County government is a level of government we don’t need. In fact, we don’t need counties either. So let’s get rid of them. Take it from me — a former county commissioner who knows a lot about county government.
Counties themselves make no sense these days. Do you really care if you live in Kennebec or Somerset or Waldo County? Lots of states get by just fine with local and state governments. We would too.
Nine of the 16 counties had their borders defined while Maine was still part of Massachusetts, and hence are older than the state itself. The populations range from 16,931 in Piscataquis County to 289,977 in Cumberland County. And their sizes range from 370 square miles in Sagadahoc County to 6,829 square miles in Aroostook Country. Does that make sense to you?
And I’ll bet you know little to nothing about your country government. Quick: tell me who your three county commissioners are. Do you know what they do?
All of the duties of county government could easily be transferred to the state, with a lot of efficiencies. For example, we don’t need probate courts and deed registries in every county. With everything available these days online, it’s much easier to research deeds and other information.
And paying for another level of police makes no sense either. We’ve got state police, sheriffs’ departments, game wardens, and in many cities and towns, local police. Sometimes they all compete to get to a crime scene first. But to their credit, they also work together quite often. So why not go with state police and — if your town or city needs it — local police?
OK, I’ve avoiding the issue of game wardens, because that’s a subject for another day. I will say in many states the state police are also responsible for the duties assigned to Maine game wardens.
County jails are in real trouble. When I served as a county commissioner, I supported a proposal to combine Kennebec County’s jail with a neighboring county’s jail. That lost at the ballot box. But it was a good idea.
The state has made a mess of county jail reforms, first taking on some of the responsibilities, and then handing them back to the counties.
They’ve also underfunded the county jails, forcing us to pay those costs with our property taxes. In 2015 Gov. Paul LePage refused to fill three vacancies on the state Board of Corrections, essentially shutting it down. It makes no sense to pay for jails with property taxes.
You may have read the recent newspaper headline about our Kennebec County jail: “Jail Seeks Expansion Proposals — Kennebec Country jail addition won’t solve chronic overcrowding.” Even with this expansion, they’ll still have to board inmates in other jails. It’s not unusual for Kennebec Country to be paying other jails to house 25 or more inmates.
Jessica Lowell reported, on Nov. 10, that the cost of boarding our county’s inmates at the Cumberland County jail is about $1,500 per day! You could stay in some of our favorite inns for two weeks for that!
Lowell also reported that our jail budget will end up in the red this year, because state funding did not include any money for boarding inmates elsewhere. Kennebec County could spend $1 million this fiscal year to board out inmates they don’t have room for in the county’s jail. And even after spending $638,000 on the expansion project, they’ll only increase the jail’s capacity from 147 to 168.
But as Sheriff Ryan Reardon told Lowell, “We can’t say no when someone needs to go to jail.” Well, last year the sheriff actually asked local police departments to limit arrests to ease the burden on the jail and its staff. Not sure that is a comforting thought.
We desperately need property tax relief, and that would be a major benefit of abolishing counties. Nearly all of the county budget is paid with property taxes levied on each town and city, with no input from you. Ever go to your town meeting and tried to lower the county’s budget or spending? You can’t!
As the LePage administration and Legislature have backed out of commitments to fund local services, from schools to transfer stations, our property taxes have skyrocketed in many places.
It’s time to move the tax ball back in their direction. If county functions became state functions, they wouldn’t be able to make us pay for them with property taxes. That alone is reason enough to get rid of counties and county government.