Efficiency, efficiency. Sometimes, it becomes a mantra for people running for office and seeking to streamline government services. It makes sense, right? Consolidate the municipal programs in one town with the others in a nearby town, save money and retain a similar level of service. Indeed, collaboration happens often.
But also it’s almost always more complicated — and dependent upon the unique circumstances of each town or city. Local residents deserve to know about those complexities.
That’s why it’s encouraging to see the deliberate way in which Lewiston and Auburn are approaching the possibility of becoming one municipality. In June, voters in each city selected a total of six people to serve on a commission and figure out how to combine all aspects of the cities’ operations. Residents on each bank of the Androscoggin River will vote on the plan later.
Will overall city spending per person decrease? Will the quality of services improve? These are questions that require a close review. It’s promising that residents have called for the answers.
Other municipalities should learn from the process Lewiston and Auburn are undertaking, and the state should use it as the impetus for greater study of when efficiency is enhanced by municipal mergers and collaboration.
Many municipalities already share ambulance providers, road maintenance, snow plowing and solid waste disposal; and mutual fire responses are the norm. But what is the level of collaboration at which Maine municipalities are leanest — without sacrificing attentive service?
A 2009 report by Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration analyzed the relationship between a location’s population and the efficiency of its government services. It found if one were to plot population and efficiency on a graph, it would be shaped like an inverted U. Efficiency increases along with population up to about 25,000 people, at which point it remains stable up until a population of about 250,000.
Basically, the smallest and largest municipalities tend to be least efficient — and Maine has many small towns.
However, small towns also tend to be more efficient than larger towns at delivering certain labor-intensive services. For example, they often provide more satisfactory levels of policing, fire response and education more efficiently than large cities.
As makes sense, they do not tend to operate extensive infrastructure services, such as sewer or water systems, or provide specialized services, such as high-tech crime labs, more efficiently than larger towns, according to the study.
Is there a way for more small Maine communities to collaborate on those larger infrastructure needs? How can Maine towns retain resident satisfaction in levels of service, while joining forces with other towns?
There is plenty to gain from the discussions underway in Lewiston and Auburn, if only to spur more important questions.