Eliminate the unnecessary

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There must be something positive to be said about Maine’s county governments, just like other obsolete entities such as vinyl records, dial telephones and polio. Think of all the good times you’ve had dealing with the county bureaucracy, like … well, I guess being thrown in jail can’t really be classified as a good time.

Counties do fill a void in the lives of people who believe we have too few layers of government. And counties are reliable sources of services that duplicate those provided elsewhere. Without counties, we wouldn’t have sheriffs – although we’d still have state troopers and municipal cops. Without counties, we wouldn’t have that jail – although there’d always be state prison. Without counties, we wouldn’t pay so much property tax – although we’d still owe sales and income taxes.

If counties ceased to exist, the only thing we’d really miss is their charming incompetence. Also, the constant bickering between the governor and the Legislature over how to pay for all the stuff counties can’t seem to cover in their annual budgets, which have traditionally been based on the possibility the tooth fairy will bail them out, or there’ll be a leprechaun with a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, or their investment in lottery tickets will pay off big time.

Nowhere is the uselessness of county government more evident than in the operation of the aforementioned jails. Several years ago, there was a move to have the state assume control of the local lockups, thereby creating a coordinated system that avoided overcrowding at some facilities while others had empty cells. Such a shift would have been efficient and cost-effective. But it had one serious flaw: It took power away from sheriffs and county commissioners, two classes of politicians noted for their large egos and small brains.

After prolonged wrangling, a compromise was reached in 2008, whereby the counties would retain most of the control over jails, although some small measure of authority was granted to the State Board of Corrections, a body that was supposed to oversee inmate transfers and allocate funding. This system functioned well for roughly half an hour before it devolved into a series of squabbles over who was really in charge.

In frustration, Gov. Paul LePage refused to appoint anyone to serve on the board. In response, legislators last year abolished that panel, and set up a system to fund the jails that called for the counties’ contribution from property taxes to be capped at an amount well below what was actually needed, while the state would appropriate an additional sum that would always be less than the amount required to cover the shortfall.

This is the same economic system used so successfully in Greece, the paper industry and mega-movie flops featuring Batman and Superman.

To everyone’s surprise, this makeshift solution resulted in a financial crisis, with expenses outstripping revenues by an annual amount of $2.4 million. Or possibly more. No one seems certain. In any case, the Legislature passed a bill appropriating that sum for jail costs for this year and next. LePage promptly vetoed the measure because it contained “no incentive for counties to rein in jail spending.”

By the time you read this, the Legislature will probably have overridden that veto, so the status quo will remain intact, at least until 2018, when this whole process will have to be repeated.

Because no one is fully responsible for jail budgets, no one feels compelled to budget responsibly. There are several possible solutions for this mess.

As LePage has suggested, jail costs could become entirely a county responsibility, a move that would raise property taxes statewide.

The state corrections department could assume full control of the jails, increasing expenses by $20 million or more and creating everlasting enmity between itself and county politicos.

Or the state could abolish county government, integrate the jails into the corrections system, and shift other county functions such as registering deeds and wills to the secretary of state and/or municipal clerks. The savings from eliminating county administrations and other prehistoric offices would just about offset the increased cost.

And we’d finally have something positive to say about county government:

Namely, that it’s gone.

I’m gone, too, until next week. But you can email me at aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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