BANGOR, Maine — What began as a simple networking initiative is already paying off in unexpected ways for the mayors of five of Maine’s largest cities.
The mayors of Bangor, Auburn, Augusta, Lewiston and Portland are calling their new cooperative relationship an “informal mayors’ coalition,” and although they’ve met only twice so far, it’s already shaping up as a communications medium at the least and a relevant lobbying vehicle at best.
“It’s kind of taken on a life of its own and obviously is paying off in a lot of different ways, going beyond just collaborating,” said Bangor City Council Chairman and Mayor Cary Weston.
Weston, who initiated the coalition, says it is built on a desire to improve “economic vitality” in the cities and help them tackle key problems — such as funding of general assistance, or aid to the poor.
“We recognized pretty early on we could build something that could last longer than the terms of the people who fill these positions and lobby for very specific issues as they come up,” Weston said.
The coalition resulted from Weston’s desire to reach out to the mayors of four other large Maine cities to gauge their interest in occasionally sitting down to talk. The mayors held their second meeting Wednesday in Augusta.
It didn’t take long for them to find out they had much more in common than being first-time mayors.
“I think we all have problems and while some of ours are different, what we’re finding is we are having many of the same problems, and this may be a great way to put our heads together to come up with appropriate solutions,” said Lewiston Mayor Bob MacDonald.
Chief among those problems right now are possible cuts in state reimbursement for general assistance funding cities are required to provide for things such as health services and housing for the poor.
Another theme is common among all seven cities: Their status as service centers for people living well beyond their city borders.
“We have almost 900 people, many of whom do not come from Bangor, in the general assistance program,” Weston said. “They come here for things like methadone, subsidized housing, nonprofit services and community health and counseling.”
While the mayors understand their service center status, they don’t appreciate providing services for people from outside municipalities and counties that don’t pay in to help defray the cost of those services.
“Under current rules, people are not required to prove residency or even document where they are from,” MacDonald said. “They just show up and apply, so I really don’t know how many are coming from outlying towns and counties, but it’s a significant amount.
“The need is real, but the problem is the Lewiston taxpayers are shouldering almost all of the burden.”
It’s issues like that which the coalition could be well-suited to deal with more effectively than each mayor individually.
The mayors coalition club membership already is expanding, with the mayors of Waterville and Saco joining up.
“As a group, we’re very diverse and maybe even polarized in some ways, such as our political philosophies, but I think this mayors coalition will succeed because I think everyone will eventually end up on the same page on many of the same things,” said MacDonald. “I think this is going to work out very well. We’re even talking about testifying as a group at hearings on issues affecting our cities.”