Op-ed: County government - send it packing

Posted Wednesday, September 21, 2011 in Opinion

Op-ed: County government - send it packing

by Steve Cartwright

There’s a lot of talk these days of how to save the government money, whether it’s school consolidation or streamlining agencies. I propose that if we really want to save serious money, get rid of county government. It’s a rickety old system that needs to be retired.

County government is an anachronism. It may have nostalgia value, and for some, it maintains a false sense of regional power. The higher-ups in state and federal government make most of the decisions affecting counties. Elected county commissioners get little more than a title, and that is a dubious reason to have them serve us. The reality is that county government in 2011 is an anachronism. It’s a holdover from the past that is no longer needed because its services can readily be provided by state and local agencies. County government is a vestige of old English governance that is increasingly irrelevant and impotent.

Face it: do you know who your county commissioners are? Do you know what your county government does with your money? Our already consolidated state government in Augusta could take over the duties of county government and save us all money. And while most county commissioners are probably above board, doing away with the institution of county government removes the potential for corruption. That potential is real, since hardly anyone watches county government.         County government was around before Maine became a state in 1820 ~ a feat achieved by my ancestor, U.S. Senator John Holmes ~ and county government was even in place before the American Revolution, when Europeans were pushing Native peoples off their land so we could “settle” it as our own. Counties were first established in New England during the 1600s,when the Massachusetts Bay Colony — of which Maine was a part — sought to establish law and order in rural areas.Back then, that was basically everywhere. Back then, travel was slow, either by sea or by land. You needed government to be nearby, and besides, before statehood there was no central government in Augusta.

Today, county services could easily be shifted to state government, eliminating an antiquated and cumbersome layer of bureaucracy that we today take for granted.We don’t need this layer of government with today’s internet communications and a state government that is far more comprehensive and capable than even a generation ago, let alone two centuries ago.

The courts and jails that now exist in county buildings could be run by the state without any major change in their operation.

 County governments currentlyinclude probate courts, district attorneys, deeds, some emergency management personnel and of course the elected sheriff and his deputies. Why is a policing job filled through a political election? Because we’ve always done it that way. But your town or city would never elect the police chief. It’s a bad idea. Politics shouldn’t have anything to do with it.

If state and local police forces are beefed up, we won’t need a sheriff or any deputies. We wouldn’t need those good-ole-boy clubs of county commissioners, or highly paid administrators.

The state of Connecticut abolished county government almost 50 years ago, and the residents of its eight counties are doing just fine, with no loss of services and probably with lower taxes. In the 1990s, Massachusetts legislators allowed counties to abolish their county government, and six out of 14 counties did so. Another three counties in that state reduced the role of county government.

There are 16 counties in Maine, and if citizens are nostalgic about the names, keep geographic designations such as Lincoln, Knox and Waldo — even if a couple of those guys were unscrupulous land grabbers.  But let’s abolish an outdated, expensive and inefficient layer of government that, like your vestigial tailbone, serves very little useful purpose.

Freelance writer Steve Cartwright is a three-term selectman in Waldoboro, and twice ran for the Maine House of Representatives. His views are his own.

 

 

 

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