The Metropolitan Forum Project Reviving Citizen Civic Engagement

"Collaborate Or Collapse" -- Tough New England Message

April 19, 2005

By Neal Peirce

AUGUSTA, Maine -- Call it, if you will, the American way: thousands of tiny little governments, each with its own council, each in command of its own tax collector, police and fire chiefs, emergency call center, road crews, park and library staffs -- and more.

In a simpler age, amateur local government worked well enough. Neighbors helped neighbors, services were personal and often volunteer-manned, and the costs weren't high.

Even today, many people leave urban areas in search of small towns where they expect the old, informal culture -- and low costs.

But the system has veered off the tracks, with escalating costs and rising frustrations. And what's the top culprit? Sprawl, says Angus King, Maine's immediate past governor. King's planning director, Evan Richert, found that when a small town in the path of suburbanization passes the 3,500-person mark, citizens start demanding a town manager, more police and professionalized services -- and budgets start to soar.

Though they've added jobs since 1980, Maine's cities and regional centers have simultaneously lost residents to outlying towns within commuting reach. Smaller town populations -- and duplicated government services -- have risen fast. King's economic development director drew a 20-mile circle around Augusta and found 91 fire trucks serving 95,000 people. Not one of the monster trucks -- priced from $100,000-$500,000 and up -- was jointly owned.

Hit by rising costs, the towns end up competing furiously for property taxes and development. And with suburban spread, Maine has spent close to $750 million on new schools since 1980, even though the state's total student enrollment has actually declined.

"We pay due respect to local control but it comes at a high cost," says King. "We have 205,000 school kids in 186 school districts, each with its own superintendent, curriculum, purchasing office -- about one superintendent for each 1,200 kids."

Result: the competing values of fiercely guarded home rule and Yankee love of frugal government are rubbing together like tectonic plates -- in "full collision," says John Baldacci, Maine's present governor. A spirited tax revolt is underway and the state has started to impose caps on local spending -- which it subsidizes through a major share of the state sales tax.

But Maine is now going a step further with a "regionalization" program of cash incentives for localities that agree to curb local tax rates through systems of shared services between towns or school districts.

Maine's current high government costs just can't be sustained, says Charles Colgan, an economist at the University of Southern Maine: "It's going to be collaborate or collapse."

Indeed, the test may be whether the small 18th-century town government form so popular in New England and other parts of the Northeast and Midwest, indeed reflected in smaller town and county governments nationwide, can survive at all without dramatic increases in joint service districts and shared tax bases.

But without state goading, it won't happen fast. State governments need to pierce the veil of each town or school district's bookkeeping and insist: "We need to know how state grants are being spent. Understandable and comparable numbers -- real transparency -- that's our price for continued support."

The good news is that standard accounting programs, rapid advances in digitized data processing and Internet dissemination make data comparison infinitely easier than it used to be. It makes political sense, as Colgan suggests, to give local governments a major role in devising details of the new transparency-- different towns define services differently, and they'd know best how to harmonize systems.

But once that's done, we can expect a sea change in accessibility. Citizens, the media, governors and legislators will be able to make accurate comparisons of performance for individual town and school districts and start pressing for radically increased collaboration and budget economies.

In Maine last week, I did discover that the twinned cities of Lewiston and Auburn, facing each other across the Androscoggin River, have hit on close collaboration as a way to rebuild economies devastated by the loss of textile and shoe factories.

Old downtown mill buildings are being handsomely restored, arts, culture and health care are playing a big role, and new industries have been coming (along with a massive Wal-Mart distribution center).

But what's most amazing is how the citizen leaders of these historic rival cities hurry to tell visitors of their new civic government collaboration. Twenty-three intercity agreements have been negotiated, encompassing multiple "joints" - the airport, economic growth council, 911 center, recycling, purchasing and more.

Now the cities are looking at merger of every other function, from police to public works. "Nothing's sacred, everything's being looked at," Auburn Mayor Normand Guay told me. And who will he be negotiating with? Lionel Guay, mayor of Lewiston -- his brother!

From historically icy independence to a new fraternalism? If it can start in turf-protective New England towns, then why not everywhere?

2005 Washington Post Writers Group

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