By Jonathan P. LaBonte
When I first started writing a weekly opinion piece for this paper in 2006, the topics ranged from municipal policy challenges facing Lewiston-Auburn to arts and cultural issues to ideas for how we might revitalize our downtown area that straddles the Androscoggin River. And yet, even with that municipal focus, my first venture into elected office was at the county level, not city council.
Without going into the full back story, and perhaps to more quickly move to the issues at hand, it seemed clear to me after studying this topic that planning for the economic growth of the Lewiston-Auburn area was not something that one city council or board of selectmen could tackle alone; it needed to be done regionally.
Unlike other parts of the country outside of the Northeast that saw their growth in the last century, New England grew up in the 1700s and 1800s and formed a strong commitment to town-based government. As I’ve written before, most of those town boundaries were actually based on a measure of how far a horse could travel daily, a far cry from today’s commuter reality.
Those other parts of the country, which started as rural and built their reliance on the services of the county seat, maintained that reliance as their economy and populations grew through the 20th century. So where does that leave us?
It would be impossible to think that overnight Maine, or Androscoggin County for that matter, will move to utilize county government for service delivery, land use planning or a host of other services now provided by town and city government.
Besides the practicality of that abrupt change, there would be stiff resistance from those who have been long entrenched in municipal government: they would fear either the loss of power or simply the unknown of looking to regional government as being more relevant as local government than a town.
That leaves a couple places where we can start. The first is an open discussion of how we actually live and work in our daily lives and whether or not we have structured our government to provide services where we live and work.
With the simple fact that half of all the jobs in Androscoggin County exist in the City of Lewiston, but only a third of the people reside there, it is clear that the era of everyone working in a mill in Lewiston and living a block away is gone. They now may work in the Bates Mill, for example, but they can choose to live in Turner or Greene or Minot; these decisions are often based on the quality of the schools and the lower property taxes in those communities.
That open discussion could warrant weeks of columns laying out how the community of greater Lewiston-Auburn (the cities themselves and the surrounding towns) operates as a regional economy and how interconnected we are in luring jobs, building infrastructure and seeking to improve quality of life.
The second place to advance a discussion of regional governing would be to put it into practice with a pilot program. Fortunately, a discussion has been brewing for decades on how to provide for 911 and emergency dispatching services in Androscoggin County and who should pay for it.
While I have had the great fortunate to get immersed in this topic for only the last two years as a commissioner, previous commissions, as well as numerous study groups, have wrestled with this issue over and over again.
It boils down to this. Lewiston and Auburn created their own 911 communications center and have funded that with a 50-50 cost sharing agreement and using the property tax to fund it. Since last year, they have begun “selling” that service to the Town of Poland to dispatch rescue vehicles and fire trucks.
Androscoggin County operates its own 911 communications center, also funded by the property tax, and uses that system to dispatch its patrol vehicles, law enforcement in Sabattus, Livermore Falls and Mechanic Falls and for a number of town fire departments in Androscoggin County.
The hook is this: There is presently no charge for the dispatching of law enforcement, and the service fees charged for dispatching fire services doesn’t come close to covering the costs of the center.
If taxpayers in Lewiston and Auburn—who fund more than half of the county system budget—wished to take advantage of that service, they could not. Not only is the current system insufficient to handle that call volume, but it would force the county budget to grow over the cap in spending growth set by state statute.
Add to this that the county system is outdated, does not provide for a comfortable and efficient work environment for staff and has been in need of a capital upgrade for more than 10 years. Something has to give.
The small communities, for obvious reasons, are not excited about any service charge or property tax increase to accommodate serving Lewiston and Auburn. Yet the decades of inaction have forced a cost shift onto taxpayers in Lewiston and Auburn.
From a public safety standpoint, having a single modern 911 communications center that ensures seamless service for all residents and visitors to and through our county makes sense. Why should a cell phone call to 911 in Auburn from Route 4 send you to one 911 center, but to another just a few miles north once you hit Turner? For some, that’s simply their daily drive home from work.
In the next few months, there will be significant discussion about how to finally resolve the long-standing issue of bringing together the 911 centers in Androscoggin County, or at the very least, seeing that all users of any dispatch service pay for the actual cost of providing that service.
Jonathan P. LaBonte is an Androscoggin County Commissioner and vice president of the Maine County Commissioners Association.