Counties to the Rescue?
In the debate over the state's controversial school consolidation plan, officials looked at a lot of different ways to reorganize school districts. None of them involved Maine's sixteen counties. When Governor John Baldacci began looking for ways to save $10 million from next year's state budget, he announced a plan to take Maine's fifteen county jails away from the counties and use them to house surplus prisoners from the state prison system. Back in 2003, when then-freshman Representative Chris Barstow proposed overhauling county government to give it more power and responsibility, crickets could be heard chirping in the silence of the official response.
"I still think it's a good idea," insists Barstow, today the House Chair of the State and Local Government Committee. "We have to look beyond five hundred units of government to a level that allows a more regionalized approach to delivering services efficiently." The Gorham Democrat still hears little support for the idea.
Counties in Maine are the betwixt and between of governments. With a history that dates back to the shires of Anglo-Saxon England, they're archaic and distant entities rarely encountered by most residents and thus without much in the way of either public visibility or public support. They've been described as "the lawyer level of government," since most of their functions involve legal matters - registrar of deeds, probate court, sheriff's office, District Court. Counties also handle emergency management planning. Three of them own and operate airports, and several have economic development offices.
Counties have been criticized as unnecessary burdens on the taxpayer on one hand and as ideal vehicles for money-saving regionalization plans on the other. Over the years legislators have tried to do away with them and build them up, with equal lack of success. These days, with the state threatening to take over an important county function - the jails - and more questions than ever facing their role, counties are at a crossroads that could lead to an even steeper descent into irrelevancy or a new importance in an era of consolidation and regionalization.
"Counties are very much in danger," declares Anne Beebe-Center, one of three Knox County commissioners. (All Maine counties have three elected commissioners except York, which has five.) Beebe-Center says county governments are sunk in complacency and in disarray, their commissioners unable and unwilling to present a united front in the face of threats such as that posed by the jail takeover. But she also sees a new generation of leadership coming on the scene determined to change the way state officials and the public look at counties.
County government in Maine - and in New England in general - is much smaller and weaker than its counterparts in the rest of the country. The region has a long tradition of strong municipal government, and counties here do not have a separate property base. Outside of the Unorganized Territories, all the land in Maine is inside a town boundary and outside county control. Elsewhere, counties oversee any land beyond the built-up portion of a municipality, so they often have their own building codes, zoning boards, social service agencies, and transportation departments. More importantly, they have their own taxing authority. In Maine, counties submit assessments to the towns for inclusion in the annual property tax bills.
Connecticut did away with its county governments entirely in the 1960s and hasn't missed them yet, according to Kevin Maloney, a spokesman for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. "County government responsibilities were taken over by regional councils of government, municipalities, and the state," he explains. There has been no talk or movement toward restoring county government. "We've moved on," Maloney says.
The last serious legislative attempt to do away with county government in Maine occurred in 1999. Mike Roy thought it was a great idea then, and still does. Roy, city manager in Waterville, has been a longtime opponent of county government. "I've been in local government for thirty years, and I've had a long time to think about the role of different levels of government," he explains. "It amazes me that among all the discussion about consolidation and unnecessary duplication of services that there hasn't been more talk about doing away with county governments."
Roy is not arguing for doing away with the functions of county government, but rather their redistribution to local and state governments. "The registrar of deeds does not need its own level of government," Roy maintains. One of his pet peeves is the fact that municipalities with their own police forces still have to support the sheriff's department. "That's seven hundred thousand dollars a year," he points out, "and it doesn't benefit us at all."
Roy sees the jail takeover proposal as a "huge benefit" and a needed move in the right direction. He hints that there is still a core group of people working quietly to abolish counties altogether, although "many of us who were pushing that have gotten discouraged because we were always outvoted [in the legislature] by the rural districts," which fear the loss of sheriff's patrol protection.
Bob Howe is well aware of what he calls the "perennial resentment" of counties by the municipalities that support them. Howe, executive director of the Maine County Commissioners Association, blames the disconnect between "those who require the services of county government and those who pay for them. Much of what we do is mandated by the state but paid for by the property taxpayer through the municipalities." Howe sounds almost wistful when he talks about the way counties operate in states such as Ohio and Texas, "where the county is the preeminent form of local government."
Howe also sounds mystified about the lack of county involvement in Governor Baldacci's efforts to consolidate and regionalize various services. "The counties weren't given any serious consideration by anyone during the school consolidation debate, for example" he notes. "I think [county involvement] would have been a very sensible idea."
"My committee discussed it briefly early on," recalls Representative Jacqueline Norton, of Bangor, House Chair of the Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. "The problem was the tremendous difference in size among counties," both in the numbers of students and geography. Norton acknowledges that counties rarely rise to the top of the list in debates about leadership for various initiatives. "County government just hasn't been an important part of our governmental entities," she notes. "My personal feeling is that we should look at building counties up or getting rid of them. It's a governmental no-man's-land right now."
One reason is that counties, generally speaking, do not have a reputation for exciting or progressive leadership. Commissioners are often referred to as "third tier" politicians, a description that Beebe-Center doesn't argue with. The county commission "is more a retirement place for former legislators and municipal officials," she offers bluntly, "a graceful platform for exiting politics."
That's not an observation that will win her many friends among fellow commissioners, but Beebe-Center is convinced the situation for county government in Maine has become so dire that there's no time for niceties. "I think we're past the line, and the situation is critical," she argues, noting that in the weeks after the governor's jail takeover was announced, county commissioners couldn't even agree on a united front in response.
Beebe-Center is encouraged that attitudes are changing, steadily if slowly. "I've noticed in the last three or four years a different mindset among commissioners as a younger generation comes in," she explains. There is also a growing level of professionalism among county employees and structures. "We're reorganizing, hiring county executives with management experience and finance directors who aren't just bookkeepers," she points out.
Two counties, Aroostook and Knox, now have charters, which give them more control over their own affairs "as opposed to going to the legislature every time you turn around," Beebe-Center says. (It has only been since 1982 that counties didn't have to seek legislative approval for their annual budgets.) Two-thirds of the counties have professional managers, up from only two or three just ten years ago.
"We're at the point now where we can take a more expansive role," says Doug Beaulieu, Aroostook County administrator. Aroostook was the first county to adopt a charter, in 1989, and Beaulieu credits it with bringing tighter fiscal controls and the ability to offer more services to the county's residents. "Our average budget increase has been just 2.5 percent since then," he says. "So we're incredibly efficient compared to other governments."
A reputation for both efficiency and competence was key to the county government's ability to organize a central emergency dispatch plan for the entire county several years ago under the previous administrator, Roland "Danny" Martin, now commissioner of the Maine Depart-ment of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. "The county went out to every municipality and asked them where they wanted to go with the 911 system," Beaulieu explains. "The county made it plain that it was their choice, but we felt we could offer a plan that was both effective and would save money."
Every municipality signed onto the proposal, and Aroostook County now has a single 911 center at the State Police barracks in Houlton managed under a contract with the county. "Cumberland County has twenty-eight," Beaulieu points out. "Ours costs $186,000 a year, and it serves all sixty-eight different jurisdictions up here."
County government advocates hope successes like that can pave the way to offering other services. "Counties can contract with towns for just about anything," Beebe-Center points out, noting that Lincoln County has administered a countywide recycling system since the late 1970s. "We don't need state approval for that."
She argues that counties should move away from the property tax as a source of funding. "We should begin offering regio-nal services, contracting for assessing, zoning, planning. It could save a tremendous amount of money for the taxpayer. And imagine how much sense it would make to have a regional approach to development, for example, rather than town by town."
Howe, Beebe-Center, and others see the jail proposal as the leading edge of an incremental attack on county government. They also see it as an opportunity for the county to rise to the challenge and show it can take on more responsibilities. "We're at a crossroads," Beebe-Center says. "This could be the impetus we need to move ahead." Maine's most obscure level of government is in the perfect position to gain new visibility - if it's willing to step forward.