two groups in a last ditch "trash summit" in Augusta between the two parties, the joint application grant, and facility never came into being.

"It was a matter of timing and politics says Wilton Town Manager Richard Davis who points out that Jay had begun work on a transfer station and recycling center long before the county association got starter long before the grant process was created.

"They were building a much more expensive facility than the rest of the county could afford. It made sense for them because they have a broader tax base," says Davis. Compared to the rest of the county, Jay is wealthy, with a state valuation in 1991 of almost $600 million, with the mill paying more than 80 percent of its taxes; and with Jay in turn paying approximately 50 percent of the county's taxes.

"There was a difference of philosophy on what we were building," says Charles Noonan, Jay's town manager. "Some say we were buying a Cadillac and they wanted an inexpensive Chevrolet. Jay was building for Jay; it was to be an asset to the town it was to last for 20 to 30 years," says Noonan.

There was also a difference of philosophy about ownership. The Association was heading toward an interlocal agreement and a publicly-owned corporation; Jay was looking at a contract arrangement where it would have the final word.

Then there was the politics of big-town small-town that was a side issue, says Davis "There were those who said, if it's going to be in Jay, we don't want anything to do with it." But both he and Noonan note that there were those who did want to go along with Jay and that the idea wasn't necessarily doomed from the start.

Meanwhile, Noonan notes that perhaps the future of cooperation lies to the south with neighboring towns in Androscoggin and Kennebec, where he already has contracts with the towns of Livermore and Fayette. As to his neighbors to the north, he says he still sees room for cooperation in joint marketing.

Accountability/Efficiency

If you do go regional in your approach, there are several options, as Geoff Herman's article in this issue indicates. One of those options is to form a new unit of government, a refuse disposal district arising from enabling legislation in the mid 80's, there are currently four in Maine: Boothbay Region Refuse Disposal District, Washington County Solid Waste Disposal District, Southern Aroostook Refuse Disposal District, and the Penobscot Valley Refuse Disposal District.

Not everyone agrees they are the way to go, including John Nickerson, a political scientist at the University of Maine, Augusta who has been following local and state government trends in Maine for a number of years.

Calling the newly created single purpose government refuse disposal districts in Maine the "height of folly," Nickerson argues that "we have already fractured government too much."

Nickerson says he is suspicious of single purpose governments (read districts). He claims they are hard to access; that they are unresponsive; and because of their zeal do not know how to stop spending money. He argues they are not subjected to the checks and balances built into general purpose government.

"If we are to emphasize regional concerns, we should strengthen existing general purpose government, like county or state government", says Nickerson, and not create yet another unit of government.

While he acknowledges a place for special purpose districts, Nickerson says they are limited to areas that deal with environmental issues, like air and water, that do not fit within the boundaries of existing general purpose governments.

Alex Dmitrieff who oversees the operation of the Boothbay Region Refuse Disposal District, which broke away from the Lincoln County Recycling program, is a strong advocate of the refuse disposal district.

He defends the district, saying "it doesn't get involved in municipal morass of interlocal agreements, where everybody has to vote. When decision time comes, it's boom . . . we have the advantage of manageability and simplicity of decision making. We have six people whose one public service function is solid waste, unlike selectmen who are torn . . . This is our one focus, our one business," says Dmitrieff.

To emphasize his point he notes that BRRDD was the first association to be awarded a recycling grant. "A general purpose government doesn't have the time to investigate the rapidly changing development that characterizes the held," he says.

Future of Regional Efforts

Penobscot Valley Refuse Disposal District's Don Meagher says that when it comes to solid waste, he believes regional efforts will eventually, inevitably be eclipsed by the state in developing new solid waste disposal facilities because of the cost, complexity and antagonism associated with it.

"In the 1980's Maine Municipalities carried the torch of responsible solid waste management largely through the economies of scale of regional associations. They have run the triathlon, if you will, of closing landfills, building waste incinerators, and establishing transfer stations. In the 1990's the torch will be passed, to some extent, to state government," Meagher told the Maine Bar Association last year.

"Solid waste management is becoming so complex, so expensive and so time consuming and so antagonistic that it is fast outstripping the abilities of even large and mature regional associations," he says. As such, when the solid waste management law was being crafted he advocated the creation of the Maine Waste Management Agency for siting new landfills to meet present and future capacity needs.

Despite the importance of the state's role, Meagher continues to believe that the regional associations have a valuable role to play:

Operations

The remainder of this article looks at the operation of a few "veteran" groupings, focusing on what brought them together, what keeps them together. It looks at what Eric Root of Regional Waste Systems calls a "community of interest," the common need or goal, that is reinforced by historical linkages, proximity, geography, that brings them together. It also looks at the arrangements they have created to keep them together.

Disposal Districts

Boothbay Region Refuse Disposal District. Geographically it's neat. It's a nice neat manageable entity, says Alex Dmitrieff describing the peninsula-bound district that contains the four members (Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor, Edgecomb and Southport) that comprise the Boothbay Region Refuse Disposal District. All formerly members of the Lincoln County Recycling Program, three (Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor and Southport) were faced with the closure of their landfill in 1986. According to DEP we were the fourth nastiest landfill in the state," says Dmitrieff. He admits that the four towns were not always congenial. "But it (the District) was an easy sell because of the state leaning on them," he says.

The District provides its members with a transfer station, a full recycling menu, and a compost and chipping operation. Voting power in the district is determined by population. The two largest towns, Boothbay and Boothbay Harbor, each are represented by two directors; Southport and Edgecomb have one director each. Each director has one vote.

The current cost to the four towns in the district is $700,000. Each town's assessment, paid four times a year, is based on a "sharing formula" that factors actual tonnage of waste generated by three segments of the population: year round residents, summer residents and a third category that includes waste generated by transients (restaurants and motels). Under this formula, Boothbay currently pays 33.9 percent; Boothbay Harbor, 39.7 percent; Edgecomb, 10.4 percent and Southport, 16 percent. The formula can be easily adjusted each year as accurate data is recorded and the complexion of the towns change (population, business base, etc.).

The district rejected user fees because among other things they were too costly to implement and administer, they also rejected cost-sharing formulas used elsewhere that were derived by averaging population and valuation percentages because they did not properly account for the high percentage of hotel/restaurant derived trash during the summer months, principally from Boothbay Harbor.

Dmitrieff says there is a real danger in becoming complacent about communicating with your member municipalities once you become a district. "We are the town's business; they are paying us; therefore, we have got to keep in touch," he says. Dmitrieff says he works hard to keep the lines of communication open; board meetings are open to the public; he tries to make sure there is an item in the local newspaper every week. And to make sure the citizens take an active role, there is a citizen's recycling advisory committee.

Penobscot Valley Refuse Disposal

District. members of the Penobscot Valley Refuse Disposal District spill over into four counties: Penobscot, Waldo, Hancock, and Piscataquis. With many hugging the banks of the Penobscot River in its run to the sea, they are part of what is generally called "Central Maine" or the Greater Bangor Area." Until recently, all sent their trash to PERC, with the District serving as the administrator of their PERC contracts.

When it was established in 1986, the four core members were Bangor, Brewer, Old Town and Bucksport. Having abandoned their original idea to own and operate their own regional incinerator (the private sector stepped in and did that), they focused their attention on establishing a "strong administrative entity," says administrator Don Meagher.

Meagher says they were able to overcome the fears and suspicion of the district as being "yet another level of government" by narrowly focusing the district's authority. "It was to be a vehicle for making decisions, mainly, to act as an administrative agent for its members' contract with the privately owned PERC," he explains. It was also to serve as a liaison between the member communities and the regulatory agencies. Back in 1988, for a short time, it wore the hat of lobbying when the Maine Solid Waste Management Act was being born.

Meagher says that whenever the idea of getting into recycling and transportation has been broached, the directors have strongly opposed the idea, saying they are the exclusive domain of the municipalities. And while the district is currently in the process of developing two demolition debris landfills for its membership, it will merely own but not operate them. We will let the private sector take care of that, says Meagher.

The narrow focus has worked well, says Meagher. "What we do, we do quite well, we don't get dispersed all over the place."

With a current budget of $140,000, the district now assesses it members at a rate of $2 per ton of guaranteed waste that it sends to PERC. This is separate from the tipping fee each pays to PERC.

The 33 members are allotted two directors and two alternates each on the board of directors. However those directors have weighted votes, so that the four largest communities which represent 85 percent of the tonnage sent to PERC have less than half the votes. Weighted votes aside, Meagher says there was only one instance to date in which they actually had to count votes. "It surprises me how well people are able to reach consensus," he says.

The first major departure from that consensus occurred recently when four members refused to sign the new contract for higher tipping fees with PERC. "Everyone was free to do what they wished, each side respected the others decision, but it is our first major departure," says Meagher. He credits the years of consensus in keeping the organization together, but says at some point the district could diverge, as the basis for membership is the contracts with PERC.

Contracted Host

Lincoln County. The Lincoln County Recycling Program, founded by the Lincoln County Commissioners, is now in its 13th year of operation and claims to be the oldest county-owned and operated recycling program in New England. But recently it has begun to overspill its borders and contract with municipalities in neighboring counties. So it wears two hats: one as a county program, the other as a contract host to non-county entities.

Funded through the county taxes at approximately $1.80 per capita, it taxes all communities in the county, whether or not they are served by the program. That same per capita cost is used in its contracts.

Four communities Boothbay, Boothbay Harbor, Edgecomb and Southport broke away in 1988 to form their own multi-purpose refuse disposal district, when their landfills were shut down. And just last month Wiscasset, the largest, wealthiest member reportedly completed a $1.6 million transfer and recycling station to replace its recently closed landfill.

But as county municipalities have left to construct more comprehensive facilities, those in the adjacent counties of Knox, Kennebec and Sagadahoc have sought to join by signing contracts.

"They were interested in coming into a program that was already up and running and had a track record of success, rather than start their own," says Director Gerald R. Silva, who is credited for getting the program back on the fast track after years of no growth.

Silva, who serves as the liaison between an advisory board made up of representatives from each community and the commissioners, admits that his county-run program is unique in Maine. County government in New England does not have the history that it does in the south or the west, he says.

Presque Isle. There are no formal written agreements between Presque Isle and the six communities that utilize its landfill and recycling facilities, says Dana Fowler, of the Presque Isle Department of Solid Waste.

When seven Aroostook County towns Presque Isle, Mapleton, Chapman, Castle Hill, Washburn, Wade and Perham got together to replace the 60-year-old dump they had been sharing, the plan had been that all were going to be part owners.

"But there was too much foot dragging so Presque Isle decided to build and own it and let the others use; it is billing them on the basis of their population," says Fowler. On that basis Presque Isle contributes to two-thirds of the budget.

Aside from sharing the old dump, there were other factors that joined them. Located within close proximity to each other, Perham is the farthest at 20 miles, several of the towns were also members of School Administrative District 1. It also helped that one manager, Duncan Beaton, served three towns.

While noting that the arrangement works well for Presque Isle, when you own it you have instant decision making, Fowler confesses that the other side of the coin is the criticism that the other towns have "no say." He says he works hard to keep communication open and to consult the other towns' managers on "the big issues." As to what keeps them together and happy, Fowler points to the economic benefits. "At the time we built the secure landfill in 1982, it was expensive; today it is much more expensive."

While saying that "regionalism works well up here because the populations are so sparse," Fowler admits that it didn't work when the MWMA tried to get a regional recycling program going in central Aroostook County between two existing regional groups that were being served by interlocal agreements: the seven-town operation in Presque Isle and the twelve town operation known as the Tri Community Recycling and Landfill in nearby Fort Fairfield.

Despite a $114,000 carrot, TRC voted 4-3 not to join with Presque Isle in a recycling grant indicating that there is more to cooperation than common need, geographic proximity; that the flip side of geographic proximity can be rivalry and competitiveness that no amount of money can override.

Interlocal Agreement

Camden/Lincolnville/Hope/Rockport Solid Waste Facility. The geographic ties that bind here are several including the fact that they border each other even though they are located in two counties; three are in Knox County one is in Waldo. Megunticook Lake is located in Camden and Linconville, with a small portion in Hope.

There is also a history of cooperative ventures, says Don Willard of Rockport, who as the town manager in Rockport serves on the four member executive committee. Among other things they are all connected by School Administrative District 28; two are regular members; the other two pay tuition to the school district. Then there is the interlocal agreements between Rockport and Camden for sewage treatment.

While acknowledging instances of rivalry between the four towns saying that every community wants its own facility Willard says they overcame the differences by coming up with an "equitable formula and fair representation."

The equitable sharing formula is derived by averaging population and state valuation percentages to come up with an overall sharing percentage of cost. As such, the four towns currently are assessed as follows: Camden 47.4 percent, Rockport 30.1 percent, Lincoln 14.9 percent, and Hope 7.6 percent.

The responsibilities for the operation of the transfer station-recycling center are divided among the three larger towns. The Rockport town manager serves as the solid waste agent and has overall responsibility for the facility including personnel administration. The Camden town manager serves as finance officer and is responsible for day-to-day financial management as well as budgeting. The town administrator of Lincolnville is responsible for all recycling and solid waste management activities.

An executive committee of the three managers and the chairman of the Hope Board of Selectmen meet regularly to discuss operation, financial and policy development issues. The 18 selectmen who represent the four member towns meet periodically to vote on major policy issues and financial decisions.

NARIF. As Fort Kent Town Manager Alain Ouellette sees it, the Northern Aroostook Regional Incinerator Facility which serves the communities of Frenchville, Madawaska and Fort Kent, is bound together by the common geographical and cultural ties of the St. John Valley and a common problem: the closing of their landfills back in 1981. Their bonds were strengthened recently when the incinerator they built to replace the landfills came under attack from the Environmental Protection Agency and they had to come up with an alternative.

While control in the hands of the three towns, six other towns including Eagle Lake, Wallagrass, New Canada, Clayton Lake, Portage and St. Agatha are served by a contract which carries no voting rights. Currently the group is investigating becoming a corporation with voting rights for other towns, as it purchases Maine's first Lundell Recycling System to replace its incinerator.

But for now, each of the three towns is represented on the board by a manager and a councilor/selectman. Ouellette sees that as the key element to the group's success; "its continuity with other town functions." With echoes of Nickerson's bias toward general purpose governments conducting regional enterprises, Ouellette says: "We don't and can't make decisions in a vacuum." He also attributes its success to what he calls "continuity of membership," noting that several of the key officials have served for many years. And finally, he credits the importance of a sense of humor and the value of "going out for a beer together after the meeting."