STRONG – Regionalism, establishing an economic development zone and the work ethic of Franklin County people were highlighted during a forum Tuesday.

Regionalism is a “very hard topic” to talk about in Maine, Evan Richert, former state planner, told more than 50 people Tuesday.

Though it’s not a word easily talked about in this state, he said, it’s something that needs to be discussed. But that discussion should come from the “bottom up” and not be imposed, Richert said. If Maine’s people were to consider regionalism in their own way, Richert said, he believed they could make it work and reduce the cost of delivering services but not affect the quality of services and still maintain citizen control.

Richert was one of three featured speakers at Tuesday’s forum to address the shifting economy in northern Franklin County. The loss of jobs and reduced operations in the region has produced a down slide in the local economy over the last few years.

Richert gave an overview of peer states such as Idaho that, he said, operate more efficiently. Idaho has 44 counties to Maine’s 16. Though the two states have similar populations of about 1.3 million people, Idaho has less than half the number of municipalities as Maine – 210 vs. 430.

If municipalities and school districts merged, effectively reducing the number of towns and school districts, Richert said, it should be possible to reduce the state’s spending by $125 million to $150 million a year.

Richert named a number of options to consider, including redrawing counties into smaller counties with expanded authority to serve a broader purpose and several municipalities banding together in an association to deliver services.

Whatever is done, Richert said, municipalities should decide for themselves.

SAD 58 Superintendent Quenten Clark said what’s happening in Franklin County cannot continue. If the four school systems in the region were to regionalize, Clark said, the system would operate more efficiently and do a better job for students, and it would also open up ways to collect money for services that are not being collected now.

Strong selectmen’s Chairman Perry Ellsworth said a group of people have met several times on weekends to discuss options to bring businesses to the county and jobs to its people. They continue to meet, he said, and are not dwelling on the loss of jobs but are looking forward to what can be done to bring more economic development to the county.

Ellsworth echoed Deb Burd, executive director of Western Mountains Alliance, in saying that the area’s biggest and most resourceful asset is its people.

Burd said earlier in the forum that the region needed to build on its assets and create a future the people want. It’s a challenge, she said, but it could be done.

Les Stevens, executive director of the Maine Partnership of Eastern Maine Development Corp., gave an overview of Gov. John Baldacci’s Pine Tree Zones, an economic development initiative he has proposed. While four zones out of eight have been spoken for, there are still four left undetermined, if the proposal is approved by the state Legislature.

Stevens told those gathered to continue with meetings to discuss the shifting economy and to pursue a zone. He also told them to think about reaching out to businesses in Canada. Though people in Maine consider themselves highly taxed, which they are, he said, the state looks “good” to Canada.

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