ELLSWORTH, Maine — Maine’s fastest-growing city is preparing to take on additional road maintenance responsibilities as part of an administrative change that could mean faster response from local road crews but also higher costs for Ellsworth taxpayers.
Ellsworth is one of four municipalities around the state that, after the 2010 Census, were redesignated as “urban compact” areas by the state because they grew beyond 7,500 residents.
That arcane-sounding redesignation means changes in who is responsible for keeping state-owned roads safe for drivers during winter snows, patching destructive potholes in spring, and handling the permits necessary to connect a new house or business to the street.
Beginning July 1, Ellsworth will assume full responsibility for general maintenance — including snowplowing, tree pruning, drainage and superficial repairs — of all state-owned roads within the urban compact zone. While the city already handles some snow removal and winter maintenance on state roads as a “winter compact” area, those responsibilities will expand under the new system.
“What this does is it puts one entity in charge of all maintenance, summer and winter … and it greatly improves the efficiency of operations,” said Peter Coughlan, director of the community service division at the Maine Department of Transportation.
In return, the city will receive additional financial assistance from the state but not enough to cover the full costs.
Michelle Beal, Ellsworth’s city manager, said she believes the change is a good one for Ellsworth overall. For instance, it potentially streamlines the process for “road opening” permits for new developments and should eliminate the confusion for the public over whether the city or the state maintains a certain stretch of road, she said.
“But it will be expensive and I wish the reimbursements were more accurate,” Beal said.
Beal said she anticipates the city will receive an additional $75,000 from the state to help defray the costs of the new responsibilities.
Ellsworth officials recently began their budget-writing process, so the full impact of changing to an urban compact remains unclear. But Beal said the city will have to purchase a new winter maintenance truck and hire an additional person, a combined expense of roughly $200,000. Then there are the additional costs for sand, salt, pothole filler and other maintenance equipment.
Coughlan acknowledged that the additional subsidies — calculated on a per-lane-mile basis — will not cover the full costs. But he noted that municipalities, businesses and homeowners have a strong local interest in maintaining those stretches of state roads.
“It may not totally reflect the cost of doing everything, but then again it is an assistance program,” Coughlan said.
The DOT still will be responsible for major paving and road reconstruction, bridge repair and maintenance and other major capital improvements along the roads.
There are 43 towns in the state treated as urban compact areas by the Maine Department of Transportation. Ellsworth, Gray, Buxton and Waterboro all crossed that 7,500-resident threshold between 2000 and 2010, with Ellsworth posting the fastest growth rate in the state — roughly 20 percent — by adding nearly 1,300 residents over the decade.
“There is still a lot of work to be done before the transition actually happens, though,” said Beal.
Under state law, any roads being handed over to new urban compact areas must be in “good condition.” That means the state is obligated to correct any major problems, including crumbling pavement or poor drainage.
City and DOT officials are compiling a “to do list” of projects. But because of the length and cost of that list, many of those repairs will not be complete before the redesignation takes place on July 1 — or potentially one year later.
Ted Talbot of the DOT said all of the projects throughout the state slated for capital improvements this year already have been identified. While he said some of the Ellsworth projects could be addressed this year, other projects within the city will have to be included in the next capital improvements budget for fiscal year 2014-15.