In Maine, regional government hardly exists. Due largely to its history, Maine — despite an extensive geography — has never developed the general-purpose county governments common to most states, which offer not only courts and law enforcement, but maintain roads, administer schools, and plan development.
Maine’s 16 counties have traditionally gotten little respect from state or municipal officials. Towns and the state may quarrel, but they unite around the idea that none of what they do should be transferred to counties.
That could be changing, however, under the combined pressures of tight budgets and the realization that technology can improve public services.
The counties partnered with the state in 2007 by agreeing to integrate their jails with the state correctional system. Counties would now become the central focus of emergency call answering and dispatch services if a report issued last week by the Public Utilities Commission is implemented.
The PUC was put in charge of consolidating the state’s 48 public safety answering points (or PSAPs) back in 2003. The result was fewer PSAPs — 26 — but an unsatisfactory system. As a consultant earlier pointed out, consolidation reduced PSAPs but not dispatch centers, most of which continued to handle calls transferred from other centers.
Savings were minimal, and fragmentation was considerable, as towns started shopping around for the best rates. In some communities, police calls are dispatched by one agency, fire calls by another, and rescue personnel by a third — not anyone’s idea of efficiency.
The new PUC plan is more ambitious. It calls for 17 dispatch centers, one per county plus Portland, integrating call-answering and dispatch. Currently, 28 municipalities have dispatch centers without PSAPs.
But the PUC report is even-handed. In addition to eliminating municipal dispatch centers, the state would also give up two of its four, in Orono and Gray, while maintaining services in Augusta and Houlton.
The exception of Portland to the one-per-county rule makes sense. Cumberland is by far Maine’s largest county, and Portland its largest city. Under the PUC plan, Portland would dispatch for three neighbors, while the county would serve the rest.
One can anticipate fierce resistance. While some dispatch center consolidation has occurred, it’s frequently a pitched battle. Freeport’s town council was the target of two unsuccessful petition drives before finally moving dispatch services, not to Cumberland County, but to Brunswick. During the PUC’s comment period, only one voluntary consolidation was offered — between the Lewiston-Auburn center and Androscoggin County.
The PUC thinks resistance can be overcome through incentives, and it may be right. It’s instructive to compare the relative success of the state-county jail alliance, which offered counties the benefit of no property tax increases, and the meager results of school consolidation, where penalties were deployed for districts not cooperating.
The PUC says the state should offer $1 per person for three years to each “fully consolidated” PSAP/dispatch center; nine counties, most of them small, already meet that standard. It would also offer $50,000 grants to plan and implement consolidation, which can be technically tricky.
The core issue is how much local government Maine thinks it can afford. Advocates of municipal dispatch centers like to talk about the local knowledge dispatchers have about each house and family. But in most of Maine today, such local knowledge hardly exists, and the technology to accurately guide emergency response is formidable. For most callers in a life-threatening emergency, a well-trained, capable dispatcher is what they want — not necessarily someone who knows their family. And keeping a 24/7 service for a few thousand people is undeniably expensive.
The PUC’s emphasis on counties is a logical response to Maine’s dispersed population. In New Hampshire and Rhode Island, by contrast, a single center answers all calls.
Another detail the state must attend to is the cost differences between the state and county dispatch centers. For reasons that are complex and somewhat unclear, the state has much higher costs — one reason towns have moved their business elsewhere. As it did with the county jails, the state may have to temporarily subsidize its own remaining dispatch centers until costs even out, as they should over time.
The success of the PUC plan is far from assured. But the Legislature appears to be serious. With the first consolidation producing minimal results, getting it right the second time should be a priority.
If it does happen, regional government could become plausible for law enforcement agencies — which are just as fractured, and a lot more expensive, than emergency call answering and dispatch.
And in the process, county government, long a step-child, would achieve at least some measure of respect.

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