County government is the quiet workhorse of local and regional government as established by law. County government is Maine’s oldest form of government, predating statehood and even the writing of the Declaration of Independence.

But according to Douglas Rooks, county government might seem inefficient or weak (“Sheriff ‘impeachment’ underlines need for change,” May 30). It is neither.

County government has proven itself effective in coordinating and providing valuable services in the areas of law enforcement, emergency management, and agricultural education and activities. The county is also home to the Registry of Probate and the Registry of Deeds, providing crucial roles to family needs and county heritage that extend beyond county lines. The documents and records of these departments give us a record of the lives of our ancestors and the conditions of their times. Good documentation aids in determining legal status: court orders, marriage licenses, deeds, and the minutes of the county commission are just a few examples of the importance of documents that create relationships, establish rights or liabilities, and authorize certain actions thus giving us insights into the lives of our ancestors. These are clearly well-defined responsibilities.

Officers with the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office gather outside the Cumberland County Courthouse before John D. Williams’ sentencing in this 2019 file photo. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

For many people Rooks’ column lifted a curtain that hides the inner workings of county government. Unfortunately he has provided more confusion than light. County government is the quiet engine in a system of government that works efficiently and close to the people on a strict close-to-the-bone budget.

In Somerset County the budget is first formulated and developed by the department heads, considered line by line by the commissioners and sent to the county budget committee, which is made up of municipal officials, for final drafting, then it is sent before the public for their consideration. Whereafter, with budget committee acceptance, the budget is returned to the county commissioners for approval. The county commissioners have the power of the purse strings whereby the commission approves the spending of the monies allocated.

County sheriffs are elected officers of the county. The election of sheriffs is among the strongest form of democracy where the people directly elect their law enforcement officer. That said, being sheriff is not a simple matter of gaining the most votes. In order for the the sheriff to be the head of the departments of law enforcement and corrections by law there are minimum qualifications to be met in order to be elected or appointed as sheriff including swearing to or affirming the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. The sheriff is an elected professional and the chief county law enforcement officer. State law requires that the county commissioners “shall regularly review the sheriff’s operations and shall ensure that the law enforcement functions required under the budget are being adequately performed. The county commissioners may not give orders directly to any deputies or other subordinates of the sheriff, either publicly or privately.” The county commissioners have oversight and are the makers of county policy that applies to all departments of the county.

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Rooks states, “The county sheriff offices are regional police forces,” yet calls them “inadequate.” If they are inadequate it is not for lack of qualification or professionalism but for the lack of available personnel or funding which comes mostly from the property tax payers.

Rooks also states that “Counties are completely dependent on local property taxes.” That dependence on the property tax makes for tight budgets but does not make the county structure “rickety.” Municipalities and public schools receive revenue sharing from the state that counties do not but municipalities and public schools are still reliant on property tax.

The state on the other hand has the sales tax and the income tax as major sources of revenue making counties the Cinderella of governments. The functions of the county are not easily transferred to the state. County government is a cost-effective and efficient form of government. The greatest pressure on the county is the cost of the jails. This is not a case of mismanagement but a lack of proper funding by the state. County taxpayers should not have to pay for costs associated with housing state prisoners, yet the state consistently fails to pay its fair share.

A better way to enhance county government while providing relief to property taxpayers is for the state to provide revenue sharing that reduces the impact of property taxes on all property taxpayers.


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