Be careful about what you create

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 had likely 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 will rarely be dropped or reduced. In such cases, what goes up does not come down.

In Calais, the City Council is dismayed that the Washington County Commissioners are looking to increase the Calais county tax by 8.7 percent to help pay for additional sheriff’s deputies. With a shrinking population and a county tax that has increased 45 percent over the last eight years, Calais is crying “uncle.”

With foreclosed properties increasing each year, Calais officials are not alone in noting that once new government positions are created, they rarely disappear. Many of these salaried posts include insurance and retirement benefits that far exceed those of the taxpayers required to fund them.

Hancock County has added positions which, though apparently essential to meet complex needs, are rarely consolidated or eliminated. These new positions will have budgetary impact for decades, while taxpayers funding them count their compensation increases (all too often seniors on fixed incomes) 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 ultimately seems sensible.

The devil is in the details. How much government creep can be tolerated? Can positions be shared with neighboring towns? Do taxpayers have an incentive to recognize that 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?

Readers following the funding debacles in Connecticut, New Jersey and other states already know that the answer is no. Government pensions and benefit payments to government employees have stripped communities’ ability to pay for the basics — schools, police and roads. Deficits are the rule, chaos is becoming the norm. Residents are leaving, unable to pay property taxes.

While Mainers pride themselves on their Yankee thrift, it bears remembering that cautious financial oversight on 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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