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Towns working on scope of sharing services
RUMFORD -- After a presentation and discussion about sharing or combining services, selectmen are discussing the scope of a study for this area.
Last Wednesday, Don Jutton, president Municipal Resources, Inc. of Meredith, NH talked about the company's specialty -- regionalization/consolidation studies.
Jutton, in doing quick research on the numbers, noted, "Mexico and Rumford are very similar in that you both lost 10 to 12 percent of your population between 2000 and 2010. You both have a very low median housing income of about $27,000. You're both getting older; Rumford's median age is 45 and Mexico is 44, which is very old as New England's median is 36."
He noted, "You're going to be forced to do something because you can't afford to pay the taxes you have."
Mexico's mil rate is $25 per thousand and Rumford's is $24.25 per thousand.
In attendance at the two-hour session were, three selectmen each from Rumford and Mexico along with the town managers, as well as Dixfield Selectman Hart Daley and Peru Fire Chief Bill Hussey, and several interested citizens.
As for the next step, Jutton suggested that they determine "who wants to play" and that each town have a point person for a conference call to discuss how to approach this.
"At the end of the day, this is incremental. No one is committed to anything, other than learning more," he said, adding that will be followed up by a general proposal.
If this goes to a proposal, Jutton said he would like to have a meeting that will include the public, town officials as well as the school superintendent and board reps.
Jutton, a former town manager, said the company, formed in 1989, has 14 employees and 24 semi-retired people that have assisted 450 communities in New England with sharing or combining services.
One thing they do is formulas for unitizing, so that each community is pairing its fair share for a combined service.
He said a problem Maine faces is that the population of 1.3 million is made of 500 towns. The median size is around 1,200 people. Combine that with the fact that there is about four times more area than New Hampshire or Vermont, and these small town have problems raising money to maintain its roads, and provide services to their residents.
The solution is shared services, facilities and equipment, but "part of the problem is that you (towns) have not learned to play well together," said Jutton, adding "One problem is emotion and a sense of identity."
Towns run more efficiently on a regional basis, which has done in many other parts of the country.
Jutton listed areas towns can look at:
1. Look at what you have in common (ex., assessing, financials, computers/IT, dispatching).
2. Staffing patterns.
3. Updating capital plans with surrounding towns, for purchases of big-ticket items like a grader.
4. Public works should become more specialized; they're better equipped for maintenance rather than construction.
Citing mostly examples in New Hampshire, Jutton said three towns are sharing an assessor; one town is contracting services with a larger nearby town; two small towns combined their police departments. In Massachusetts, several towns and their schools share a finance director.
"Why are we running local government like it's 1812?" asked Jutton.
For example, he questioned the need for towns to be staffed with tax collectors and town clerks when those functions can be handled electronically. In New England, 80 percent of tax dollars are collected by mortgage companies and held in escrow. By using this, he said the towns would get their money on a more timely basis and wouldn't need a staff.
Jutton also questioned why town halls are open during weekdays when everyone is at work. "Have a poll to see when people what their town hall to be open. Open it on Saturdays or whenever people prefer. I can register my car online, can get my driver's license on line. There's very little that I can't do online."
Greg Buccina, chairman of the Rumford Board of Selectmen, asked what have towns failed to do and are there areas they should stay away from in terms for sharing services.
Jutton responded, "There's nothing you can't do. Failure results from lack of leadership, conviction and not standing up to the lobbies.
"Everyone operates on hope, gain and fear of loss when trying to consolidate," he said, noting that fire and police often resist changes from the outside because it slows the opportunity for advancement.
There are times when attempts to consolidate will not work. "And there's always someone who will say 'I told you so,'" said Jutton.
He said a commitment for sharing services should be for at least three years. "It takes five years to go from never done it that way to always done it that way."
Jutton said proximity has a lot to do with sharing services. "We'd do an analysis of what you have in common. And we'd be transparent, not knowing any of the history. There's no right or wrong answer. Sometimes we miss. We're not perfect. This is our calling and our profession."
Rumford Selectman Jolene Lovejoy said, "The motivator is that we're finding out we may not be able to afford what we have.
And the mill appears to be on shaky ground, which affects all these towns."
Jutton said the process starts with a survey. They would look at the budgets and look at the costs and the differences. "We'd identify the impediments to success, what you have in common and not in common, who has more staff capacity than what they need; what could be outsourced."
He said they would then meet and interview people and try to extract information, admitting that sometimes people don't want to be forthcoming.
Rumford Selectman Brad Adley asked if he saw things going more to a county level.
Jutton responded, "Surprisingly no. The whole issue in New England is local control."
Mexico Selectman Reggie Arsenault said, "Speaking for myself, we really need this study for something to get done."
Mexico Town Manager John Madigan said, "I look at it as we've got a big mill in Rumford. We've got a big mill in Dixfield.
We've got vacation property around waters in Roxbury and Peru. We've got a pretty good commercial strip along Route 2 in Mexico. When you look at altogether, you've got the makings of a very strong community."
"You've got the population of the six towns is now 13,500. That would put us between 15 and 20 of the top towns in Maine in population. I think that itself carries some clout. It would also enable soemthing like a planning department, which none of us have ever been able to justify or afford, and yet you look at the populations figure at 1960 and we lose 10 percent every decade. We've never planned for the future; we've all relied on one major employer," he said.
Madigan added that they built a sewer treatment plant to handle Rumford, Mexico, Dixfield and Peru back when the population of Rumford and Mexico was double what it is now. "I see that as an amazing asset that's already in place because you could basically double or triple the economy here and not have to deal with those kind of major improvements to a sewer treatment plant. That's a huge expense averted. There's a lot of infrastructure that's sound like that make growth possible."
He noted, "Everything we've done together, we've done well (Med-Care, solid waste, sewer). They're all quasi-municipal, meaning that's all they have to deal with. That's part of their success and it works for us very well. The trade-off is that town get an assessment every year and have no say."
Madigan said, "What has to be emphasized is that both towns for 100 years have had their eggs in one basket -- the mill. For the future, we have to look at the real demographics of the whole area. We're really one whole community in the River Valley. The further you go out, the more resources you have, and you stand a better chance if you lose one of those resources. And as a region, you have a lot more clout in Augusta."
Rumford Town Manager Carlo Puiia talked about the emotion of doing something with combining or sharing services.
"Everybody is very territorial. It's a challenge, it's an obstacle, but it's not insurmountable. I think it's up to all of us as leaders in our community to put it before the citizens, bring them the best information we can. It's still up to them. Speaking for the town I work in, I think this community does have the will and courage. I don't think they're afraid of anything. It's just a matter of answering those tough questions."