Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Too many towns? Lessons on consolidation from the Maritimes

For decades, Mainers have debated whether our "home rule" system of strong, usually tiny municipal government is holding the state back. Here every one of our more than 400 towns is a small republic unto itself, with broad powers that in southern or mid-Atlantic states would lie with counties. The vast majority have such small populations -- often less than 2000, and not infrequently under 1000 -- that they retain the town meeting form of government, a pure form of democracy where the assembled citizens vote directly on measures by a show of hands. But, critics say, perhaps a state of just 1.3 million can't afford such a system; thus calls to merge towns or to confer some of their powers on Maine's counties, which currently have hardly any at all.

I wrote on this topic a few months ago in the Maine Sunday Telegram, and in the process became interested in the experiences of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, Canadian provinces very similar to Maine in physical size, population size, economics, environment, and culture. Both provinces have worked to consolidate municipal government -- "amalgamation" is the word Canadians use -- for decades, but with mixed success. In Nova Scotia, counties have generally assumed powers of towns that find they are no longer viable, while in New Brunswick there was a campaign to force towns to merge.

How did it all turn out? While in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick earlier this summer, I looked for lessons for Maine. What I learned is in this piece in this week's Maine Sunday Telegram. Here's an excerpt:

“Most of the arguments about efficiency don’t really pan out,” says James McDavid of the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, who studies municipal mergers. “You might get some efficiencies if you talk about amalgamating infrastructure like roads, sewer and water, but the argument falls off the rails when you’re dealing with functions involving human beings interacting with residents.” That’s because wages and benefits usually rise after a merger, especially when unionized police, fire or public works departments are involved.

Enjoy the piece.

[Update, 8/12/15: The Portland Press Herald editorial department came out with this editorial based on the piece.]


  1. I actually read the article last night. Interesting, especially in terms of McDavid's finding that the expected efficiencies assumed relative to consolidation didn't materialize. I guess this might be termed a "a word of caution," but govt. types continue to plow ahead with their preconceived notions.

    A case in point was Baldacci's school consolidation, which hasn't worked very well at all. Just ask the towns of Freeport, Durham, and Pownal about that.

    1. True enough. I live in RSU-5, a case study in the dangers of arranged marriages.