When Maine entered the Union in 1820 there were 240 incorporated towns in the state. Today there are nearly 500 municipalities in the state.
In general, municipalities in Maine are organized in one of two forms of government: the direct, town meeting form of government where the legislative body of the community is the town meeting, or the representational form of government where the legislative body of the community is the town or city council.
Local government in Maine provides many essential services to every citizen. These services include road construction and maintenance, solid waste disposal, water utilities and waste water treatment, police and fire protection and emergency rescue, land use planning and building inspection, welfare, and public education for grades Kindergarten through 12.
Municipal government in Maine enjoys a special authority called "home rule." This authority is given to the towns and cities of Maine in the state’s Constitution. Under "home rule," municipalities may govern themselves in any way that is not denied them by state or federal law. This authority sets Maine apart from many other states where the authority of municipal government is exactly the reverse. Home rule finds its origin in the state’s reliance on community, an historical tendency to devolve the power of government to its most local level, and a deep respect for the common sense and good judgment of Maine’s citizens.
Local government in Maine is primarily supported by local property taxes. Until the early 1950’s, the property tax was the only major tax in Maine. In 1953, the sales tax on retail transactions was enacted, and in 1969, the state’s personal income tax was adopted. Over the last 30 years, neither the sales nor the income tax has come close to generating the governmental revenues generated by the property tax.
During the decade after the economic recession of the late 1980’s, the state’s over-reliance on the property tax became even more pronounced. In 1997, 44% of the total revenue raised by the state’s three major tax systems was generated by the property tax. The personal and corporate income tax generated 30% of that total, and the sales tax generated 26%. This misalignment of burden among the three major taxes was partially addressed by the Legislature in 1998 with the enactment of the property tax Homestead Exemption.
As its name implies, local government is run by and for its citizens. Whether as a selectmen, councilor, or school board member, people seek to be elected for municipal office out of a sense of civic duty and to make a positive difference for their community. This spirit of community volunteerism also applies to the people who agree to be appointed to the local planning board, appeals board, or the numerous other committees that collaboratively work together to make their local government what it is. From running for elected office to volunteering to assist in the publication of a municipal newsletter, there are numerous opportunities to serve local government.