MOUNT DESERT ISLAND — Benjamin Franklin famously told his fellow signers of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”
Today, public officials on Mount Desert Island aren’t worried about being strung up, but they are looking at ways for the four towns to hang together more closely. There seems to be a greater openness to exploring opportunities for collaboration.
“Whether we’re talking about school consolidation (or) consolidation of police forces or medical facilities or whatever it is, our island is having to constantly figure out how to join some resources in order to keep our tax dollars going farther,” Southwest Harbor Select Board member Ryan Donahue said at the board’s Nov. 26 meeting.
That sentiment was expressed repeatedly at the Acadia-area League of Towns’ annual meeting of elected officials two weeks ago. One of the issues discussed was the possibility of Mount Desert taking on emergency dispatch services for Southwest Harbor, which would relieve that town of the need to hire dispatchers.
Mount Desert Selectman Rick Mooers said it is understandable that, when a town has the opportunity for “consolidation or shared services,” it is normal for residents and public officials to ask, “Are we going to lose our identity? Are we going to lose our local control?”
But Mooers said the prospect of partnering with a neighboring town doesn’t have to be “a big scary thing.”
“It doesn’t have to be either jump all in or don’t do it,” he said. “It’s dangle your toe in the water and see how it goes. And if it’s not going the way you want, then you back out.”
He cited the example of Mount Desert and Bar Harbor deciding six years ago to share a police chief. Now, although each town officially has its own police department, they essentially operate as one.
In going from “chief sharing to municipal law enforcement sharing,” Mooers said, “Every step, every incremental piece got decided upon and determined by the elected officials.”
Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt said towns need to explore possibilities for working together to meet personnel needs. In a memo to the Board of Selectmen earlier this year, he wrote that Mount Desert, like many other Maine towns, will face “a scarcity of interested, qualified candidates” to fill jobs in local government.
“Demographic trends indicate that the problem of recruitment and retention will get worse rather than better in the coming decade,” he said. “Fewer younger people are seeking careers in municipal government, and many others lack the requisite skills or temperament to be successful in municipal service.”
Lunt said potential areas of personnel sharing include financial services and fire protection.
Last month, Mount Desert Fire Chief Mike Bender told the selectmen that the island’s four fire chiefs plan to meet with the four town managers to talk about the future of fire protection on the island, including the possibility of eventually merging into a single department.
Meanwhile, Lunt, Bar Harbor Town Manager Cornell Knight and Mount Desert Island Regional School System Superintendent Marc Gousse plan to send out a request for proposals to provide human resources services for the two towns and the school system. And they have said they would welcome the participation of Southwest Harbor and Tremont.
Gousse told the Islander that such partnering “doesn’t have to compromise a community’s identity and take away their control.”
He noted that it took two decades for residents of the four MDI towns to agree to form a consolidated high school, which opened in 1968.
“Now, I don’t know of too many people who don’t love this high school and see the value of it,” he said.
“I think there are parallels between that [school consolidation] process and where we are now. There are lessons to be learned. We need to collaborate, and I think we can do that without giving up the farm.”
At the conclusion of the League of Towns’ meeting of elected officials, those present voted on the topics they would like the league to focus on in the coming year. The top vote getter was “affordable housing,” with “municipal collaboration” a close second.
Those two issues are closely linked. The shortage of affordable workforce housing on the island is widely seen as a major factor in the shortage of candidates for both public and private sector jobs and, in the case of the fire departments, the shortage of volunteers.
Reporter Sarah Hinckley contributed to this story