Cost containment

Supporters of more and larger government often dismiss the suggestion that public spending (your tax dollars) needs to be managed as a private company manages its budget — maximizing every dollar on a profit/loss ratio. True, many public programs are difficult to measure in terms of gains vs. losses. In other areas, however, public spending can be scrutinized and each penny pinched for maximum benefit.

This approach can be undertaken locally, and sometimes centrally. Our population is rapidly aging and our service economy generates only modest economic swings up and down. Education costs plus social programs gobble up huge portions of our municipal and state budgets leaving precious little for innovation or stimulating growth.

To offset these financial pressures — and to remain good stewards of taxpayer dollars — a handful of Maine communities are finding ways to share costs, minimize common expenses and rethink creatively ways to deliver government services without relying on outdated processes. These towns are looking beyond “the way it’s always been done” as their administrators, selectmen and school superintendents recognize that the pot of municipal money is being severely tested by annual increases.

We applaud the stories of cooperation: Deer Isle and Stonington sharing expensive school projects; Winter Harbor and Gouldsboro, and also Mount Desert and Bar Harbor, working to share police forces; Lamoine and Hancock sharing a superintendent of schools and Bucksport’s Fire Department pursuing grant money for home safety programs. In Penobscot County’s remote Howland, they even have worked to monetize one of their departments — the Fire Department’s ambulance service — to, yes, generate income.

Pitting publicly funded services against private taxpaying businesses may raise eyebrows. However, town and city managers and school superintendents are being challenged to ask the tough questions. Is there a better way? Could we partner with another community? Have we shopped for a better price or service? Do we need a vehicle that large? Is that position still absolutely needed? Could work assignments be rearranged to improve productivity?

Just as those in private industry have been forced to implement cost controls, county and municipal officers face a similar obligation. Fostering communication and cooperation should become a universal goal in helping to find savings. Short of zero-based budgeting, which could become essential, taxpayers need reassurance that their hard-earned money is being used judiciously.

Annual tax increases, percentage-wise higher than cost of living increases, are not sustainable.

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