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Weekly Review: Revenue Sharing; Government Creep; and Posted Roads

By Glenn E. Aho

Auburn City Manager

If there were ever a time for local government to change, it is now! Never before have so many external influences come together all at once and affect local government as it has for the past two years.

Sobering events, such as the rise of petroleum prices, the Great Recession, falling state revenues and the collapse of the housing market have left local officials scrambling to find funding solutions just to provide traditional services. For the past two years, the City of Auburn has attempted to overcome these financial adversities by reducing expenditures, though the reductions are pale in comparison to the amount of revenue loss the city has suffered.

These past two years have been marked by reducing expenditures through labor reductions, then compensating for that reduction by purchasing innovative technology and organizing the city’s local government to operate more efficiently.

As the city continues to adjust to the changes of these past two years, another financially challenging budget season is upon us—and not much has changed on the national or state economic front. In fact, the city will continue to feel the effect of the Great Recession until things improve in terms of employment, housing and the economy.

What makes this year particularly challenging is that I don’t believe the city can undergo any more administrative changes than it already has until systems are built, restored and fully operating. For example, the city is undergoing a massive reorganization, a complete standardization, a whole evaluation and a rather sizeable technology implementation.

These projects are huge and require often and frequent changes in terms of personnel and operations. To add even more change to what’s already undergoing change would most likely jeopardize what success and progress we’ve made so far. City employees are doing a great job working through these changes to make our local government better, though the workloads and the pace at which we must change can affect performance.

In the past I have always presented a budget I felt was the best available alternative based upon our service needs and our ability to pay for those needs. I cannot do that this year.

There are too many things beyond the city’s control that we must face: increased school and county budgets, falling state revenues, etc. Normally, administrative changes can be made to overcome financial adversities. This year is different: the financial adversities are too large to overcome by administrative changes alone. It will require policy changes that could further affect our ability to provide even traditional services.

I am submitting the draft budget with the intention of calling upon the City Council for its advice on how or what city policies it wants to change so administration can do its best to provide superior services at an affordable cost.

State Revenue Sharing. The Governor has proposed legislation (LD100) that would revise how State Revenue Sharing would be calculated and distributed. The original purpose behind the State of Maine sharing revenue was to provide municipalities with a steady source of income for property tax relief.

The source of revenue sharing comes from the state’s sales tax, as well as personal and corporate income tax.  Revenue sharing was implemented instead of municipalities establishing their own taxes. In 2008, the City of Auburn received slightly more than $4 million in Revenue Sharing. This year the city is anticipating only $2.4 million—a 40 percent reduction. That reduction must be picked up by Auburn taxpayers.

Finance Director Tracy Roy offered testimony on behalf of the city opposing the Governor’s proposal that would have capped Revenue Sharing, despite any future economic growth, and would have potentially cost Auburn taxpayers millions. The Legislature listened to all the testimony and amended the bill to at least remove the cap.

The city will still receive less revenue sharing as it has in the past, though at least one other state attempt to “raid” municipal revenues has been somewhat thwarted. In the meantime, Auburn taxpayers will have to make up with local tax dollars the amount we used to receive from the State’s Revenue Sharing fund.

The Cost of Government Creep. How has the cost of local government services increased so much? One dollar at a time. Right, wrong or indifferent, the expenditures of local government “creep” ever slightly higher and higher as a result of public servants wanting to provide the services people want.

A simple request for service may not have much financial significance, but over time and through hundreds of more requests, local government services have increased to a point where they are barely affordable. Though having a well-educated population is good for everyone, not everyone wants to contribute to the cost of providing that education. What is good for the community has been replaced, at times, with what’s good for the individual.

There are many reasons why local government expenditures continue to increase, but one reason is best described as the “just-one-more cycle.” It begins with an honest inquiry that arrives at the local government as a complaint or request. To answer the request, local government often expands existing services to accommodate the new request. Then a precedent is set and the initial accommodation now becomes policy.

Once the accommodation is made, the cost of providing services increases. The cycle is now complete. Within short order, another complaint or request is received. No one individual request or complaint has much of an impact, but certainly the accumulative effect does.

Local government “creep” of expenditures largely goes unnoticed because the increment of which the growth occurs is very small. But what was it that actually broke the camel’s back? Yes, just a single piece of straw.

Road-Posting Season. Mud season sure isn’t what it used to be. As more and more miles of road are paved, people miss out on the true experience of “mud season,” when mud could strip shoes from feet and some vehicles were sunk so deep in the mud that they were never seen again.

Mud season occurred each April and May as the frost thawed from the ground and snowmelt turned dirt roads and driveways into pure mud. To protect public roads from springtime damage, the State enacted legislation to allow roads to be posted prohibiting heavy loads.

There are about 600 roads in Auburn, and about 10 percent, or 60 roads, are posted annually between March and May. The City of Auburn went further and passed additional language prohibiting heavy vehicles on specific roads, as decided by the Public Works Director.

Why do roads need to be posted? Public Works Director Bob Belz said that roads contain moisture, and as winter sets in, the road expands upwards. During the spring when the frost beneath the road melts, cavities remain where frost and ice settled in. As a heavy vehicle travels across the road, it compresses the road leaving tire ruts behind.

Wheel rutting, broken pavement and potholes result from heavy vehicles driving on roads that have not been built to modern construction standards. Roads built with a gravel road base, such as the interstate, fare much better, as gravel does not hold moisture as well as clay and dirt roads. The city posts roads to help preserve our roads or to at least to help keep our roads from becoming worse. Constructing a road to modern standards can cost an additional $200 to $300 per foot.

If residents do experience problems as a result of road postings, they can obtain permission to travel the posted road while temperatures are below freezing. The State of Maine provides few exemptions from the road posting laws. The exemptions include utility service vehicles, perishable agricultural commodities, feed grain vehicles and heating fuel trucks.

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