Residents voice concerns about losing town’s identity
WALLAGRASS, Maine — Citing an anticipated increase in salary and benefits and a lack of qualified candidates, search committee members charged with finding the next town manager for Wallagrass put forth a proposal during a public meeting on Wednesday to instead contract those services with the town of Fort Kent.
Town Manager James Gagnon is due to retire in December and town officials were hoping to hire a new town manager prior to that to facilitate a smooth transition.
However, search committee member Janice Michaud told residents on Aug. 2 that only three applied for the full-time town manager position. Committee members felt none of the candidates was strong enough to take on the position.
The option to contract with another town came up as search committee members looked for what to do next. The concept of moving most of the town office functions to Fort Kent, though, were not well received by many in the audience.
“This throws me for a loop,” Peter Jandreau told Michaud, a reaction shared by many in the audience.
“Are we here to save the town or just pump everything to Fort Kent,” questioned Ken Marquis.
“Our community will not change,” if the concept became reality, Michaud told those gathered. She specified that Wallagrass residents would still elect their own selectmen and vote on its own budget and that Fort Kent would not “take over” the town.
Fort Kent Town Manager Donald Guimond, who was present at the meeting on Wednesday to answer questions, also weighed in.
“The word ‘merge’ has been used. That’s not accurate,” said Guimond.
Michaud said that Madawaska officials approached the town of Wallagrass about contracting with them to provide services. That idea was turned down, Michaud said, because Madawaska would be to far away from Wallagrass.
At that point, and after seeing little progress in getting qualified applicants, Wallagrass officials approached the Fort Kent town manager to see if that community was interested.
Although details have yet to be proposed, Wallagrass residents could register their vehicles or pay their property taxes at the town office in Fort Kent, with Guimond taking over the administrative duties that Gagnon has now.
An anticipated increase in personnel costs was a factor in proposing their shared services model.
Michaud said the combined salaries of Gagnon and part-time assistant Jennie Hartt are exceptionally low compared to what new hires are expecting.
“We have been blessed,” Michaud commented. Hiring a new person, full-time, would mean an estimated increase of more than $11,000 per year in pay and benefits, according to information provided at the meeting.
More than one resident suggested going back to a part-time town manager.
“We did it before. We can do it again,” said Elaine Desjardins.
Gagnon and Michaud commented that the workload is too much for a part-time person. The days are gone, they said, when a town office could be run out of someone’s kitchen.
“I would caution you about relying on a part-time person,” Guimond said. “It’s not like it used to be.”
“Have you asked for volunteers, to help with clerical work?” Jandreau asked.
“You want volunteers doing town business?” Gagnon asked in response.
Guimond and Gagnon both commented on the myriad reports the state requires of towns and the reliance on computer technology, something that both men commented was sorely lacking at the Wallagrass town office.
Michaud said that town manager positions in small communities like Wallagrass are often used as career “stepping stones,” leading to a lack of continuity.
“We want to help Wallagrass to continue to grow,” Michaud said. “We also need to keep municipal costs down.”
Multiple times at Wednesday’s meeting Michaud and selectmen reiterated that the concept of shared services would not mean the dissolving of Wallagrass as a town. Despite these reassurances, however, many in the audience expressed skepticism.
“This is our town here,” Desjardins said. “We’ve got to stand up and protect our kids. We have new homes, new families moving here. They don’t want to be part of Fort Kent.”
Desjardins disputed the characterization of the community’s town manager position as a revolving door prior to Gagnon’s arrival ten years ago. She also commented that Wallagrass does not need much of the software and online services common in many other town offices.
Remi St-Onge said that not having a town office is a “bad sign.”
“We are losing our town,” he lamented.
Michaud said that many Wallagrass residents already travel to Fort Kent multiple times per week, and paying taxes, registering cars and conducting other town business there would not be a large burden.
“I go to Eagle Lake everyday, can we move the town office there,” St-Onge asked, which elicited some chuckles, but did illustrate a point taken up by others. Desjardins said some residents do not get to Fort Kent often or are only able to go after normal business hours.
“Is this the only option you explored,” asked resident Jim Rioux.
“No. We can still look at applicants,” Michaud responded. “But, we wanted people to be prepared for the possibility.”
“Nothing is written in stone,” selectman Paul Lozier said. “We had three applicants in six weeks, but none were very experienced. This is why we are here, to get your feedback.”
The search committee did not present an estimate of how much it would cost to contract with Fort Kent. That figure is something Guimond would have to provide, should residents and Wallagrass selectmen consider it a viable option.
“We didn’t want Don to spin his wheels for nothing,” Gagnon said.
When asked to demonstrate by a show of hands their interest in exploring contracting services with Fort Kent, a majority of the approximately 50 people in attendance raised their hands. Only slightly fewer thought exploring a part-time position or seeking additional full-time applicants was a viable option.
“People want more choices before they decide,” resident Valier Plourde-Ouellette said, a sentiment echoed by many others in attendance.
Guimond, speaking by telephone on Friday, said Wallagrass officials had not yet asked him to produce a formal document outlining the structure and cost of the shared services model. He added that his own town council also would have to approve any such agreement.
The Wallagrass board of selectmen will make the final decision on which option to move forward with, according to Gagnon.