WEST GARDINER — In one way or another, a Hickey is responsible for all the buildings, roads and properties of West Gardiner.

“It’s not nepotism,” longtime Selectman Mert Hickey is quick to say. “We’re all elected.”

Mert Hickey’s son Gary has been the road commissioner since 2007, and Gary’s son, Gary II, was elected fire chief in February.

This southern Kennebec County town is home to about 3,400 people in its 27 square miles. Like many Maine towns, it has a mix of farms, woodlands, homes and businesses.

And like many towns, West Gardiner gets by on less — because that means collecting less property tax from its residents. Unlike many of its neighboring towns, West Gardiner doesn’t have a website that collects the town’s pertinent information, and truth be told, there’s not a lot to put on it anyway.

West Gardiner doesn’t have an assessor’s office. Every April, the selectmen tour their town and complete the assessment themselves. They use guidelines they’ve established for undeveloped and developed properties. Waterfront property is worth a little more.

“About 90 percent of the people are happy,” Mert Hickey, 79, said recently when he sat down with his son and his grandson to talk about their work for the town.

If the selectmen get complaints, it’s because they might have assessed property that has been sold within the last year, so they correct the record and move on.

But if the record is on a computer, Mert Hickey won’t be correcting it. He learned to use a computer once, then the system changed, so he gave it up. He leaves the keyboard poking to others.

The town also doesn’t have tax maps, property setbacks or occupancy permits, all things Mert Hickey considers highfalutin. If someone wants to live in his garage while he’s building his house, Hickey said he thinks he ought to be able to.

“You start paying rent, you end up paying rent a long time,” he said.

In some ways, West Gardiner reflects Mert Hickey’s personal libertarianism. He said he doesn’t like to wear a seat belt in his truck because he hates anyone trying to protect him from himself.

To his way of thinking, having a lot of rules means you have to enforce them, and having to enforce them means you might end up spending a lot of money to go to court.

So if there’s a property where too much junk accumulates, someone — probably Mert Hickey — will talk to the property owner.

“We don’t always do a good job,” he said. The junk cycle is a hard one to break, but the town always tries to work something out.

“In other towns, they send a letter and you go to court,” Gary Hickey II said.

If someone falls behind in paying property taxes, Hickey said, “We might get a little mean, put them on a payment plan.”

What the town does have is a Board of Selectmen that keeps weekly office hours from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursdays, when anyone can stop by.

Gary Hickey, 55, was elected road commissioner in 2007. He got started driving trucks for the town well before that — when a newly elected road commissioner quit after only a couple of days. He remembers it this way: “He couldn’t drive the truck.”

Hickey, who is a logger like his father, continued to drive trucks for the town, and in 2007 he thought he would give being road commissioner a try.

That job, too, comes with its challenges.

In the colder months, Hickey gets up at 3 a.m. every day to see whether any weather has moved in overnight.

“It only takes about 20 minutes for the roads to get slippery,” he said. The timing is critical. Some residents are on the road by 5 a.m., so Hickey needs time to get the plowing or sanding started.

But even his early alert system is not foolproof. Weather can move through at 4 a.m., and that causes a scramble to get the roads clear.

“It’s no fun when nothing goes right,” he said. In his first year, during a snowstorm none of the plows would start, so he got on the phone to some residents who had plows and they got the job done.

“He didn’t miss a beat,” Mert Hickey said.

Gary Hickey II, 33, was 18 when he joined the West Gardiner Fire Department as a volunteer in 2002.

“It was something new, and I could help the town,” he said.

A couple of his friends also joined. In addition to being chief in West Gardiner, he’s also a full-time firefighter and paramedic in the neighboring city of Gardiner.

His election to chief came after the resignation of the former chief, Christopher McLaughlin, who stepped down to run for selectman earlier this year. McLaughlin is a full-time firefighter in Augusta and is one of the friends Hickey joined the West Gardiner volunteer fire department with 15 years ago.

What he’s learned from his father and his grandfather is the value of hard work and being upfront with people.

“I try to do the same,” he said.

The Hickeys aren’t the only ones invested in the status quo. In March, the contested race for the open seat on the Board of Selectmen featured two candidates, both running on a platform of keeping West Gardiner unchanged.

The town, which has increased in population by about 500 people every 10 years, seems content with how it’s run, and the decisions its residents make reflect that.

Gary Hickey II said every time the issue of appropriating money to pay the firefighters comes up, the Fire Department association rejects it.

The town’s residents also have returned Mert Hickey to the Board of Selectmen each time he’s run in the last 30 years. He generally runs unopposed.

Hickey said his term is up next year, and he’s not sure whether he’ll run again. His decision will depend on who, if anyone, decides to run.

In his estimation, both candidates who ran in March to fill the seat being vacated by Earle McCormick were good. Randall Macomber edged out McLaughlin by 28 votes.

Gary Hickey said he’s not contemplating stepping into his father’s shoes.

“That’s not for me,” he said. “It’s too complicated. Maybe one of my younger brothers will.”

Gary Hickey II said he thinks McLaughlin is cut out for it if he wants to run again.

Mert Hickey’s decision is still months away. In the meantime, he’s got some town work to do. A couple of neighbors are having a dispute about the upkeep of a fence that separates their properties, and Hickey is making plans to stop by and see what can be done.

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ


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