BANGOR, Maine — Less than three years after Bangor severed ties with the Maine Municipal Association, several Bangor City councilors want back into the organization to ensure the city’s interests are heard and pushed in Augusta.
“The council is very concerned about what’s going on in Augusta relevant to legislation that’s impacting the property taxpayers,” City Manager Cathy Conlow said Friday. “What the council concluded [during a special meeting last week] was that we needed some help. There’s just too much going on down there for us to track.”
Bangor councilors will discuss whether to hire a lobbying firm, rejoin MMA, or pursue both or neither option before the regular council meeting Monday night.
Of Maine’s 492 municipalities, there are only a handful that aren’t members of MMA. Peter Nielsen, president of the MMA Executive Committee and Oakland town manager, said Friday that the only two he could name off the top of his head were Raymond, a town of about 4,000 year-round residents, and Bangor, a city with a population of about 33,000 strong. Bangor is by far the largest nonmember.
Back in the summer of 2011, Bangor decided not to renew its membership with the MMA. Among the reasons given at the time were:
• Bangor didn’t rely on MMA for its insurance.
• Bangor had full-time staff devoted to most areas, such as legal services and human resources, where MMA often provides assistance to smaller communities.
• Some in Bangor have felt that MMA does not represent the interests of a larger community such as Bangor as well as it does smaller communities.
• Bangor’s annual dues of about $30,000 paid to MMA do not correlate with the level of services. A city like Bangor that does not rely on MMA as much as a smaller community does not get any sort of discount.
But Bangor also lost benefits by ending the long-term relationship with MMA that some councilors and staff would like to have back, especially when it comes to keeping on top of issues and decision-making in Augusta.
MMA provides a variety of services to its members ranging from training opportunities to insurance options. But the biggest plus would be the constant lobbying presence in Augusta that tracks issues of interest for communities, according to Conlow.
Conlow estimated that city staff members have spent well over 100 hours in the past three weeks alone tracking legislation, meeting with delegates, writing testimony and attending hearings. It’s too much for staff members who are busy with their regular full-time jobs with the city.
Conlow said Bangor has continued its dialogue with MMA despite the separation, and has found itself on the same page as MMA on many issues facing the Legislature this session, especially in regards to the push for restored municipal revenue sharing. Bills regarding waste services, gambling expansion and other issues that would affect Bangor’s budget and its tax rates also have surfaced and officials are struggling to keep up.
“The reason we got out of MMA is because of the cost, but now we need to stand in solidarity with our cities and towns who are having one burden after another passed down from Augusta,” Council Chairman Ben Sprague said Saturday. “Hopefully, standing together will be a good return on investment for returning to MMA if we decided to do that as a group on Monday.”
If Bangor were to rejoin, its would pay $10,000 to become a member for the remainder of the fiscal year. If it were to renew for a full year after that, its annual dues likely would be about $30,000, roughly the same as it was back in 2010. Dues are based on a community’s size and what services the community uses.
Because of its size, Bangor also likely would be guaranteed a seat on MMA’s Legislative Policy Committee, which forms platforms and positions for the group.
“It’s like a smile without a tooth if Bangor doesn’t belong,” Nielsen said. “It seems as though it would strengthen us both if MMA had Bangor,” he said.
The question remains whether counselors will think membership is worth the $30,000 per year expense.
The city also has been exploring the option of hiring a lobbying firm. Several have declined because of conflicts of interest with current clients, but Bernstein Shur of Portland has said it would be willing to work with the city and is preparing a proposal, according to the city.