written by Attorney Dana C. Hanley and published in an April 2011 issue of the Portland Press Herald.
“Do more with less”; my father often shared that mantra with me and my three brothers when we were growing up. Forty years ago, I thought that was merely parent speak for “stop complaining” when my brothers and I grumbled about doing our chores. In this era of declining state revenues and a $4.3 Billion dollar projected shortfall in Maine’s employee pension plan, I now see the wisdom in my dad’s words.
There are many in Augusta and throughout Maine with firm resolve that “doing more with less” is not possible. I do not presume to have a magic panacea or all the answers to the multitude of questions and issues surrounding these troubling financial times. However, I do have a fairly unique perspective which may help to shed light on how we Mainers can frugally achieve meaningful reforms without further breaking the State’s piggy bank.
Approximately twenty-five years ago, I was a freshman State Legislator from Paris. I had the privilege of serving in the House for six years prior to running and serving in the State Senate for four years. This decade of experience, juxtaposed to the last fifteen years I spent as Judge of Probate for Oxford County, has afforded me with some insight as to the role of government and how our precious state resources are spent. Although our State budget has increased dramatically since 1996 when I finished my last Senate term as Chair of the Appropriations Committee, the underlying fundamentals remain fairly constant: State, County, and local governments must set priorities for their use of revenues to meet the needs of their citizens. While there is no lack of potential “uses” or special interest groups advocating for the allocation of these resources, the harsh truth is there is no way to generate the level of revenues necessary to support all of the requests.
This article is not about “spreading the pain” or “drawing lines in the sand”; there will be plenty of time for that as the current biennial budget makes its way through the legislative process and ultimately ends up on the Governor’s desk. Instead, my aim is to offer reasons to embrace these difficult times as an opportunity to look for creative ways to change the existing paradigms perpetuated by years of complacency and inertia. There are grounds for us to be optimistic. Just look at the efforts of Maine’s Probate Courts over the past six years. These sixteen courts are part of Maine’s county government system and receive no funding from the State budget. With absolutely no central administration for these sixteen courts, and accordingly a zero dollar budget for same, the Probate Courts have been able to develop a unified web-based docketing system at a fraction of the cost of what both the State of Maine’s Judicial branch and the County Registry of Deeds have spent on similar systems.
Less than ten years ago, the Probate Courts were arguably the most antiquated courts in Maine. In response, the Judges and Registrars from Oxford and Androscoggin counties joined forces and collectively agreed it would take some creative thinking to bring the Probate Courts into the twenty-first century. With a truly bi-partisan four member team, we promoted the concept of a single unified system for docketing cases to the remaining fourteen counties. While “herding cats” is an overused metaphor, it is more than appropriate in this instance. Each county in Maine is basically its own fiefdom and operates independently from all of the other counties. Don’t get me wrong, I am a strong proponent of local control, but in the past, the lack of a “common vision” has proven to be a lot more expensive than necessary. There are definitely times when “buying power” and cost-effectiveness can be helpful factors in the equation.
Because the Oxford and Androscoggin Court judges and registrars had legislative experience and familiarity with State appropriation procedures, it allowed us to think outside the box. We approached the State to take advantage of their buying power. Our goal was to craft an RFP (Request For Proposal) to secure the services of a company to help us design a program that would serve all sixteen counties while spreading out the cost proportionately based on population. While neither Oxford or Androscoggin could have afforded this either on their own or collectively, harnessing all of the counties resources, then allocating their proportional share, proved very affordable. To put this in perspective, the State Judiciary has an Administrative Office budget of $4,000,000. This does not include Judges’ salaries or the expenses for each of the clerk’s offices. This figure is only for the central office to oversee the operation of the Court. As noted earlier, the sixteen Probate Courts have no similar administrative office. Each Judge and Registrar serves as the de facto administrator for their respective court. The average salary for Maine’s Probate Judges is approximately $25,000, with the Registrars at a slightly higher scale as they are expected to be present at the Registry of Probate even when Court is not in session.
I am currently in my second year chairing the Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Probate Rules. This eight member committee, with one Probate Registrar as an ex officio member, serves purely as a volunteer committee without even the nominal benefit of mileage or meal reimbursement. This Committee is tackling the prospect of making electronic filing available for all Probate matters. Neither Maine’s District or Superior Courts allow this even though the Federal Courts have been doing this for several years. By allowing for electronic filings, the Probate Courts will save a tremendous amount of staff time by avoiding much duplicative data entry. By converting to a primarily paperless system, we will save on storage space which is becoming a priceless commodity in most of our county courthouses.
It is no secret that Maine has a rapidly “greying” population which will increase the workload of the Probate Courts significantly in the years to come. If we don’t start implementing such cost saving measures now, we will end up millions of dollars in the red before you can say, “Unfunded billion dollar pensions”.
How much is it going to cost the counties, and accordingly the citizens of Maine, to realize these savings and implement electronic filing? The answer is, basically nothing. Our dedicated volunteer committee is working with the current software vendor for our unified docketing system to rollout a pilot program later on this year in York, Cumberland, Penobscot and Oxford counties. Fortunately, we had the foresight to create a system platform five years ago to support e-filing when we were ready to take the next step. Some people told us ten years ago we were on a fool’s errand to implement a state-wide web-based unified docketing system. It has now been operating successfully for five years.
Those former critics have not been quite as vocal upon learning of our plans to implement successful e-filing. There are those in Augusta who insist it takes a multi-million dollar administrative budget to put into operation such global state-wide programs which spawn significant cost savings for generations to come. Don’t listen to them. There are opportunities for similar type ventures and cost savings measures throughout all levels of government; you just need to take the time to look around and find them. It has been said, “The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step”. It’s time to start walking.