TRENTON — Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt says he really wants to hear what residents of his town think about a proposed interlocal agreement with Bar Harbor that would make it easier for the two towns to share municipal personnel and services.
But he hopes he can persuade them that it would be a good move.
“I’m still confident that that’s the way we need to go and reasonably confident that eventually that’s the way we will go,” he told fellow members of the Acadia-area League of Towns board at their meeting here Feb. 26. “But what I intend to try to do over the next year is to find out where the community comes down on this idea.”
Lunt had planned to ask the board of selectmen to have residents vote on the proposed interlocal agreement at this year’s town meeting. But after hearing strong opposition from some people in town, he recommended that the vote be put off for at least a year. The selectmen agreed to that at their Feb. 19 meeting.
Mount Desert and Bar Harbor have been sharing a police chief since 2013. In December, officials of the two towns renewed for one year the “employee leasing agreement” under which they share the police chief and his administrative assistant.
The proposed interlocal agreement would establish a more long-term arrangement that would be broader in scope. It would allow the two towns “to explore the potential for common dispatch services” and “the potential for other common administrative oversight and department management staffing…”
Mount Desert residents who oppose the interlocal agreement have expressed concern that their town would lose too much local control and sense of identity. Those skeptics include some town employees and volunteer firefighters.
“There were people who perhaps felt afraid of the idea, about how it would affect them,” Lunt said at the League of Towns meeting. “And those are valid concerns.”
But he said that having the option of sharing some personnel and services is preferable to a full consolidation of town functions.
The impetus for creating an inter-governmental sharing option is the concern that small towns such as Mount Desert will find it increasingly difficult to recruit good people for vacant positions. The reasons for that, Lunt said, include the lack of affordable housing, an aging municipal workforce and the fact that fewer young people are going into public service.
“The demographics are not pretty,” he said.
When a key town employee retires, he said. “You might be able to put a warm body in there. But is that what we are there to do? We want to get the best person to advance the needs of the community. That’s what I’ve got to try to sell [to the community] over the next year.
“With an interlocal agreement, I could at least explore the feasibility of sharing a position [with Bar Harbor],” he contined. “I would just like to have that opportunity, and it’s something that I hope people will at least give a fair hearing.”
In Bar Harbor, the town council can approve an interlocal agreement such as the one that has been proposed. In Mount Desert, it has to go to voters at town meeting.
Bar Harbor Town Manager Cornell Knight told the Islander that Mount Desert’s decision to postpone that vote for at least a year will have no adverse effect on Bar Harbor.
Asked if he has heard of any opposition from Bar Harbor residents to an interlocal agreement, he said, “No, but we really haven’t discussed it too much because we were waiting for Mount Desert. So, we haven’t had people voice one way or another.”
The draft interlocal agreement, which Mount Desert has put on hold, would allow Southwest Harbor and Tremont to apply to join in the sharing of municipal personnel and services.
Southwest Harbor Town Manager Justin VanDongen said at the League of Towns meeting that his town’s police chief, Alan Brown, has told him he “doesn’t understand why there are three different police departments and the state police and sheriff’s office that operate on this island.”
“Logically, it doesn’t make sense to have these [dividing] lines for services that can easily be provided in a way that’s more efficient,” VanDongen said.
And he said the Southwest Harbor selectmen have directed him to look for options for farming out the town’s public safety dispatch service.
Lunt said there are potentially a number of areas of greater collaboration among the four towns on Mount Desert Island.
“With a population of under 10,000 year round, it really doesn’t make sense to have to have four of everything,” he said.