What will our town halls and schools look like in 50 years? Remember last century, when real estate brokers and appraisers used to come into town halls all day long to gather simple assessing and property information? That foot traffic has been reduced by about 90 percent with GIS computer maps and well-designed websites.

Today you do not need to go to town hall to pay your taxes, buy a license or re-register a car, snowmobile, ATV or boat. All you need for those tasks is a smartphone and a credit card. Millennials and their future offspring are not going to come to town hall for such routine tasks that can be done at home via smartphone or home computer. Many of us still do come to town hall for these services today, but over the next decades those numbers will dwindle greatly to the point where fewer staff hours will be needed.

Admittedly, not all municipal services will be replaced digitally over the next generation. We will still need code enforcement officers, planners, assessors, tax collectors, treasurers and town clerks to inspect construction sites, enforce ordinances, process transactions, pay the bills and run elections. We will still need experienced staff to answer questions from the public on the wide variety of inquiries on topics from potholes to the all-important “When is the transfer station open?” So, what will a town hall look like in the year 2069?

Imagine if — instead of each town hall’s front lobby being open five days per week — several small to medium-sized towns worked cooperatively and put one or more multi-town customer service facilities inside or near a Hannaford or other busy retail store. Experienced municipal employees could then receive payments and process transactions from many towns right there on one computer screen. A town could reduce its payroll costs and provide more customer service hours if multiple towns cooperated to provide these simple municipal services, while still retaining all of our individual town boundaries, culture and events.

Technology allows us to do such things today … in 2019. But first we must shed some of our Yankee stubbornness and allegiance to 18th-century municipal boundaries that mean little to commerce and governance in our digital age.

Now imagine if our schools also maximized available technologies and greatly increased digital instruction in selected subjects starting at the junior high and high school levels. I know I would have been better educated back in the 1970s if I had been able to look at that day’s lecture again at home on a laptop. Our kids are asking for more online learning in the digital economies that they will be running in their careers, so why not give more of that to them now?

I am not advocating that virtual instruction should replace all teachers in the classroom. That will never happen, nor should it. Some grade levels and subjects need that personal interaction on how and what to learn. However, there are numerous introductory as well as advanced subjects that a school’s curriculum committee could decide to provide digitally, especially at the junior high level and above. Some of this exists today. Such instruction can be better and more useful to our students, not just different.

Let’s face it, we humans are resistant to change. Our 2019 instant gratification society and social media culture, preferring reacting to thinking, love to say “no” to new ideas – just because we can. However, our kids’ futures and families’ checkbooks will both be better served if taxpayers become more engaged and help lead our town halls and school departments in embracing technology and innovation rather than avoiding it.

What would a 10 percent reduction in labor costs look like in your total municipal and school budget? We all know that the rate of growth in municipal and school spending is unsustainable and something must change. Let’s tackle that problem head on with technology and help Maine lead the country deeper into our digital age. After all, Maine’s motto is “Dirigo,” meaning “I lead.” Will we?

Gary Lamb is town administrator of Waterboro.

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