Council of governments raises the stakes for Cumberland County members

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PORTLAND — Cumberland County towns and cities are assessing the costs and value of collaboration as they face a 60 percent dues increase from the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

In fiscal year 2019, each town will be assessed $1.60 per resident to be part of the agency, up from $1. The dues are calculated on 2010 U.S. Census data, GPCOG Executive Director Kristina Egan said earlier this month. 

In fiscal year 2020 dues will go up to $2 per person.

“Our members decided to reinvest in agency,” Egan said. “We need to step up to the plate and help lead region toward prosperity.”

The increase is the first in 27 years and was approved by GPCOG’s General Assembly last summer.

Member dues account for 10 percent of GPCOG’s revenues in the current $3.2 million budget, but answering the call for more cash has not been easy.

In Portland, where the FY 2019 increase is $38,000, it took a motion from Councilor Belinda Ray to add the money to the municipal budget approved Monday.

Although Ray was unable to attend the meeting, the motion passed without opposition.

Before Ray’s motion, City Manager Jon Jennings had budgeted for the city to continue to pay the current dues of just under $68,000. Earlier this month, Mayor Ethan Strimling’s motion to eliminate all funding was rejected by the City Council Finance Committee.

Had either Jennings or Strimling been successful, the result would have been the city leaving the agency, which was founded in 1969.

On Monday, Strimling said he opposed the fee increase as part of the GPCOG Executive Committee last year. In proposing to eliminate membership this year, he called GPCOG a “luxury we can’t afford.”

On May 18, Jennings said meeting the City Council budget guideline of a 2.5 percent increase meant more dues would cost a staff position.

“It did not have anything to do with the value, it had everything to do with the guidance,” Jennings said, while adding he would have opposed the dues increase when it was proposed.

The GPCOG Executive Committee is comprised of nine officials from member communities, which includes Cumberland County government. Ray is the agency’s first vice president. Westbrook City Manager Jerre Bryant is the president, Yarmouth Town Manager Nat Tupper is second vice president. The general assembly meets annually.

Egan said the added dues revenue represents enhanced local commitment as the agency seeks federal grants. At the same time, a dollar from 1990 is now worth only 54 cents.

Bryant said dues should have been increased incrementally, but were not.

“You always have trepidation about increasing any expenditure in the public sector,” he said May 18.

GPCOG data shows Westbrook’s annual dues will increase from the current $17,500 to $35,000 in fiscal year 2020.

The return on the investment for all is measured in the collaborative purchase of road salt, in so-called Brownfields assessment and cleanup grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and in small-business loans.

Ray and Jennings said Portland saved $52,000 on the cost of road salt because of GPCOG’s collaborative buying power.

Earlier this year, GPCOG merged with the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, the agency that distributes federal and state highway funds.

A community that leaves GPCOG would still be eligible for PACTS funding, Egan said, but the two agencies now have an increased ability to merge planning and development studies with transportation needs.

The value of collaboration extends beyond dollars, officials said.

“There is not a question that comes up where (our) council does not ask how communities do something or how they collaborate with each other,” Tupper said, adding the dues increase must still be approved by Yarmouth voters at the June 5 Town Meeting.

Scarborough Town Manager Tom Hall said he presented the proposed increase without worry.

“I made a point of highlighting in our budget notes for all to see,” he said.

Hall said GPCOG is already boosting its presence with studies on how communities can regulate legal marijuana, for fire and emergency services, and when confronting opioid misuse.

“From our perspective, the great value is working with members about social services the city unfairly shoulders,” Jennings said.

Egan said Portland has a symbiotic relationship with the rest of GPCOG.

“The region needs Portland to be at the table to face the challenges, but Portland needs to be at the table because we are all interconnected by roads, watersheds and workers,” she said.

Bryant, Hall, Jennings and Tupper agreed that Egan, a former Freeport Town Councilor, will ensure GPCOG is a valuable regional force.

“New England is in sort of a tug of war with itself, with a tradition of local self-governance. The closer government is to people, the better it can be,” Bryant said. “By the same token, performing services on a community-by-community basis is not always the most cost-effective.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Kristina Egan, executive director of the Greater Portland Council of Governments, said a long-needed dues increase will strengthen the regional planning agency’s work.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.