A Municipal Response to Regionalization Rhetoric
by Peter A. Nielsen, Wilton Town Manager
(from Maine Townsman, November 2002)
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following article is a letter from Wilton Town Manager Peter Nielsen to MMA Executive Director Chris Lockwood. It is one municipal official's response to the "rhetoric" surrounding municipal regionalization.
It’s time to correct the notion that Maine local governments are inefficient, largely because someone counted how many there are. Too few speakers are standing up for town government, and too much is going unanswered. This letter makes a case for decentralized authority generally, and Maine local government in particular.
One state legislator quoted in the April 2002 TOWNSMAN described municipalities as “fiefdoms,” which suggested an image of outmoded isolation. My experience tells me that municipal government in Maine is a very different thing. Instead of isolationists, we are better characterized as intergovernmental coordinators. The towns I have served have all been joiners, not separatists; usually with the aim of saving money. Towns founded recycling associations, councils of government, and mutual aid agreements in public safety areas. Towns have combined to promote business parks, to purchase electricity, to procure road culverts and road salt. Towns split the costs of essential personnel such as assessors, code enforcement and animal control officers. These employees frequently work without benefits as a result. Towns pool their funds in investment and multiple municipal insurance programs. Towns combine when forced to borrow through the Maine Municipal Bond Bank.
State planners, the governor, and legislators lambaste local government for inefficiency even while local officials provide the manpower to carry out state programs. Local officials administer the General Assistance Program for the Department of Human Services. We partner with the Maine Department of Transportation in road repair and snowplowing. We develop and implement planning and zoning programs under the auspices of state officials. Our code officers enforce environmental laws for the Department of Environmental Protection. We register vehicles for the Department of Motor Vehicles, and we conduct elections for the Secretary of State. All of this work would have to be done by state employees if we were not doing it. All of it is now done under state review. There has been little empirical basis for criticizing the efficiency of local efforts in these areas. To the extent that this work is carried out by volunteer Planning Boards, and election workers earning minimum wage or less, there is little or no cost at all. Many of Maine’s smallest towns function without paid administrators. These towns run on the efforts of poorly paid selectmen devoting huge blocks of time to town affairs. You won’t find a better deal.
Centralization and regionalism are touted as methods to increase governmental efficiency and lower taxes. I submit that much of the low hanging fruit has already been taken from the areas just catalogued. Furthermore, I suggest there are disadvantages to inappropriate regionalizing. Many of the same arguments for consolidating administrative functions were made in the 1960’s when Maine began School Administrative Districts. Many taxpayers have not been pleased with the results. Superintendents became responsible for a much larger scope of work, good ones became more difficult to recruit, even while their salaries were escalated to levels beyond what typical taxpayers could support. Educational costs have risen despite the consolidation, but many parents and taxpayers feel educational decision makers are now remote and unresponsive. Centralized administration produces jargon that voters find unfamiliar: foundation allocations and differentiated curricula are typical terms of art that confuse and frustrate the electorate. Voters express dissatisfaction by turning down administrative line items. Meanwhile, school districts have recreated what the bureaucracy consolidation was supposed to eliminate, with Assistant Superintendents, Business Managers, Curriculum Directors, Transportation Directors, Facilities Managers, and Athletic Directors.
Some people now disparage “local control” as a justification for strong local government. The comment is made that we certainly pay a dear price in lost efficiencies for locally made decisions. My reply is that freedom does come dearly – that’s a message our veterans deliver convincingly and well. But people know the value of a dollar, and we generally spend our own money more carefully than we spend someone else’s. When we compete for someone else’s money in Augusta, the logic changes from prudence to “If we don’t grab it, someone else will get it.” So, I don’t want to minimize local control as a way to economize in government.
Of greater import is the local ability to customize service delivery to the preferences of the community. I’m somewhat familiar with people’s expectations in Clinton, Wayne, and Winthrop, three towns in Kennebec County with very different views on economic development, environmental, and taxation issues. Each town has its own combination of municipal services to reflect its priorities. One size does not fit all. A new fire truck in Wayne is designed so that one firefighter can begin an attack. Larger towns need trucks with different capabilities. In any case, I want my emergency responders coming from town, and not from a regional facility miles away. Regionalized purchasing is not a panacea either. For just one example, my experience with joint road salt purchasing is that towns closest to the product source will always get a better price than towns further away. Group purchasing simply produces an average that’s more costly to half the group than necessary. There is no substitute for good management and careful shopping.
Even more important is the ability to serve our citizens as individuals. As customers, none of us likes to take a number and wait in anonymity as we do at DMV. If I know the local official personally from rubbing shoulders in town, I likely have more confidence my issues will be resolved satisfactorily. Bigger governmental entities will come at the cost of greater anonymity (How many Wal Mart workers do you know by their first names?). Knowing the people we deal with is an important part of maintaining community, and should not be confused with nostalgia. Town government is a vital part of community life in Maine. If economic efficiency is all there is to aspire to, then the same logic applies to the 50 states. Why not fold them all together into a massive national government? If you like that idea, try getting through a federal telephone answering system when you need something. I’d rather go down to the town office.