WINSLOW — Paul Fongemie grew up in Madawaska, right against the Canadian border and the state’s northernmost town. Not surprisingly, he spoke French before English.

Now that he’s 270 miles south, the town’s new public works director said he still feels right at home. After all, there’s plenty of Franco-American heritage here, too.

“I’ve met a lot of people already and a lot of them are very happy that somebody here is speaking French,” said Fongemie, 55, who lives in Old Town. “Some of the older gentlemen I’ve heard from, and there’s a couple of people who we do business with, that we haul gravel from. And my foreman is French.”

Fongemie’s new Winslow job comes after spending most of his career as a private construction owner before a brief stint as public works director in MIlford.

That public and private experience is what Winslow town officials found appealing when they were searching for a replacement for John Giroux, who resigned July 13 after 14 years on the job.

Town Manager Michael Heavener noted that Fongemie has worked as an elected municipal official, a town employee and owner of a small construction company, “which I think gives him a ‘big picture’ perspective when planning and managing projects, as well as managing employees,” Heavener said.

Fongemie, who has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Maine, started as Winslow’s public works director July 25. His annual salary is $55,000 and he will manage an $1.8 million budget for public works, sewer and sanitation, according to town records.

Fongemie has a wife, Elaine, two adult step-children and two grandchildren.

He ran Fongemie Construction in Madawaska for 18 years. It was a small operation — “sometimes I was alone, sometimes I might have four employees” — and he worked on residential construction, septic systems, “whatever people needed done.” He also managed a landfill for a paper mill and a wastewater treatment plant for the town.

“I did a lot of snow removal in wintertime — did probably 80 percent of the commercial snow removal in that area,” Fongemie said. “So, I know snow. We have a lot of it up there.”

Fongemie also became familiar with town government by serving as a Madawaska selectman for four years.

Fongemie said he enjoyed the challenge and freedom of running his own construction business, but he struggled financially, especially as the economy deteriorated. He and a partner created a new company, but after another year “everything we had put into it was gone.”

“So, when the business went south, we headed south,” Fongemie said.

In 2009, he worked for a contractor in Caribou during the summer, but by winter was laid off. Then he noticed an opening for public works director in Milford, a community of about 3,000 north of Old Town.

Fongemie said he was attracted to the public position for several reasons.

“Some of it was the job security and reasonable benefits,” he said. “When you’re used to working 70 hours a week for yourself, and all of sudden you’re going down to 40 hours a week, it’s a nice change. I don’t mean I don’t like to work, but as you get older you like to reap some of those rewards, back off a little bit and have time at least to see your family.”

He held the Milford position for 18 months as one of a three-man department, overseeing not just public works but also trash removal and cemetery upkeep. He considered himself a working supervisor.

Milford Town Manager Barbara Cox, who is resigning next week, said she was sorry to see Fongemie leave but is glad “he’s moving onto bigger and better things.”

“He helped advance our department during his tenure of 18 months,” Cox said. “He brought us into the 21st century.”

For example, he worked with the Bangor Area Comprehensive Transportation System Policy Committee, enabling the town to learn more about federal and state funding sources for road reconstruction, Cox said.

“He brings excellent supervisory skills, the background of owning his own business, so he has that perspective of time and money management, as well as municipal experience,” she said.

He was attracted to Winslow, with a population of about 7,700, because the department seemed bigger and better established in a public works building that’s only a few years old, and because of the positive attitude of town officials and community members.

Fongemie said he’s still getting up to speed on public works priorities and doesn’t yet have a sense of what’s most important. He noted that a complete road reconstruction is under way on Marcoux Street and the town-owned parking lot at Johnny’s Selected Seeds is being rebuilt to make it handicapped accessible.

He understands that Winslow officials, like may others, have had to make tough choices recently on which projects to do and which ones to hold off until later to keep from adding to the tax burden.

“I know they had the roads evaluated a few years ago and they have a road-rating plan. I’ve heard comments from some people that some roads have been done that maybe were in bad shape, but when you look at the amount of traffic on them, were they really a top priority?” Fongemie said. “But that’s more of a council decision; we can only make suggestions. If people do have suggestions or comments, my door is open.”

Fongemie said he and his wife are searching for a house in the Winslow area. The drive from Old Town, he said, is getting old.

Scott Monroe — 861-9239

[email protected]

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