Looking out at New Auburn from the window of his living room on a recent Saturday morning, Mayor Jonathan LaBonte said he had the perfect example for why joint services matter.
"I only have to look out and see the 4-foot snow pile that's been built up by my local plow truck," LaBonte told listeners by telephone on WGAN's "Inside Maine" radio show as Winter Storm Nemo piled up drifts across New England.
"If I'm a resident of the Lewiston-Auburn area, I'm really not concerned in this storm if the plow trucks going by have an Auburn decal, a Lewiston decal or a decal of some other entity. I just want to make sure my road gets plowed," LaBonte said.
He was on the radio that morning with former state Treasurer Bruce Poliquin to explain how Lewiston and Auburn could do better and trim their municipal expenses by sharing costs for core services such as police, fire and public works.
The cities had the chance to do just that five years ago, when a Citizens Commission on Lewiston-Auburn Cooperation issued its final report. The report calculated that each city could save about $1.2 million per year by combining police and public works departments and by sharing administrators in several other departments.
"We spent all that money on studies, but there was no need to implement," LaBonte said. "Politics got in the way. There was no fiscal cliff facing us, making us do it."
Some say that cliff is here now, in the shape of a potential $93 million cut in state revenue sharing to Maine cities and towns. In Lewiston-Auburn, those proposed cuts could mean between $4 million and $6 million less for the 2013-14 municipal budget, forcing massive service reductions and drastically higher property taxes, according to municipal officials.
With such fiscal challenges looming, LaBonte says it's time for Lewiston-Auburn to seriously reconsider the proposals in the controversial 2008 cooperation report, which included sharing one city administrator. And, he says, it's time for other Maine towns and cities to do the same.
"Why do we think we need 493 towns and cities to provide services for people?" LaBonte said. "Why can't Mainers simply agree to work together and do something different and actually trust each other?"
L-A: Consolidation leaders
LaBonte says the model for L-A — as well as other municipalities — is the 2008 report. He says the Twin Cities could lead the way, each city combining virtually every municipal department with its counterpart across the river.
The $2 million in annual savings are still there, he says, if the cities have the political will to make it happen. "If there are savings out there, we have no reason not to take them. It's a matter of leadership."
The 2008 report sketched out organization charts for combining just about every department in the two cities: Public Works, Recreation, Police, Fire, Finance, Assessing, City Clerks and Planning. A single director would guide each department in both cities. In some instances, they'd have deputies and staff working under them and dealing with one city. That was the plan for the combined fire departments.
In others — police and assessing, for example — the staff would be broken up into multiple districts across the two cities. They'd be responsible for their district but would be able to work across the entire community, treating the entire community as one.
"It's not so much having fewer people delivering the service, but having fewer people in an office somewhere telling them how to do it," LaBonte said, adding that five years after the study, those savings are still available.
For example, he said the study recommended a combined Lewiston-Auburn police force of 144 employees, down eight positions from the 2007 staffing level of 152.
Staffing levels remain roughly the same. Auburn added two sworn officer positions and one civilian since 2007, while Lewiston lost one sworn officer. Today, the two cities' police forces have 154 total employees.
And if it works in L-A, it can work everywhere in Maine, he said.
"That's what happens south of the Mason-Dixon line and out West," LaBonte said. "There are cities, but you find the rural towns partnering together through a regional government."
But not everyone agrees that municipal cooperation is the best way to deal with the looming revenue cuts.
'Myth' of consolidation
While the Twin Cities gained attention for their consolidation efforts, other Maine municipalities were exploring the idea as well.
In 2006, the state's Fund for the Efficient Delivery of Local and Regional Services awarded $500,000 to 14 municipal, county and regional governmental organizations for that purpose. Another 26 received grants in 2007.
According to a Maine Development Foundation report in 2007, 11 of those programs showed dollar-for-dollar savings: They were able to leverage state grants into actual savings on several projects — many of them storm-water consolidation projects. For others, savings were expected years in the future.
Maine's cities and town are still trying to make themselves more efficient, said Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, which advises Maine towns on personnel and legal issues. "We continue to receive examples from our members of how they are cooperating."
The MMA issued a report in 2011 that showed 550 examples of Maine communities working together to provide services. Most were sharing public safety services — ambulance and emergency response costs — and establishing mutual aid agreements for fires and other emergencies, according to the MMA report.
But often the towns were sharing to expand services, not to save money, the report indicated, Conrad said.
"It may save money, but it may also let a government add expertise," Conrad said. "It may give a smaller government access to skilled or trained employees they normally would not be able to attract."
In fact, Conrad said, simply sharing services does not save money. For that reason, he said, sharing and consolidation among towns is a bad way to replace revenue-sharing cuts.
"Here's the myth: Every time you consolidate towns and cities, money is saved," Conrad said. "We don't believe that's true."
For example, he said, a smaller fire department may pay individual firefighters less. Combining with a larger, better-paid department forces up the average payroll costs.
"The highest-paid department is never going to come down and take the contract from the lowest-paid department," Conrad said. "The cost comes in higher, across the board. And when your up-front costs come in so much higher, good luck getting paid back."
LaBonte counters that the savings to towns would come from eliminating duplicate services.
"Mutual aid is not the same as having a regional fire department," LaBonte said. "Residents don't care what firetruck shows up if their house is on fire, so what's the best way to make sure the firetruck shows up as quickly as possible? It's probably not to have every town deciding on their own where to put their fire stations. It's deciding where in a region the stations work best for everyone."
The question: 'Political will'
LaBonte admits his strong push for consolidation has critics at home. It has since the 2008 draft of the plan suggested the cities take advantage of the then-vacant Auburn city manager's position and appoint one person to manage both cities. It would have saved $90,000 a year. But city councilors in both cities were skeptical of that idea, and it was one reason the plan ended up on the shelf.
Similar discussions among LaBonte, Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald and Gov. Paul LePage last month led to more tension, with Macdonald telling LaBonte to focus on Auburn and leave Lewiston alone.
But the plan hasn't been ignored by Twin Cities' staffs, according to Lewiston City Administrator Ed Barrett. Over the past few years, the cities have found efficiencies by coordinating, matching software services, going in together on large capital expenses and sharing services for such positions as animal control officer, arborist and code enforcement.
"Clearly, we do a lot together, and things we have done together have contributed to holding down the costs of government," Barrett said. "We have the lowest operating budget per capita in comparison with the other 10 largest cities in the state. One of the reasons is that we do things cooperatively with Auburn."
He added, "There have been a lot of changes since that study came out — just staffing reductions alone. We are looking at the study again to see if what was recommended still makes sense."
Right now, LaBonte said, it's most important for city staff to identify potential savings that can be brought about quickly, within the next 10 to 12 months.
It's just as important for Twin Cities political leaders — himself, Auburn councilors and their Lewiston counterparts — to decide if greater consolidation is possible, he said.
"If there's political will, and that's a big if, what can be saved?" LaBonte said. "That's what we need to answer, for the short term and for the longer term, through 2015."
LaBonte said he's optimistic when it comes to elected officials.
"I think the public may be hesitant," he said. "There is a commitment that Lewiston-Auburn, we are in this together. So I don't think there will be any challenge with the elected officials and political turf. The question is, is the community at large ready for us to work together at a higher level?"
His other big concern is making sure the cities have an incentive to cooperate.
"If we're going to see cuts at the state level, there needs to be a carrot for those willing to do things that are bold," LaBonte said.
The governor could help, LaBonte said, by creating incentives for governments to work more efficiently. For example, the amount of revenue-sharing funds a city or town gets could be tied to its per-capita municipal costs.
"One thing I've made clear all along is we won't be able to make up for the entire loss of revenue-sharing just by becoming more efficient," LaBonte said. "But the revenue-sharing formula has nothing to do with how efficient you are now. If it did, there might be an incentive to become efficient — or stay efficient."
It's something Maine's cities and towns must deal with, he said.
"You can't change the fact that Maine is competing with other places on the map, and at some point people have to realize the status quo is not going to make us competitive," LaBonte said. "I'm the lone wolf on this issue right now, but I'm eager to fight for it."