The drumbeat from Washington, Augusta and your local town about tough economic times and budget shortfalls could be making you a bit numb. Amid dire predictions and sobering economic reports, the greatest challenge today might be finding anyone saying anything else.

Rather than begin with the blanket statement that these dark financial times were caused by Wall Street failures and we just need to hunker down to get through it, we should consider that these times present the perfect opportunity to reinvent ourselves.

Maine had budget problems long before the current catastrophe, and as other states made great strides towards surpluses, tax reductions and economic growth in past years, movement here never seemed to gain steam.

There isn’t a simple formula to reinvent how Maine does business, or welcomes business for that matter, but it is safe to say that new ideas are not abundant.

Nor can history help. The Founding Fathers, in creating this government and deciding its role, never envisioned the scales of national security, health care delivery, infrastructure, entitlements, education and many other services.

It is safe to say that society has changed drastically.

But why then, if the people of this country – in particular the people of Maine – have asked for so many additional services and programs, haven’t we created different and more efficient delivery systems for them?

From town and city lines determined by distance of horse travel, to county boundaries established by the difficulties of traveling by horse over ferry crossings, there is no obligation to continue jamming 21st-century demands into neat little packages laid out in the 18th-century.

The long-standing tradition to make government in Maine and New England this way led into the concept of “home rule.” Home rule for towns and cities allows, when boiled down, the desires of residents of individual municipalities to make their decisions and set their direction.

With nearly 500 towns and cities in Maine, that’s a lot of different directions that may not always be complementary.

For example, if the goal in winter is to have our roads plowed and salt and sand put down, what are the most efficient plowing routes and, in turn, the most strategic locations to build public works garages and salt sheds to refuel and reload those trucks?

With each town developing its own public works department, then adding Maine Department of Transportation and Maine Turnpike Authority facilities, it’s clear that there is no logical and efficient plan to meet the service need.

There is an illogical approach to plowing and sanding roads for car travel because we base the layout on town boundaries set by horse travel.

The same thought process can be applied to where we build fire department substations and locate fire trucks and where police substations are built. Is the goal to protect the people in a community in the most effective way, or to sign mutual aid agreements but only site and build facilities based on town boundaries?

This is a difficult state and municipal budget season. Threats of service and program cuts are certainly to play out in the news and public meeting halls throughout Maine. The song and dance of existing “partnerships” and “regionalization” should no longer be taken at face value because it has not solved the problem.

Before we starting threatening layoffs and reductions of services, the hand should be forced to change the way we do business, so we can leave the 18th-century behind, once and for all.

Jonathan LaBonte, of New Auburn, is a columnist for the Sun Journal and an Androscoggin County Commissioner. E-mail: [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.