Town meeting season is right around the corner. These annual expressions of community, and the exercise of local control, recently have shown that running small towns in a largely rural state is becoming very expensive.
Many of Maine’s towns face a pattern of annual budget increases that far exceed the rate of inflation. Salary and benefit cost escalation contributes, as do growing school budgets, reporting requirements for other government functions and the increasing need for technology expenditures.
Taxpayers, however, face larger annual property tax bills, shouldering these greater costs while school enrollments decline. A shrinking population base also creates stress in many small Maine towns.
Town manager-style governments struggle mightily to get citizens involved in their communities — the same battle that smaller, more rural Hancock County towns face each year as fewer people serve on critical boards and fewer people volunteer to be firefighters.
While consolidation carries a negative connotation, many communities already work together to share services when expedient. Amherst and Aurora share a fire department and an elementary school. Otis and Mariaville effectively do the same. Blue Hill, Deer Isle, Stonington and Tremont share the Sheriff Office’s services, as do many other smaller communities throughout the county. Bar Harbor and Mount Desert share a police chief.
The largest town in Piscataquis County was once two towns nestled along the river that divides Dover-Foxcroft. Roughly half the size of Ellsworth, the practicality of joining Dover’s and Foxcroft’s physical assets to form a more efficient government (1922), and a stronger locally controlled community, should not be lost on rural citizens facing mounting financial pressures.
We already see the benefits of sharing school expenses among towns. Does it not make sense to share road maintenance costs, often the second highest annual cost, as well as basic services, such as running a town office?
Hancock County towns need not abdicate their local control rights. Yet, starting a conversation with neighboring communities, or the county itself, to share common line-by-line expenses is not only prudent, but also fiscally responsible. The need is obvious; there is a finite amount of tax money citizens can afford to pay. Is there sufficient will for local government to explore alternatives and become more efficient?