Does Maine have more government than it can afford? An annual report from the State Planning Office about government spending adds evidence to the “yes” column. Because there won’t soon be more money for government at any level, the solution must be consolidation and cooperation to provide services more efficiently.
Noting that Maine has nearly 500 municipalities and 16 counties — a local government for every 2,500 state residents, Gov. John Baldacci properly made government streamlining and efficiency a theme of his final State of the State address last week.
“We cannot afford that redundancy and the duplication,” the governor said.
More important, money spent on administration takes money away from services — “those places where the money does the most good,” in the words of Gov. Baldacci.
For a report released this week, the planning office analyzed how many and how well government units, including the state, counties, municipalities and school districts, met the requirements of LD 1 in 2009. The law, which was approved by voters in 2004, requires the state to provide 55 percent of K-12 school funding, while these government entities were to meet spending caps; the caps could be exceeded with local voter approval. The intent was to lower property taxes.
As in previous years, the state, counties and the majority of municipalities met the LD 1 requirements. The majority of school districts did not. Delving further into the data, it is clear that smaller communities are having a harder time keeping their spending under the caps.
Larger communities have larger budgets, giving them more options for cutting spending. The solution for small communities is to work more closely with their neighbors to avoid duplicative services and to spread costs over a larger area.
The challenge, however, is that many of the small communities that have difficulty reining in costs are more isolated from their neighbors than more populous areas. According to the LD 1 report, municipalities in Washington and Hancock counties were significantly more likely to exceed caps than towns in the state’s other counties.
Similarly, school districts that had yet to comply with the state’s administration consolidation law exceeded spending limits by greater amounts than districts that had already consolidated. Statewide, 87 percent of school districts exceeded spending caps. Districts that conformed with the consolidation law spent, on average, 10 percent more than the limits; non-conforming districts, which generally are small and in rural areas, exceeded limits by 15 percent, on average.
Rather than just report on the failures, the State Planning Office provides resources for communities seeking to collaborate. Its Web site (www.maine.gov/spo) lists numerous cooperative efforts with reports on their progress.
The Aroostook County towns of Mapleton, Castle Hill and Chapman, for example, have combined almost all town government activities into a single town office in Mapleton. The towns share a manager but are each governed by their own board of selectmen.
East Millinocket and Millinocket have shared recreation services. Lewiston and Auburn continue to merge their town departments.
The financial reality of reduced support from Augusta with little room to maneuver to raise taxes means that the state’s hundreds of municipalities and school districts must get more serious about reducing bureaucracy.