This past month, town officials from the region were hosted by the city of Gardiner to a summit on collaboration in the hopes of opening a dialogue between cities and towns. The aim of this summit was to increase opportunities for municipal efficiency through greater cooperation between municipalities in the Kennebec Valley.
The session featured presentations by Saco’s city administrator, two of our local legislators, the executive director of the Kennebec Valley Council of Governments and a Kennebec County commissioner. After these presentations, attendees discussed the merits of collaboration along with its obstacles.
Collaboration, cooperation, regionalization. These words inspire differing views and thoughts from individuals, yet the grouping of municipal leaders reflect the ongoing collective efforts by city and town officials to streamline the way they do business.
Whether visible or not (and often not), our town leaders constantly strive to be more effective and efficient in the way they provide services to their communities. These efforts have lead to the sharing of fire chiefs in neighboring towns, mutual fire aid agreements between small communities, joint hazardous material response teams, shared public works equipment, joint household hazardous waste disposal days, joint transportation systems, and shared solid waste and wastewater facilities. All of these endeavors save our communities money while still providing excellent service when the call goes out for an emergency or a needed piece of equipment.
Cities and towns in the Kennebec Valley also work together on joint purchasing agreements to save money on paper products, salt products, culverts and silt fencing. They share assessing, economic development and information technology personnel to save on employee costs and work with KVCOG on planning functions and grant writing needs so as to procure grants from the federal and state levels of government that will make our communities safer, more aesthetically pleasing and connected through comprehensive planning efforts. All of these efforts are behind the scenes, as they seem to be noticed only at budget time by our budget committees and concerned residents, but each stands alone as an element of efficiency that our municipalities continually work to find.
Regionalization and collaboration, however, are not easy. Our towns struggle with cooperative efforts, as some residents place local control over such items as public works and fire protection at odds with the opportunities identified by potential collaborative programs with another town. This may be a result of population size differences between large and small towns or the result of private versus public contracting. With this dynamic in play, municipalities walk a fine line when faced with signing on to a regional or cooperative agreement. As municipalities generally understand this dynamic, they typically take steps to minimize the potential harm to their town. With many potential stumbling blocks along the way, however, towns often fear the results of their collaborative efforts.
Luckily, fear of entering into cooperative agreements has not hindered many municipalities from collaboration, as was on full display at Gardiner’s summit. The question begs to be asked, however, what could our towns truly accomplish if regionalization were less opaque and thus more transparent to us all.
Hopefully, Gardiner’s summit will pave the way to even more transparent action by each of our towns as past actions, however hidden, have been quite impressive, and folks at the municipal level will continue their talks about efficiency efforts.
Jeremy Pare is a selectmen for the town of Manchester. Talk of the Town is an occasional series that gives officials from our local communities an opportunity to speak out about issues that are important to them and the residents of central Maine. To submit a column of no more than 750 words, email firstname.lastname@example.org.