Growing bureaucracy

At a special town meeting in Deer Isle last June, voters decided to follow the example of many other Maine towns and hire a town manager. Jim Fisher, formerly of the Hancock County Planning Commission, got the job. Fisher has been on the job since January, working in the interests of the town’s 1,975 residents.

At the March 5 annual town meeting, one resident asked if the compensation the selectmen receive would remain the same, given that the new town manager likely had taken on some of the administrative tasks the selectmen had been handling. The inquiring resident was told that the selectmen’s workload had not changed. Voters went ahead and approved continuation of the selectmen’s annual compensation of $6,000 each, plus health insurance coverage costing an additional $10,000 each.

The people have spoken, and direct democracy prevailed. Prevailing, also, is the fact that a position once created or a salary level once established only rarely will be dropped or reduced. In such cases, what goes up does not come down.

Hancock County has added positions which, though apparently essential to meet complex needs, are rarely consolidated or eliminated. These new positions will have budgetary impacts for decades, while many of the taxpayers funding them count their compensation increases in pennies per year.

Nobody is questioning the important jobs that Maine’s public servants take on for their communities. Volunteering or underpaid, their long weeknights and after-hours work seldom is appreciated. These dedicated individuals donate energy, time and unique skills to help keep many Maine towns efficiently in the black.

And in fairness, rare is the selectman or councilor who has full knowledge of transfer station issues, school funding, transportation maintenance, wastewater treatment and the services necessary to run a community. Add zoning and commercial development, alternative energy projects and nonprofit expansion, and town officials — all too frequently still employed themselves with personal and family commitments — can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed. Making the decision to add management to help their town or city seems sensible.

But the devil is in the details. Can positions be shared with neighboring towns? Do taxpayers have an incentive to recognize that the demand for more services costs money? What costs X today could cost XX in 5 or 10 years. Will a town’s budget be able to handle ever-increasing public demands?

While Mainers pride themselves on their Yankee thrift, it bears remembering that cautious financial oversight of government expansion pays dividends. Town meeting season is in full swing. Voters, at times frustrated and frugal, have to take up requests for increased services, additional funding and new positions in municipal government. It’s the annual challenge. This year’s decisions could reverberate for decades.

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