The towns of Bar Harbor and Mount Desert have been sharing a police chief for the last five-plus years. All signs say the agreement is working well, which is why the towns keep renewing it. An administrative assistant is also shared, and other operational changes have further integrated the departments.
Chief Jim Willis has pointed out that the color of the cruiser and the town name on the officer’s sleeve are important to the residents being served, as is the ability to walk into or call a dispatch office right in town and find a person there ready to help. Dispatchers provide a first point of contact for all kinds of needs, not all of them directly related to public safety.
That sense of local service and local control deserves respect. The New England tradition of municipal home rule has served us well for a long time. So when Mount Desert’s manager recently floated a new, much broader and longer-term shared services agreement with Bar Harbor, some residents were very concerned.
But preserving home rule is actually the goal of the proposal.
“There are approximately 492 towns in the State of Maine serving a population of less than 1.5 million people,” Durlin Lunt, town manager for Mount Desert wrote in a memo to selectmen. “Demographic trends indicate that the problem of recruitment and retention will get worse rather than better in the coming decade. Sharing agreements are far preferable to governmental consolidations…”
The towns here fought and debated for decades before agreeing to consolidate the high schools 50 years ago. Consolidating the towns is not in the cards. But key staff are retiring soon and will be very difficult to replace. When Southwest Harbor was looking for a new town manager, officials had a long debate over whether the town needs a full-time manager and can afford one.
The aging workforce, lack of housing and other trends “cast doubt as to [Mount Desert’s] sustainability as a full-service community,” Lunt wrote.
The agreement was tabled last week, but only for the moment. The conversations about what is needed and what is acceptable need to start now. Sharing some municipal staff and services need not be seen as one town surrendering control to another. We may not be ready to give up in-town dispatch. But unless we plan to return to the days of an elected town treasurer, tax collector and assessor, and part-time police constables, sharing services may be the best option.