Editorial: Thinking bigger 

As local municipalities join the list of employers struggling to fill key positions, town officials have had to think creatively to provide the services residents have come to expect. That can mean piecing together coverage with existing staffing or enticing retirees back into the office in interim roles. Some towns have increased pay or offered other perks to job candidates. Gouldsboro, pop. 1,703, upped the top end of its salary range for a new town manager to $80,000. That’s roughly 34 percent higher than the median household income in Maine. 

Municipal government is not for everyone and an outmigration of high school graduates from rural areas over the years means there are fewer young professionals waiting in the wings to take over when a town employee moves on. Fewer candidates with strong local ties mean that a prospective job is just that – a job to be weighed by cost-benefit analysis, as opposed to a calling to serve one’s own community. It’s hard for small towns to compete for qualified candidates while being responsible to taxpayers. Modest wages, a lack of affordable housing plus growing public angst about government in general have hampered recruitment efforts. 

And if it’s hard to get applicants to work for pay, it’s even harder to get them to work for nothing. Area volunteer fire departments have struggled for years to recruit large enough crews to respond during emergency. Many rely heavily on mutual aid agreements with other departments. 

They say necessity is the mother of invention and one way that local municipalities have found to continue providing services efficiently is to team up with their neighbors. Thinking regionally, be it combining emergency services, code enforcement or other government functions, is both prudent and, in some cases, the only path forward. The towns of Trenton and Lamoine have been discussing working jointly and perhaps with other towns to create a shared animal control officer position. That possibility was also on the radar at the county level, although the recent departure of County Administrator Scott Adkins has paused that effort.  

This past fall, Hancock County hired a finance director, which will free up some of the next county administrator’s time for other work. It would be a boon for all municipalities if some of that time was devoted to facilitating inter-town or even countywide collaborations. The job listing calls for “a visionary with leadership, organizational and listening skills.” Hear, hear. Someone who can look beyond the way things have always been done to how they could be done is worth his/her weight in gold. Providing regional ambulance services is one idea that deserves revisiting. 

Mainers rightly value local control but going it alone can be expensive. Thinking bigger and more collaboratively can ensure continuity of services for years to come. Perhaps the acceleration of those conversations will be the silver lining of the “perfect storm” of the current hiring crunch.  

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