What’s in a county? Why Brunswick tried to and Livermore Falls wants to secede

Posted July 20, 2013, at 10:49 a.m.
Last modified July 20, 2013, at 12:51 p.m.

Maine’s county lines were drawn hundreds of years ago. They mark the boundaries of relatively weak administrative districts, with responsibility for sheriff’s services, courts and keeping property records and wills.

Today, however, county lines arbitrarily connect towns that may have miles between them, while separating some communities from the closest needed services, such as emergency dispatch, law enforcement or courts.

Livermore Falls is trying to secede from Androscoggin County. The town is closer to services in Farmington, the Franklin County seat, than its co-county cities Auburn or Lewiston, say some residents. The nearest ambulance service comes from Franklin County. Crossing that border costs the town $33,000 per year.

In the late ’70s, according to Don Gerrish, Brunswick’s former town manager of 20 years, the town launched an unsuccessful bid to leave Cumberland County because residents didn’t want to fund the new Civic Center in Portland.

Gerrish said pressure similar to that facing the shrinking towns will affect Maine’s anemic counties in the future.

“We’re going to have to either give them more to do or find someone else to do it,” he said.

In other parts of the country, counties have responsibilities that are handled at the municipal level in Maine. Education, planning and development, assessing, even hospitals and public utilities are handled at the county level throughout much of the nation.

In Maine, the counties’ major responsibilities are for the sheriff’s department and the courts, as well as keeping the registries of deeds and probate. Counties also help provide services to Maine’s massive swath of unorganized territories, which make up more than half the state’s area, but only contain about 10,000 people.

Some counties take on additional responsibilities, but none are required to do so.

Maine’s weak counties are another example of how the past intrudes on the present, said Charlie Colgan, professor of public policy at the Muskie School of Public Policy. Counties are the oldest form of government in the state, older than the towns and older than the state itself. Still, other states in New England have all but done away with counties. In Connecticut, they no longer have any legal authority, and that’s true for many of the counties in Massachusetts as well.

But Colgan doesn’t think Mainers will follow suit, even if it might be more efficient. Residents like to keep control over their affairs as close to home as possible. In most cases, that’s the municipal level, and in some, it’s still the county. So why abandon that authority to the state?

“We’re just not ready to trust Augusta quite that much,” he said.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.