It’s time for major changes to county government. And here’s the really good news — these changes could lower your property taxes.

County government is funded by our property taxes, about the worst funding source we could use for this purpose. Property taxes should stay in their town. Many are struggling to pay their property taxes, mostly because the state has shortchanged our municipalities by some $2 billion in revenue sharing and school funding.

It is high time that the state took over our county jails. It makes no sense to have a jail in every county. And the state’s lack of mental health services is causing great problems for our county jails.

For example, 80 percent of the inmates at the Cumberland County Jail have a mental illness, and many would be receiving mental health services at other locations and not be sitting untreated in jail if other options existed.

Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce told Portland Press Herald reporter Joe Lawlor, “You either have the hospitals or jail. Well, a lot of people don’t fall into either of those two categories but there’s no other options, so people end up in one place or the other.” Sadly, many of those mentally ill people are stuck in jails.

Some people are charged with misdemeanors so they can be in jail with the understanding charges will be dismissed once they find a suitable mental health service, according to Joyce. In one case, an inmate stayed 200 days at the Cumberland County Jail, waiting for a slot to open up. That is shameful.

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Jenna Mehnert, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, told Lawlor that our system has many shortcomings that need to be addressed, including a lack of prevention and early intervention programs, as well as resources for those in crisis. “The emergency department (at hospitals) is far from ideal place to go but it’s the least bad place that we have right now.”

Certainly it must be better than jail. It is appalling that we send so many mentally ill Mainers to jail.

Mehnert is advocating for Maine to open five “receiving centers,” also known as “assessing centers.” Perhaps if we consolidated our jail system we’d have enough money to create these receiving centers.

At one time, the state agreed to provide more state funding for county jails, but they didn’t do it. Now it’s time for them to take over and run a statewide jail system. That will be a whole lot more efficient than our current system.

I also question the need to have both sheriff’s deputies and state troopers responsible for law enforcement in our communities. I would make all the sheriff’s deputies state troopers, another huge savings for property taxpayers.

Basically, that would just leave the registry of deeds and probate court as county functions. It would be very simple to turn them into state functions and eliminate county government altogether.

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I was a county commissioner for one three-year term, from 1979 to 1982. I lost my reelection in 1982 to Nancy Rines. There are 13 towns in that county commissioner district — I won 10 of the towns, but Nancy, who lives in Gardiner, won big in Gardiner, Farmingdale and Hallowell, and she beat me.

I’ll never forget the newspaper headline the day after the vote: “Smith Loses Two Jobs.” I was working for Congressman David Emery, who ran for the Senate that year and lost to George Mitchell. So yup, I lost two jobs on that election day. Big news, apparently.

Amazingly, 36 years later, Nancy is still a county commissioner. I’m sure she has done a good job, but I don’t see her as an agent of change — especially the changes I am proposing.

So I’m hoping that you’ll vote for Joe Pietroski, Nancy’s opponent in this year’s contest for commissioner. Joe has a lot of experience in and out of government, from the federal level to the local.

I’ve always admired him because of his coaching of the Winthrop High School debate team for so many years. Joe really inspired his students, including my sister Edie. He also served as president and treasurer of the Maine Bankers Association.

I have not talked to Joe about my proposals, but I do know he will bring a fresh outlook to county government, and that might give us a chance to pursue some changes that will make government more efficient and effective. It might even lower our property taxes.

George Smith can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon, ME 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.


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