Small Town Manager Sharing

(from Maine Townsman, August/September 2006)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

With another referendum to limit municipal spending on the ballot this fall, statewide attention has focused on how municipalities deliver services. Both at the Legislature and in discussions in a variety of forums, people are asking whether towns can expand cooperation across municipal boundaries, building on the local sharing that has existed in various forms for decades.

Recently, several school districts have decided to share superintendents. Sharing town managers comes up less frequently, yet a number of Aroostook County towns and plantations have been doing just that in both formal and informal arrangements for a long time.

The most elaborate such arrangement is an interlocal agreement signed in 1992 by Mapleton, Castle Hill and Chapman. The three towns, just west of Presque Isle, had shared services informally (and the same town manager) for decades.

John Edgecomb was hired as town manager under the formalized interlocal agreement and continues to serve in that position. He had been planning director for the City of Presque Isle. Edgecomb emphasizes that he inherited the arrangement from the previous manager (Duncan Beaton), who helped write the agreement. “They did an amazing job,” he said. “From day one, there have been very few problems.”

The three towns had undertaken a variety of cooperative ventures, such as sharing highway equipment, for several decades prior to the formal, written agreement. The impetus to work more formally together, Edgecomb said, was not primarily economic – “though there may have been a nudge” – but to take advantage of services each town couldn’t provide on its own.

One of the strongest incentives was geography. While Presque Isle, the county’s largest city, is the main place for shopping and employment, Mapleton has had a significant downtown for more than a century. It is located at the extreme southwest corner of the town, not far from the point where the three town boundaries meet. Downtown Mapleton is a half mile from the Castle Hill line and a mile from Chapman (the fourth township in the geographic quadrangle is the unorganized T11 R4 township, known mainly for Squapan Lake and the state public reserved land there.)

Until an E-911 project established street addresses a few years ago, Edgecomb says that some recent Castle Hill residents didn’t even realize that’s where they lived: “The postal delivery says Mapleton, and the town office is there.” These are towns, in short, that are used to living and working together.

Three Towns, Then Two

Other shared manager services have had a less formal basis, at least at the start. For years – 27 years, to be exact – Candis (Roy) Nevers was the town manager of Oakfield, and later became the manager for Smyrna and Merrill as well. Like the three aforementioned towns to the north, these three towns in the southwestern part of Aroostook County have proximity. The built-up part of Oakfield is close to the village of Smyrna Mills, which is on the boundary between Smyrna and Merrill.

For Nevers, though, this was two jobs rather than one. She worked in Oakfield – which, with about 700 residents, was the largest of the three — during the day, and did her work for Smyrna and Merrill in the evenings and on weekends.

Four years ago, she decided it was time to cut back, and resigned the Oakfield post. At her request, Smyrna (pop. 400) and Merrill (pop. 250) signed an interlocal agreement that specifies cost-sharing and other arrangements for the joint town office. Since her departure, Oakfield has had two town managers and is now looking for a third. “I’m not sure how many people realize how much there is to this position,” Nevers said. “You can’t just expect to walk in the door and learn on the job.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Mitch Lansky, the new manager in Reed Plantation, which is in southernmost Aroostook, on the border of Penobscot County. Lansky says that he feels like he’s been “holding down the fort” in his first few months as manager. He took over for Joan Emery, who had been one of the longest-serving managers in Maine, taking on her first position after a short stint as treasurer for Reed in 1963. She was also the manager for Drew Plantation and Glenwood Plantation (Drew being over the line in Penobscot), but the arrangement was never formalized in these three small communities.

Emery was a protégé of one of the area’s legendary managers, Fred Greaves, who at one time had five municipalities in his portfolio – among them Reed, Amity, Hodgdon and Linneus (the latter two continued to share managers for a time, but have now dissolved the arrangement.)

As with her mentor, the joint managership of the three plantations has not survived Emery’s retirement. Drew is now in the process of deorganizing – the Legislature has approved, and a local vote has been scheduled – while Glenwood is on its own. Glenwood, as measured by resident population, is the smallest municipality in Maine, with just two voters and, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, just six residents — though there are a few seasonal homes as well.

A Cookie-cutter Approach?

The three veteran managers have different takes on how the sharing of manager services can and should be structured, as befits the highly individual nature of municipalities in the County, and probably everywhere else in Maine.

In fact, that was the criticism John Edgecomb had of the municipal regionalization bill offered by the Baldacci administration in 2003 that wasn’t enacted by the Legislature. The arrangement between Castle Hill, Chapman and Mapleton is probably the closest thing in Maine to the proposed Municipal Service District that former State Planning Office Director Evan Richert was trying to explain to legislators on behalf of the administration.

“It seemed to me too much of a cookie-cutter approach,” Edgecomb said. “They wanted a certain number of towns, and a certain population. That might work in the big counties with a lot of people, but it’s certainly not going to work up here.”

For the area, the three towns Edgecomb serves have substantial, but unequal populations. Mapleton, one of the few Aroostook communities to have grown in recent decades, had 1,893 residents in the 2000 census, while Chapman had 462 and Castle Hill had 454.

To create a unified administration, compromises were necessary to counter the potential downside, which Edgecomb describes as “a loss of control, a feeling that you’re part of a bigger something, and no longer yourself.”

Apportioned by population, the interlocal board could have been dominated by Mapleton, so that on some matters the larger town agreed that one affirmative vote from one of the other towns would be required to proceed; on other issues, votes from each of the two towns is required. Yet in his 14 years as manager, Edgecomb says there have only been a handful of occasions on which a weighted vote became necessary. “They were smart enough to realize that to get along, everyone would have to make some concessions,” he said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the three towns are also part of the same educational system, SAD 1 in Presque Isle, the first regional district chartered under the Sinclair Act of 1957. Students go to middle and high school classes in Presque Isle; Mapleton has its own K-5 school. (In Smyrna and Merrill, and in Oakfield, students attend the K-12 Southern Aroostook Community School in Dyer Brook – CSD 9 – which they also share with Crystal and Island Falls.)

Asked if he would recommend to other towns a compact such as the one he works under, Edgecomb said, “Absolutely. It works, and it does save money. You just have to think differently about the way you do business.”

He does have one caution, however. Service-sharing often begins when a smaller town approaches a larger one about providing a service that the smaller town does not yet have. In such cases, Edgecomb said, the temptation is to charge more than the actual cost of providing the service, a temptation he believes should be resisted. To be lasting, he said, “You have to see it as cost-saving, not money-making.”

In recent years, Edgecomb has encouraged the selectmen in the three towns to consider more joint initiatives, and was successful in obtaining one of the first municipal regionalization grants offered under the Baldacci’s administration’s program that dispersed $1 million statewide. A $35,000 stipend provided most of the necessary funding for an accounting system that serves all three towns. Edgecomb considers such a system essential if towns want to share administration long-term.

“It really puts everything on the same plane. You know what all the costs are, and can compare them fairly. All of our departments now know their exact costs, including benefits,” he said.

The software system was installed by TRIO, a company that apparently learned as much from the joint town office as the towns did from the company: “They discovered things from watching us use the software.” The final product required “lots of training” but he said it now could be used around the state, if other towns are interested.

Edgecomb finds that there are limits, however, to how much cooperation his selectmen will consider; no one, for instance, has suggested the joint managership should extend to the elimination of municipal boundaries or a formal merger. Following discussion of one idea that could have produced an agreement for joint assessing, the conclusion was, “It’s working fine now. There’s nothing to fix.”

His advice to towns that are sharing equipment or services now, or considering doing so, is to “write it down. If you don’t put it on paper, it may not last.” Once written agreements are in place, he said, it’s far more likely that service-sharing will survive a change of managers or boards of selectmen.

Post Office to Town Office

In Smyrna and Merrill, the local agreement dates to the days when the post office shared the same building, which worked well, Candy Nevers said, because the post office lease essentially paid the expenses. After the post office moved out, the two towns collaborated on their own joint office under an interlocal agreement. Capital costs were shared equally, while operating expenses are pro-rated on a formula based on population. For salaries, Smyrna pays 59 percent and Merrill 41 percent. “It works,” she said. “Everyone seems satisfied.”

Nevers said it costs the two towns less to operate together than it would separately, but for communities of this size, perhaps a bigger advantage is that they can afford a trained manager (Nevers has a degree in administration from the University of Maine at Presque Isle.) “Not everyone appreciates what a town manager does,” she said. “There’s a lot more to it than people realize.”

The joint agreement allows the office to stay open more hours, which townspeople appreciate, she said. There have been several joint projects, including a comprehensive plan that the state approved for both towns. In the 10 years the agreement has been in force, she can recall only two occasions on which one town thought it might not be getting a fair shake; both times the matter was easily settled. “There was nothing argumentative,” she said. Normally, the two boards of selectmen meet together twice a year to discuss budget issues and other matters.

Nevers said “there’s a definite savings” if towns work together. “A lot more could do it if they had an open mind,” she said.

Creating a single town office is the way to go, she believes. She misses the people in Oakfield, but not the way her job was set up. Moving between offices makes it difficult for a manager to be effective. “After awhile, it was too much for me,” she said.

A One-box Town

Joan Emery is content to be retired now. There are always accommodations that have to be made to municipal work, and she knew that from the very beginning. When she was briefly out of office as treasurer in Reed, years ago, her successor soon came to her and said, “Do you want the job back? You’re the only one who knows anything about it.” The problem, as she sees it, was simple enough: “Most people would say, ‘You’re not coming to my house to pay a tax bill at 6 a.m. on a Saturday’. ”

In such small communities – even Reed, with the village of Wytopitlock, has just 207 residents, while Drew has 57 – town business inevitably becomes personal. Not everyone is willing to keep serving in a job that, she says, requires “the patience of Job.” And there are not many communities, such as Glenwood, where “you can get all the records into one box.”

What she believes has helped her is to realize that, for the resident who needs something, “You’re a very important person, and you’re doing this for the benefit of the public.” That principle, she said, “is something you always have to keep in mind.”

Even after retirement, Emery finds that people still call on her to settle disputes, but she tries to stay out. She’s currently being enlisted to intervene in a conflict over management of a service she helped set up for the plantations and other towns in the region. After thinking it over, though, she said, “I really don’t think I’ll go to that meeting.”