Residents get cold feet over shared services

MOUNT DESERT — Voters at the May 7 town meeting will not be asked to approve a 20-year “interlocal agreement” with Bar Harbor for sharing a police chief, which also would allow for the sharing of other municipal personnel and services.

After a number of Mount Desert residents in recent days raised strong objections to such an agreement, Town Manager Durlin Lunt and Town Attorney Andy Hamilton recommended that no action be taken on the proposed agreement until at least next year. The board of selectmen voted 4-0 Tuesday night to accept that recommendation.

Mount Desert has been sharing its police chief, Jim Willis, with Bar Harbor since 2013. In December, officials of the two towns renewed for 12 months the “employee leasing agreement” under which the towns share the police chief and his administrative assistant. Police officers employed by one town routinely patrol and respond to calls in the other.

An interlocal agreement would establish a more formal and long-term arrangement and would be broader in scope. The draft agreement, which has now been tabled, would allow Mount Desert and Bar Harbor “to explore the potential for common dispatch services in support of the public safety departments” of the two towns and “the potential for other common administrative oversight and department management staffing…”

The draft interlocal agreement would also authorize the two towns “to jointly own any land, facilities or equipment necessary for [municipal] services.”

Under the proposed agreement, the two towns would create a Shared Services Committee of municipal officers “to identify the shared services to be provided” and “to provide policy guidance to the town managers to implement.” Each year, the treasurers of both towns would prepare a budget for shared services.

The draft agreement between Mount Desert and Bar Harbor would allow Southwest Harbor and Tremont to apply to join in the sharing of municipal personnel and services.

Mount Desert residents who oppose the interlocal agreement have expressed concern that their town would lose too much autonomy and sense of community, that its municipal services would essentially be taken over by Bar Harbor.

But Lunt wrote in a Feb. 6 to the board of selectmen that Mount Desert, like many other small 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. Sharing agreements are far preferable to governmental consolidations…”

Lunt cited the town’s aging municipal workforce as a specific concern, noting that five department heads are older than 55 and their average age is 63 years and six months.

“Five key staff members with either supervisory responsibility or specialized technical skills have an average age of 58 years and four months,” he wrote.

Lunt cited the scarcity of affordable housing as another concern. He said that only 42.5 percent of the town’s employees live in Mount Desert and 20 percent live “beyond Ellsworth.”

All of those factors “cast doubt as to our sustainability as a full service community,” he said in his memo to the selectmen.

Given that, he said, “It would be prudent to consider employee sharing arrangements similar to our police chief sharing for other positions as well. Our most important task is to ensure that highly qualified individuals are available to provide essential municipal services, and when sharing positions with neighboring communities accomplishes this goal, then we should be prepared to do so.”

Lunt said potential areas of municipal cooperation that should be explored include fire protection and financial services.

The selectmen had first discussed the draft interlocal agreement at a special meeting Feb. 11.

Hamilton, the town attorney, on Tuesday addressed the dozen or so people who had come to the selectmen’s meeting to listen to the discussion or express their opinions.

“For those of you who came for a lively debate tonight, there won’t be a need for one,” he said. “We are going to defer this discussion largely to the 2020 annual [town] meeting.”

To those who have expressed opposition to the interlocal agreement, as drafted, Hamilton said he understands that some people are not comfortable with change.

“Change is part of the human condition,” he said. “People need time to process change, however.”

He said he, Lunt and Willis had agreed that more time was needed to engage Mount Desert residents in a thorough discussion of the pros and cons of shared municipal services.

“Democracy has worked because the concerns were heard, and that’s why we are deferring this until 2020,” Hamilton said. “But I think we’ve all got to expect that we’ll bring good data to the discussions that will flow in the coming year.

“I think we have to recognize that there is the need to preserve that which is great about the town of Mount Desert…and we don’t want to take away from that which is strong. We only want to provide the opportunity, where it’s necessary and when it’s necessary, to provide for sharing.”

An interlocal agreement such as the one that is now off the table would have to be approved by voters in Mount Desert and by the Bar Harbor Town Council.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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